Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight is a fascinating look at today's America. Recently released on DVD after a brief, criminally overlooked theatrical run, the incisive, dot-connecting documentary investigates the influence of what former President Dwight D. Eisenhower presciently called the "military industrial complex" in ways both immediate and truly troubling.
CityBeat recently spoke to Jarecki about his film, a warning shot that leaves little doubt about the dangers of America's increasingly militarized culture and its impact on our ever-evolving democracy.
CityBeat: Explain the origins of Why We Fight.
Eugene Jarecki: It all started with Dwight Eisenhower. When I was making my previous movie, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, I stumbled across Eisenhower's farewell speech, which is the moment he now famously warns the American people about what he called the "military industrial complex." I had never seen that speech before. I vaguely heard the term, and I think I knew it was credited to him, but I didn't know what he meant by it. When I saw the speech, he reminded me a lot of my grandfather. He looks a lot like him, and my grandfather always used to sit me down and give me the bad news that nobody else would. My grandfather had this earnest stare. Eisenhower had that, and it caught me very personally. And then the content was so extremely disarming. I had never heard an American president speak as openly on any subject, let alone one as grave as war and why we engage in it.
CB: Is the film a reaction to the Iraq War?
EJ: We started the film after 9/11 but before the Iraq War, so it was in that in interstitial, pregnant period of rising portent that America was going to do more than just what was done in Afghanistan, and that at the very minimum -- with the increasing curtailments of civil liberties and with the expansion of military posture around the world and the increased security and the deployment of forces to certain regions in the world -- it was clear that America was, in the wake of 9/11, doing what it has done before at various times, which is in the response to an event engage in understandable and then sometimes in less understandable forms of deployment. As that was happening, it seemed important to shed light on it in the context of events as they happened before.
CB: Why We Fight seems to make a point of saying that the current administration would have found a way to insert our military into the Middle East even if 9/11 had never happened.
EJ: What we know from the best of anyone's research is that there are members of the policy team who as early as September of 2000 were advocating a very new posture for America. They were pushing then-candidate George Bush on that subject, and they were making their views very known to him. They wanted a new posture for America, but they also recognized that would be a difficult change for the American people who'd grown accustomed to a posture of less involvement under Clinton. The fact that you have policy makers who are then brought into Bush's administration in advisory and other undersecretary roles -- and they're brought in having advocated a restructuring of American engagement in the world recognizing that it might take a Pearl Harbor to achieve that -- makes one shudder to think that it was so on the minds of those policymakers that, yes, they saw 9/11 as something necessary and useful for that kind of shift in policy
CB: What about the conspiracy theorists who say we had a hand in 9/11?
EJ: The trouble with conspiracy theories, of course, is that the wacky ones make the world unsafe for the legitimate ones. And so conspiracy in a contemporary context, as far as 9/11, one might be better served to look at what was not done in the advance of 9/11 rather than what was done. And what was not done is certainly a tale of negligence, but if you understand that the policy planners saw an event of that kind as useful, the question becomes: Was leaving our guard down premeditated negligence?
CB: Talk about Frank Capra and his influence on your film, which I assume was named for his war films of the '40s.
EJ: The film is an homage to Frank Capra. I love Frank Capra. Capra was not only one of our great directors (but) he was also one of our great defenders of democracy. The films of Frank Capra are all about defending the little guy. In It's a Wonderful Life you have Jimmy Stewart fighting to protect his little town, Bedford Falls, from what's essentially Wal-Mart. If you look at Mr. Smith Goes to Washington you've got Jefferson Smith filibustering to protect his people back home from special interests. Every film he's always advocating for the little guy against the great and corrupted powers of our society and our time. (In his films) our democracy and our principles are always at stake, and the beautiful and romantic music plays and the flag flaps in the breeze and the kids do the Pledge of Allegiance and we all know that somebody is out there fighting for democracy.
CB: So how did you infuse that fight into your film?
EJ: Well, when Capra made the Why We Fight films, he took his concern for democracy global. He set out, at the government's request, to explore and explain for Americans why they should be willing to enter the war in Europe and what it was about the war in Europe that was so important to fight. He was trying to encourage Americans to be willing to stand up and fight and defend democracy. We're here fifty-some years later and I am likewise making a film called Why We Fight, and I'm making it because I also see democracy in peril. And perhaps a little bit different than Capra, America has changed. Eisenhower helped me to understand that democracy can be imperiled from within. As a consequence of this, it was important for me to use the Why We Fight frame but reveal to people that the fight for democracy can take many forms throughout history. Democracy has always been a work in progress. We are not the first society that has attempted democracy and certainly won't be the last. The various ways in which it can be imperiled are extremely important for me to explore.
CB: Has America become an empire?
EJ: If you use the word "empire" in reference of the United States, most Americans run for the hills because everybody knows that we were founded as a republic. The whole idea of this experiment here in the Western hemisphere was to break off from an empire, the British, and to found a small and modest republic and to avoid the errors of past empires. And so we start out as a republic, and then what happens? Over a couple of centuries -- for many reasons -- we have become the world's sole superpower, a power of enormous and unprecedented proportions. We have 860 military bases in 130 foreign countries. We spend more on the military than all other countries in the world combined. If you combine that emphasis with our influence -- political, economic and cultural -- it's a footprint Rome never dreamed of. So though many people will shudder at the use of the word "empire" because it seems too lofty, too expansive, too immodest, I think the world "empire" may be too insufficient to describe the enormity of America's footprint in the world.
CB: In your DVD commentary track with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, you talk about certain aspects of our system being broken.
EJ: This might be surprising given my movie, but I'm an eternal optimist. It's breaking, but I don't think anything is broken. There have been darker chapters throughout human history. Ultimately, I have an enormous amount of faith in people. It has been the people themselves who, as they have become dissatisfied and disillusioned, sought answers better than the prevailing ones at the time. I have no lack of confidence in the American people. The people of America have, in many ways, been hapless victims of a system that is shifting around them. They just haven't had the chance to realize it yet. Now why the American people haven't realized it I think has a large part to do with particular qualities in modern life. I think modern life, which is something unprecedented for human beings, is such a whirlwind of technology -- from cell phones to computers to automobiles to so many new forms of stimuli. Americans are very much caught up in a life that's very hard to take a breath and take the kind of necessary time to reflect on the state of things, which are becoming more complex by the day.
CB: That's the scariest thing I took from your film: It confirms that most of the American populace is disengaged from their government and they have little knowledge of how it works.
EJ: Yes, and it's very hard to then be told, 'Oh, by the way, it's even worse than you think. Come watch Why We Fight and you're going to find out how your democracy is slipping away from you.' It's very hard for people to find the time, but I dare say that if we do not find the time to reflect on, become more engaged in the political life of the country -- the country business is currently being run by a very small handful of people, and even that is shrinking...
CB: As well as fighting for it.
EJ: Exactly. Less than 1 percent of the country is in uniform. As a consequence of this, the American people are frighteningly distant from the consequences and underlying forces that are at work at this time. That would concern Eisenhower deeply. Eisenhower said in his farewell address, "Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can propel the proper meshing of this huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together." You know, he would look at today and I dare say he would roll in his grave.
CB: What is President Bush's role in all of this?
EJ: I think there's an obsession with George Bush, by both his supporters and his detractors, which is misplaced. I think George Bush is a useful idiot, and he's useful to a system that would be doing what it's doing with or without him. His particular brand of idiocy -- and who knows if it's cultivated idiocy or accidental idiocy -- plays well with what he considers the masses. He's a useful tool for his sort of forward march of a tragically corrupt system. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about has taken on many new forms today and grown in new and pervasive and pernicious ways. All it needs is compliant public servants who work within the business of politics.
CB: Do you think that's something inherent in the evolution of a democracy, something that's inevitable?
EJ: I don't think so. I think it's a tragic blind spot that America has had to the dangers posed by unbridled capitalism and cronyism to the health of the democracy, and democracy and capitalism are not the same.
CB: You present a pretty good range of voices that go a long way toward humanizing the film beyond just being a theoretical look at things.
EJ: The goal was to capture both American and Iraqi perspective on the war that was unfolding in front of us, particularly the American family that implements war -- everyone from a soldier to a politician to an arms maker to a think-tank person to a TV personality to a recruit. We wanted to get everybody's perspective in the American highway on just what it is we're fighting for and just what they feel about the process. ©