In his 1961 farewell address, President Eisenhower warned Americans that an insidious new force was taking hold of the country. He called it the “military-industrial complex.” Born of necessity during World War II, this once valuable conjunction of the military, the federal government and the arms industry had taken on a life of its own — and was threatening to spin out of control.
Why We Fight, the sobering documentary from Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger), examines the rise of this behemoth and the perils it holds for our democratic way of life. Nowhere near as polemical as Jarecki’s indictment of Kissinger, the film is not a broadside against the Bush administration. It stresses that Democrats and Republicans alike are responsible for the position in which we find ourselves today, though it also charts how the situation has intensified during the past five years.
Jarecki’s film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005, takes its title from a series of World War II-era propaganda films that Frank Capra made for the U.S. government. Those films were intended to rouse the American public to stand up and fight for democracy. Jarecki’s goal is similar, but rather than focusing on dangers from abroad, he is concerned with threats from within — specifically, the relationship among the government, the military and the defense industry and how it jeopardizes the very principles upon which the country was founded.
War has become big business in the United States, driven by powerful forces whose livelihoods depend upon maintaining a permanent state of armed conflict. Former CIA consultant and noted political scientist Chalmers Johnson points out that all parties have a financial or strategic interest in expanding the government’s arms budget. “When war becomes that profitable,” he says, “you see more war.”
Why We Fight was made with the cooperation of the Department of Defense, which helped to arrange many of the interviews, including those with the two Air Force pilots who conducted the first stealth bomber strikes on Baghdad. The documentary offers a variety of political perspectives, including those of well-known neoconservatives such as William Kristol and Richard Perle and dyed-in-the-wool liberal Gore Vidal. The majority of those interviewed, however, are former government or military officials with no political ax to grind; many of them are sympathetic to Bush’s aims but not his methods.
Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who was in the Pentagon when it was hit on 9/11, resigned her commission when Bush declared war against Iraq. Privy to all of the intelligence that was gathered on Saddam Hussein, she states unequivocally that “the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism.” Even more damning, she says, “I will not allow my own kids to join the military.”
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the late president and an expert on international security and arms control, quotes her grandfather as having remarked, “God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.”
God help us, indeed.