WHY WE FIGHT - DVD review

Some pretty chilling stuff.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

The list is long, and the case is strong. Since 1954, two years into the first Eisenhower term, the United States has intervened with military force on 40 separate occasions. American presidents have sent troops to Guatemala, Lebanon, Haiti, Cuba, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, The Congo, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Cambodia, Chile, Angola, Afghanistan, Libya, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Lebanon, Grenada, Chad, Bolivia, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Iraq, Bosnia, Iraq again, Sudan, Yugoslavia again, Afghanistan again, Yemen, The Philippines, Colombia, Iraq again, Liberia, Afghanistan again, and Iraq again.

Yes, the U.S. emerged as the only unscathed country following World War II, and yes, the U.S. has seen itself as having a responsibility to serve as the world's policeman since then. The problem, as Sen. John McCain articulates on-camera, is when does it go from being a force for good to a form of imperialism?

Whatever the American people have been told about "Why We Fight," which is the title of Eugene Jarecki's documentary, the bottom line is that the interventions have mostly protected U.S. interests.

Before you start thinking that this is another Michael Moore-style attack from the left, keep in mind that Jarecki's target isn't a single president or corporation, and that he began his project at the urging of none other than Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower. No, Ike didn't visit Jarecki in a dream. The young director actually discovered a short film of Eisenhower's farewell address in which the former five-star general warned that the U.S. had to beware of the growing military-industrial complex (a term he coined) which developed after World War II. That is, America had to be vigilant so that the powerful conjunction of Congress, the military, and the corporate interests of defense suppliers did not exert too much of an influence. "We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic process," Ike warned, adding, "God help this country when someone sits at this desk who doesn't know as much about the military as I do."

Okay, that part sounds like a very subtle Michael Moore dig at the current president, but that's not how Jarecki plays this out. Eisenhower emerges as the hero of this documentary, a visionary who predicted the unbalanced influence that the military-industrial complex would exert not just on the nation's budget, but on the nation's foreign policy. Jarecki and his staff did their homework to find numbers and vintage clips to illustrate. Considering the most recent invasion on Afghanistan, for example, Jarecki points out that all of the top 10 companies who profited from the war there had ties to Dick Cheney or a powerful contact at the Pentagon. KBR and Halliburton both had ties to Cheney, and KBR won a 9 million dollar contract to study whether the U.S. Army should start to outsource. Yes, they concluded, and now routine tasks that used to be performed by soldiers themselves, like doing the cooking and laundry, are outsourced to corporations who now perform those services. That means more corporate interests in the military, and Jarecki tells us that the profits of those companies who are engaged in the business of war have gone up by 25 percent. We didn't have an exit strategy for Iraq, a retired Pentagon official says, because we never intended to leave.

Part of the focus of this documentary is on the profiteering of war—the logical conclusion that since corporations are profit driven, the more they're tied to the military and establish U.S. interests abroad, the more corporations will strive to make more money by pressuring the U.S. to act to protect their interests. Time and again Jarecki returns to Ike's speech, at one point showing Ike adamant that "I don't think we should pay one cent more for defense than we have to." The most powerful argument that defense spending comes with a price on American life comes when Ike himself does the math: "The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. This is not a way of life at all." Lines like that are juxtaposed against facts that remind us that the U.S. spends more on defense than all of the NATO countries combined—more, in fact, than any other nation on the planet

Unlike "Fahrenheit 9/11," Jarecki's documentary, which takes its ironic title from Frank Capra's series of WWII propaganda films, doesn't employ a humorous or world-weary tone, doesn't attack any individuals, and doesn't rely mostly on headlines. Jarecki did a lot more homework and came up with four "converts" whose stories are pretty darned compelling. Three of them are retired Pentagon officers who were intimately involved with some of the secret goings-on, while a fourth is about as all-American as it gets. Not only is Wilton Sekzer a retired NYPD officer who lost a son when the World Trade Center collapsed. He also served as a door gunner in Vietnam, and remained patriotic and pro-government even after he realized that what they were told about the Gulf of Tonkin and the reasons why they were fighting in Vietnam was "really B.S." But the last straws came for him when he watched George W. Bush on-camera saying he didn't know where people got the idea that Iraq and the attack on 9/11 were connected (after Bush had previously said they were), and when he asked that his son's name be painted on one of the bombs that were dropped on Baghdad, only to find himself exploited by the government.

Then there's Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, whose stories of what went on inside the Pentagon will curl your hair. "The war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism," she confirms. "That was a huge leap, a manufactured leap in order to implement a very calculated and pre-developed foreign policy," one in which the new Bush doctrine would include pre-emptive strikes to re-establish the U.S. as "the power that must be obeyed." Kwiatkowski has two sons, and one of the most chilling moments of the film comes when this career military officer says that she would not let either of her boys join the service. "If you join the Army today, you are not helping to defend this country. You are helping an elite group of people practice a form of economic imperialism."

Watch this and you're either going to shrug it off as leftist propaganda or you're going to learn something. I, for example, had no idea that people in the Pentagon considered 9/11 a form of "blowback," which is defined as "the unintended consequences of foreign operations that were deliberately kept secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes, the American public is not able to put it in context." You'll learn how "think tanks" whose members include corporate giants "devoted to the expansion of the American empire" have been shaping foreign policy. Jarecki also traces the earliest roots of business contacts between Cheney and the corporations now profiting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and discusses how U.S. foreign policy has been consistent in protecting U.S. interests but inconsistent otherwise. Leaders that we set up as heads of state we take down when it best serves us, and there are dates, facts, figures, and film clips offered as proof. Yes, the deck is stacked, but the converts that Jarecki presents are pretty convincing. The film is rated PG-13 for some pretty graphic and depressing war footage.

Video: "Why We Fight" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and as you can imagine, with so many clips and hand-held camera interviews the picture quality varies significantly throughout. But the baseline shots of current talking heads are sharp and clear, with good color saturation, so I'd have to say that overall the quality is good. The 99-minute film is mastered in High Definition.

Audio: The soundtrack is English Dolby Digital 5.1, with French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. As with the video, the audio is decent, even considering some of the old film and scratchy-sounding audio. No complaints here.

Extras: For a documentary there's a really great package of extras. One of my favorites was a mini-documentary on Frank Capra and the series of films that the legendary director made to convince Americans (95 percent of whom were opposed to the U.S. getting involved in the war in Europe) to let their sons sign up to fight. There are four deleted scenes that are mostly extended versions, and extended character features for each of the main talking heads that are included here. There are also two TV appearances showing Jarecki talking with Charlie Rose and Jon Stewart (the latter is very good, and very funny), and a collage of questions and answers cobbled together from the filmmaker's tour across America that show him connecting with his audiences. Propaganda? Perhaps. Testimony? Perhaps. It depends on how you look at it.

The best extra is actually the full-length commentary. As if Jarecki felt that he wanted to try one more time to convince Americans to be more skeptical of their government, he trots out the former Chief of Staff for Colin Powell, and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson corroborates all of the information in the documentary while adding some pretty chilling stuff of his own.

Bottom Line: "Why We Fight" won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. As a documentary, if you ignore the information presented and just consider the amount of research, the talking heads assembled, the wonderful vintage clips, the editing, and the recurring cuts to Eisenhower's speech that begins to sound like a litany, it's undeniable that "Why We Fight" is a solid film. The question, of course, is if you're going to accept Time magazine's conclusion that there are two truths these days—red and blue, referring, of course, to the Republican/Democratic state map—or if you believe that when it comes to war or big business, somebody has to be telling the truth and somebody has to be fudging.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
7
Film Value
8