Because of an error on my part, I arrived at the theater to see Why We Fight about an hour and a half before showtime. There wasn’t really anywhere else to go, and I didn’t want to leave the parking structure and come back in just a few minutes, so I wandered over to the Virgin Megastore to see what overpriced DVDs had been momentarily reduced to only slightly overpriced. There are few things more American than the conspicuous entertainment retail of a Virgin Megastore, and as I wandered from shelf to shelf wondering who would pay $75 for a season of TV, I found myself standing before an Xbox 360, cued up to a demo version of the latest “Call of Duty” title. Like pretty much every other video game on the market, “Call of Duty” places the player in World War II, America’s feel-good conflict, to wander the beaches of France and lay waste to the forces of Nazism, conveniently marked on the screen by a little radar symbol in the corner. You’re given access to all kinds of weaponry and, needless to say, the latest technological advancements in video games make some of these killings pretty bloody, with arterial spray dousing the camera as Germany’s wayward sons are annihilated by tapping the X button.
This is probably the best frame of mind in which to see Why We Fight, a superb, stunning, staggering, thorough, heartrending, and absolutely vital new documentary written and directed by Eugene Jarecki. The moral quandaries of war are often completely circumvented by modern society, which has commercialized the entire process to the point where video games and Army recruitment ads blur together.
In his farewell address shortly before leaving office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned against the increasing power and influence of the military-industrial complex, a theme and speech that Jarecki threads throughout the film. Eisenhower was in favor of a strong military presence, but he knew that wedding it to commerce would be to start down a dangerous path. Jarecki traces the growth of the relationship between Wall Street and Washington, from World War II to the current war in Iraq, against which most of Jarecki’s accusals are aimed. I say “accusals” instead of “anger” because Jarecki’s film is anything but hot-headed, forgoing glib liberal complaints for a balanced, accurate invective. George W. Bush and the current administration are definite targets, it’s true, especially as they relate to the larger argument, which is that the United States has evolved into an imperialist power. For all its hype, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 did nothing but mobilize the far left, alienate the far right, and leave most people in the middle turned off. It was Moore’s most polished work to date, but his smugness is still unavoidable. In fact, the best sequence in Fahrenheit 9/11 followed American troops performing night raids in Iraq, during which Moore’s narration was finally absent. But unlike Moore, Jarecki never appears on camera, and the voice of the off-screen interviewer is only heard once or twice, to prompt a follow-up answer. Other than that, Jarecki lets the startling facts speak for themselves.
Through interviews with former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson, Sen. John McCain, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski and others, Jarecki lays out the history of American policy in the second half of the 20th century, drawing a direct line from the United States’ actions in the Middle East several generations ago to today’s war in Iraq, charting our installation of the Shah of Iran to our support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. When Hussein invaded Kuwait, we were wary, but when he entered Saudi Arabia, where floweth the oil, the lifeblood of America, we made him a bad guy. Of course he used to have weapons of mass destruction; we sold them to him. The footage of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein shaking hands and posing for a photo op is chilling and nauseating. Jarecki uses interviews and documents to discuss the creation of the Office of Special Plans, an entity whose purpose was to create reasons to claim and publicize a link between Iraq, WMDs and terrorism, and to establish that the current conflict in Iraq is nothing more than the execution of a plan formulated by Rumsfeld, Bush, and Dick Cheney more than a decade ago.
Matching the unsettling governmental revelations are the human stories Jarecki tells, none more poignant than that of retired NYPD Sgt. Wilton Sekzer, whose son died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Sekzer is understandably sad and angry, and he believed it when the administration implied through vague gestures that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks. He even sent out a mass e-mail to local military officials and had his son’s name placed in memoriam on a bomb bound for Baghdad. But when Sekzer saw a news clip in which Bush admitted he had no evidence linking Saddam Hussein with the September 11 attacks, he was shocked. “I’m from the old school,” he says. “Certain people walk on water. The President of the United States is one of those people. If you can’t trust the president, who can you trust?”
Kwiatkowski proves to be the best interview subject for Jarecki because she’s not an outsider criticizing the war but someone who served in the Pentagon on the Middle East desk and has since left out of a moral difference of opinion with our foreign policies. Of all the experts interviewed, her words are the most chilling, as she relays how, at the outset of her assignment to the Pentagon, she realized that “war was going to happen. … It was just a matter of bringing the American people up to speed and getting them behind this effort.” There’s no joy in her voice as she tells what she knows and what she did, emphasizing the military’s instruction to “be a team player.” She goes on: “When the war started in Iraq, I hit a turning point, in where my values as an officer diverged. I had to basically remove myself.”
Essentially, Jarecki’s point is this: The United States has lost whatever claims it once held to a legitimate force for spreading democracy throughout the world because what we’re really doing is invading countries and making sure our business can survive there. In addition, when we fight in a war it isn’t out of a sense of right or wrong, but of economic need. He’s assembled a wide range of experts, authors, and retired military figures to weigh in and attempt to answer that question: Why do we fight? The answer, or whatever comes closest to being an answer, is disappointing in its simplicity and frustrating in its lack of logic: We fight because we fight. That’s what empires do. “If you join the military now,” Kwiatkowski says, “you won’t be defending the United States … [but] pursuing an imperialist agenda.”
It’s hard to argue with her, especially in the face of Jarecki’s mounting evidence and the real world existence of things like this, a video game on a military contractor’s website that allows you to attack terrorists in the streets of Baghdad and purchase armaments in bulk. “Call of Duty” didn’t have the overt commericialism, but that’s probably just an amateur mistake.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Why We Fight / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()