Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Why We Fight — the title is taken from Frank Capra’s WWII film series — investigates how the United States of America has become such a force in the world militarily since WWII, regardless of President or political party in charge, and it focuses on whether that explains the country’s actions currently, asking the question did 9/11 start something anew or did it provide an opportunity for a system already in place?
Directed by Eugene Jarecki, the film opens with President Eisenhower’s farewell address ,when he informed the nation that because of the Cold War “we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” so “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” He goes on to say, “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Jarecki is concerned that Eisenhower’s warnings have gone unheeded, so the relationship between the defense contractors and the government is explored. The successful contractors are good businessmen who know how the system works. Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor of the B2 bomber, ensures the production of its plane by having some segment of it built in every state to keep the congressmen happy. Any good business needs repeat customers and according to Karen Kwiatkowski, a 25-year Air Force veteran, “if you are making bombs, you need to have people blow up bombs to order new bombs.” The top three worldwide defense contractors of 2005 made between 20 and 35 billion dollars, so business is booming, so to speak.
The U.S.’s actions through the years are examined. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might not have been done solely to end the war with Japan, who was willing to surrender, but to put the rest of the world, mainly Russia, on notice not to mess with us. The United States shifted towards vigilant defense against communism in the ‘50s as the arms race escalated. In 1953 we helped bring the Shah to power in Iran and the CIA warned of blowback, which many people feel manifested in the form of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw Ayatollah Khomeini rise to power. And of course, no discussion of 20th century U.S. foreign policy can leave out the Vietnam War. In one of the film’s more powerful scenes a world map highlights the countries where the United States has been involved in altering the leadership over the past 50-plus years through the military or CIA.
Theories about the United States’ foreign policy from different viewpoints are presented, but the crux of the discussion is voiced by Senator John McCain, who poses the question, “When does [the United States] go from a force of good to a force of imperialism?” That debate is shaped by arguments and opinions made by people such as William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, Richard Perle, a leading advocate and architect of the 2003 Iraq War, Chalmers Johnson, political scientist and former CIA consultant, and Charles Lewis, founder of Center for Public Integrity. Some see it as the duty of America to spread democracy and freedom while others see the actions as economic colonialism where instead of taking over a country we open up new, free markets for our businesses. Both views have validity to them. There is righteousness in freeing people from oppression, yet the figurative gold rush in reconstruction efforts and other activities leaves a taint with some and keeps our work from being completely selfless.
The film also presents stories of the people directly affected by these decisions, mainly in regards to Iraq. Pilots Fuji and Tooms flew the Black Sheep stealth fighter wing that began the Iraq war by dropping a powerful bunker-buster. Kwiatkowski worked in the Pentagon when it got hit on 9/11 and saw the plans for war made before the case was. William Solomon, 23, disregards his mother’s dying wish and joins the military because he feels lost without her and is failing in school. Former NY police officer Wilton Sekzer lost his son in the World Trade Center. He wanted revenge for his son’s murder and enthusiastically supported the Iraq War until President Bush said there was no connection between Iraq and 9/11. We also hear from the Iraqi people. Some are happy we came while others are angry about what we have been doing. The Baghdad morgue director, who unfortunately has a lot of job security, provides the most sobering footage of the effects of the war. The interviews from the people on the front lines reveals that there are many facets to the story as opposed to the usual binary banality that too often passes as political discourse.
Eisenhower comes across as a compelling and complex man. His farewell address contrasts with the Bush doctrine and the administration’s actions, making you wonder which party Eisenhower would join if he had to make the decision today in our current climate. It is very interesting to get insight about Eisenhower from his son, retired Brigadier General John S.D. Eisenhower, who talks about his father being against the dropping of atomic bombs that ended WWII, and his granddaughter Susan, who has been appointed to the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on International Security and Arms.
There were a few minor items that either didn’t work or left me with questions that could have been easily answered. A sequence set to Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” was odd because the lyrics don’t match the story that the film is telling. It’s a great song, but completely misused.
I also wanted to know more about two of the interview subjects, such as the female Vietnamese refugee who grew up to become a bomb maker, which seemed odd considering the life she escaped as well as Solomon to learn if he had the same mindset after a year of military service.
I enjoyed the film a great deal. It is a balanced, thought-provoking documentary that encourages serious debate and is not easily dismissed by its critics. It is put together well, especially the editing together of historical footage and present-day interviews. Although there are a lot of narratives, Jarecki never loses focus or the viewer’s attention. January is usually too early to make pronouncements about a film’s accomplishments, but Why We Fight has set the bar very high for documentaries this year.