Beyond the Multiplex

In his explosive new film, "Why We Fight," Eugene Jarecki argues that America went to war in Iraq because war is what America does best.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 19, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

One of America's greatest war heroes warned us what might happen. In fact, two of them did, 165 years apart. We didn't listen. Perhaps in the first case it was too early, and in the second too late. Now we have an enormous military empire with tentacles all around the world, and a democracy that's rotting none too slowly from within. What are we going to do about it?

That's the challenge put to us by Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight," a film that stands out for its passion, ambition and clarion-call sincerity, even amid the contemporary onslaught of political documentaries. Most such movies are a thinly veiled form of agitprop, and I don't say that to disparage them. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which I enjoyed, bombast and all, was pretty much an Anyone But Bush campaign commercial (although whether it did John Kerry's cause any good is open to debate). Robert Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices" is a screed against one particularly reviled corporation and maybe by implication against the dominant mode of consumerism.

"Why We Fight," on the other hand, makes a noble effort to transcend party politics and specific questions of policy. Does Jarecki's film, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, inveigh against the war in Iraq? Sure it does, but Iraq is not his main topic and George W. Bush is not his main target. All American presidents since World War II, Jarecki argues, have been caught in an escalating spiral of militarism. Maybe Republicans and Democrats have administered it differently, but not by much.

With a military budget in excess of $400 billion (about 52 percent of all federal spending, as opposed to the 7 percent devoted to education and 6 percent to healthcare) feeding a vast array of private-sector contractors and K Street lobbyists, the machineries of war have become America's leading industry. Operating virtually without congressional oversight or accountability -- or, to put it less politely, with almost every member of Congress on the payroll -- this "military-industrial complex" has become enormously influential in American politics and policymaking, at home and abroad. Every few years, this enterprise needs the chance to drive its latest models around the block. Whether these product-placement exhibitions are small in scale and rapidly forgotten (Grenada, Panama, Somalia) or bigger and more hazardous (Vietnam and Iraq), the business of America, to twist Calvin Coolidge's famous phrase, is war.

Of course, Jarecki didn't invent this critique. The very phrase "military-industrial complex," and much of the inspiration for this film, comes from Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Address, broadcast to the nation three days before the end of his presidency in 1961. If you've never seen or heard this speech -- and like nearly all Americans under 50, I never had -- it makes for an electrifying experience. That certainly isn't because of Ike's mode of address; for all his time in the limelight, Eisenhower remained a plain-spoken Kansan, prone to Bush-ian manglings of polysyllabic words ("insiduous"). But to see a heartland Republican, the man who visibly embodied American military might in the struggle against Nazism, issuing such a dire prophecy is to be reminded how far our public discourse has fallen in 40 years.

Much of the speech is cautious and sober, mainstream Republicanism of an almost extinct variety. Eisenhower suggests that the Cold War against Soviet communism -- although he uses neither phrase -- will require sacrifices, and that the ultimate goal must be mutual disarmament and respect, rather than confrontation on the battlefield. He speaks of the need for balance in American life -- "balance in and among national programs, balance between the private and the public economy ... balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual, balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future."

But the biggest threat to American democracy, says this one-time five-star general, may not be the commie ogre but rather the "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions" created since the end of World War II. The influence of this "immense military establishment" -- another new phrase -- is "economic, political, even spiritual." It is felt "in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government."

Next comes the passage that launched Jarecki's film, and that we should all read and hear with a shudder of recognition: "In the councils of government," Eisenhower goes on, "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. 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 the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

By interviewing people on all sides of America's "immense military establishment," and borrowing the title of Frank Capra's famous series of World War II propaganda films, Jarecki set out to discover how much Ike's warning of "the disastrous rise of misplaced power" had come true. His interview subjects include many familiar critics of the Bush administration's Iraq campaign, from Pentagon whistle-blower Karen Kwiatkowski to former CIA analyst and political scientist Chalmers Johnson, and Carnegie Endowment nonproliferation expert Joseph Cirincione.

But Jarecki casts a wider net, too, and "Why We Fight" is at its strongest in recognizing that America's military buildup has multiple causes and motivations, from genuine idealism to pure greed and hardcore corruption, and involves a broad range of people. We also meet leading pro-war neoconservatives like Richard Perle and William Kristol, Eisenhower's son and granddaughter, Air Force Secretary James Roche, an explosives expert who is herself a Vietnamese-born war refugee, and two Stealth fighter pilots identified only by code names. (They had dropped those big "bunker-buster" bombs we were briefly told might have killed Saddam Hussein in the war's early days. Much later, it was discovered they had missed their targets badly, and hit civilian houses.)

Most movingly, we meet two ordinary New Yorkers motivated in different ways by the events of 9/11. Wilton Sekzer, a retired NYPD officer who lost his son in the twin towers, is a hardcore patriot who wants his son's name painted on a bomb destined for Baghdad. He is stunned to hear Bush admit, in an offhand remark many months later, that there was apparently no connection between Saddam's regime and the 9/11 attacks. William Solomon, a young Manhattanite whose mother has recently died, is enlisting in U.S. Army aviation, apparently to lend his life a sense of purpose it doesn't possess, or perhaps to alleviate his mourning. We don't know what becomes of him in Iraq.

"Why We Fight" is a rigorous and powerful work, and if some of its discourse is predictable, it's also full of surprises. Its political heroes, if it has any to offer, are impeccably conservative. In his own 1796 farewell address, George Washington cautioned the infant American nation against "overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty."

Perhaps the only heir to Washington and Eisenhower that Jarecki can find on the contemporary political scene is John McCain, a hero of a much more ambiguous war. By any official measurement, McCain remains a conservative Republican and a supporter of the Iraq conflict. In the film, he also openly wonders whether America's power as a "force for good" has given way to imperialism, and suggests that he thinks Eisenhower's dark prognosis of a military establishment with "unwarranted" political power has been borne out.

While Jarecki wants his impressively erudite and didactic film -- in the best sense of those terms -- to bring Americans back to the political barricades, I can't help seeing it as a lament for a battle that is all but lost. As I told Jarecki during our conversation in a New York hotel, I still think he needs to see Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi fascist satire "Starship Troopers," the last film to rip off Capra's "Why We Fight" series. The further we get into the bizarre unreality of 21st century America, the more I think "Starship Troopers" explains it all.

Jarecki is a stocky, composed fellow of impressive breadth, who seems to think and speak in almost antique prose, composed of articulate paragraphs. (What you're about to read has been edited for grammar and clarity far less than is customary.) He wants us to fight the battle that Washington and Eisenhower and Capra all fought, in their own ways -- the battle for democracy, the battle to save the republic from being conquered by empire, whether from within or without. Personally, I'm cynical about Americans' willingness or ability or desire to get off the couch and wage such a struggle, but presumably it would be better for the world if he's right and I'm not.

Dwight Eisenhower is almost a forgotten president today, just this avuncular face from black-and-white TV. Talk about how you discovered the Farewell Address and how you reacted to it.

There's no question that Dwight Eisenhower's Farewell Address was the catalyst for me in making this film. During the making of my last film, "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," I stumbled across an extraordinary piece of television archive footage: the last moments of a World War II hero and two-term Republican president sharing with the American public a warning about what he called the "military-industrial complex." When I heard him say it, given the context of who he was and is for Americans, it struck me that at no point before or since in our history has an American president been as truthful with the American public about any subject, let alone a subject as significant as war.

Had you known about the speech before? I mean, I hadn't seen it either. But it's famous, right?

You know, people have heard about the military-industrial complex, and within that group there may be a small set who associate it with Eisenhower. But he's largely a forgotten figure today. One of the things I hope to do with the film is really make people think twice about Eisenhower, and take a new look at him, particularly as a messenger-prophet figure who rises from the grave to put where we are today in a clearer context.

And your other inspiration is Frank Capra. Obviously you've taken your title from his famous propaganda series, but you've also said you were inspired by his other films too.

Right. Frank Capra was always a champion of democracy and of the little guy, and his struggles against the powerful forces hemming in that democracy. Capra did that in "It's a Wonderful Life," when George Bailey is after all trying to protect his town from essentially becoming another Wal-Mart. Jefferson Smith [in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"] is trying to stop powerful interests and their friends in government from damming his beloved Willett Creek. So Capra was always out there trying to fight for democracy and inspire Americans to fight for democracy, as he did in the "Why We Fight" films.

In my film, I think I also am doing that. I know I'm doing that; I'm desperate to encourage Americans to mobilize, to fight for democracy. It's just that the democracy that I see in peril is here at home. I think if Frank Capra were alive today, he would feel the way I do. Any devoted champion of democracy would have to feel regret at the erosion of American democracy, not only under the current administration, but in a pattern of activity that stretches back decades. We have been drifting farther and farther from our founding ideals, from the ideals so many of us identify with our country. I took Frank Capra's question and in some sense I wondered whether Dwight Eisenhower offered part of the answer. This film is about me finding my way between Capra and Eisenhower.

At first, many people may assume that your appropriation of the title "Why We Fight" is ironic, that you've got your tongue in your cheek when you ask that question. But that's really not the case, is it?

I don't think it's ironic at all. To take an example from the Iraq war, if we are now to understand that in order to bring democracy to another country, it was necessary -- through lies, wiretapping and other executive actions -- to undermine democracy here at home, then I think Capra would see that as democracy in peril, and he would see the contradiction in it. I know that Dwight Eisenhower would see the contradiction. It was he, after all, who warned of destroying from within that which you are trying to protect from without. He understood that in the name of national security, it is possible to conduct yourself in a way that pulls you away from the founding principles you're fighting for.

I don't mean it ironically at all. Frank Capra's goal was to mobilize Americans to fight to protect democracy; my goal is to mobilize Americans to fight to protect democracy. He saw democracy, rightly, in peril in Europe. Many of us see democracy in peril here. Particularly those of us who have family who fled Nazi Germany, for example, see in today's activities uncomfortable echoes of those warning signs.

Well, OK. People on the left bring that up all the time. I'm not sure how much that resonates, in the sense that we're not anywhere near Nazism yet, and if we do get fascism in America, I don't think it will look much like European fascism. The historical parallel you raise in the film that seemed more instructive was a lot older: How the Roman Republic became an empire. You don't hear that come up quite as often. What struck you about that comparison?

Well, the American story is the story of a little republic that broke off from an empire. Its founders sought to avoid the mistakes of that empire and prior empires. What then happened, sort of while America slept, was that over a couple of hundred years, America has emerged as the world's de facto empire. People like to quibble over the word "empire," but what better word is there to describe what America represents in the world today? For lack of a better word, let's say we may be a new kind of empire. Our footprint may be shaped differently, and implemented differently, than those of empires of old. But here we stand as the world's leading power, with all the challenges and benefits of that.

At heart, the initial question of the republic remains the same. George Washington warned, in his farewell address, that empires are the enemy of republican liberties. That one of the things an empire needs, for example, is standing armies, and that standing armies, though necessary perhaps for situations of insecurity, take on a life of their own and before long the tail begins to wag the dog. That's the first warning we have from a serious American statesman -- also a general and a war hero -- about the potential costs of empire.

Then Eisenhower puts a finer point on it by calling that permanent military establishment the "military-industrial complex." Which has to do with a latter-day expression of standing armies -- a deeply incestuous and interwoven alliance between the Pentagon and its contractors that exerts what Eisenhower called "unwarranted influence" over public policy.

Eisenhower was very firm, as he says in the farewell address, about his commitment to "balance in and among national programs." He would see a time like today, when we are exporting democracy to Iraq in the form of building infrastructure and printing textbooks while our own children are illiterate and drowning in the streets of New Orleans, and say we have a priorities problem. When a society builds the kind of military apparatus that we built during and after the Second World War, it brings with it an emphasis on militarism that explains why, out of all the money spent on foreign affairs today, 93 percent is spent through the Department of Defense and 7 percent through the State Department.

When we see John McCain -- another Republican, another former military officer, another war hero -- saying that what Eisenhower predicted has pretty much come to pass, and suggesting that America's good intentions have turned into imperialism, I almost fell out of my chair. Yet this guy, at least for the record, is a supporter of the Iraq war. What sense can you make of that?

I think Eisenhower represents a tension within the Republican Party's history, and you see that in McCain too. With specific reference to the identity and soul of the Republican Party, Eisenhower represents a kind of old moderate-conservative way of thinking, particularly contrasted to the more radical inclinations of the neoconservative movement that has so affected policymaking in recent years.

John McCain sort of has an understanding of the Reaganesque tradition, where the neoconservatives see America as a force for good and have a blind faith that if America does it, it will all work out in the end. But McCain also has the battlefield wisdom of a soldier, the way that Eisenhower had, in that war is not a simple matter of pushing buttons. It isn't just, If America wants it, it happens. McCain naturally has to balance the forces facing any public figure, particularly one who has straddled being an independent voice and being a member of a party. I don't know why he supported the invasion of Iraq, or with what vigor. I don't know what's in his head and I don't know how much that was political calculus or real faith.

I appreciate your sense of fairness in including some of the most intelligent spokesmen for the pro-war position, people like Bill Kristol or Richard Perle. But here's a bone of contention: Do you think they sincerely believe the ideology they express, or is it all in the service of some covert agenda?

Yes, I do. Absolutely. I think the neoconservatives we spoke to are applying the lessons of history, in their own unique way, to current events. They look at America's role in the world right now, and they take their cues from our role in World War II, when policymakers understandably emerged victorious, having just seen the ravages of totalitarianism. It made perfect sense, in that context, to think: Better a world controlled by an American hand than one left to the dogs.

That's an understandable spirit, but also a dangerous one because it provides carte blanche: The last time we checked, we were fighting on the side of the angels. The neoconservatives make a convenient leap over Vietnam and other misadventures between World War II and now, in order to draw a lesson going forward in the world today. They have a sense of realism in their hearts, and they see a clear logic. How does the United States remain the primary power in the world? I mean, they see the rise of China, they see the rise of other new players. At the end of the day, they recommend a policy that assertively seizes and tries to galvanize the prevailing American advantage. That included, perhaps, the geo-strategic value of positioning bases in Iraq.

Their logic makes sense to them, but to implement their logic -- this country is so healthy a democracy that its version of democracy is worth exporting -- they felt the need to subvert democracy. They were not candid with the American people. They did not tell us: "There are realpolitik reasons for doing what we're doing, and there may be bloodshed in the short term, but it will be in the service of avoiding bloodshed in the long term." I think if they had been honest about that, they might have had significant support, because Americans are easily frightened by the notion of becoming second in the world. And they would not now be in the situation where they're facing up to a tissue of lies.

Have you seen Adam Curtis' BBC miniseries "The Power of Nightmares," about the side-by-side development of neoconservatism and Islamic fundamentalism? Your film and his would make an interesting double bill.

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

He has a slightly different take on the neocons, but maybe you're in alignment. He argues that their goal was to revive a sense of American national purpose and identity, so if it was necessary to tell lies to accomplish that, it's still a worthy goal.

I think those things go hand in glove. What is special about America right now? That's the question we're facing, and what we've seen in Iraq is an attempt to establish some greater name recognition for the American brand. "We're good at war!" At least that was the hope. The problem, of course, is that we turned out not to be so good at war. I think policymakers are scratching their heads and saying, "Now what?" What was supposed to be a demonstration of American strength actually turned out to be an illustration of the fact that the United States has trouble pacifying a fourth-rate power after a decade of sanctions.

I interviewed Bill Moyers, back when the war started, and he said, "No, this isn't Vietnam, or at least it isn't right now." Then he sort of paused and said, "You know, if it takes a while, if it starts to drag on, it could start to feel pretty familiar." That has to have been the neocons' nightmare scenario, and it's coming true.

Yes, and maybe the analogy also applies to Afghanistan in the '80s. If the Chinese see us as their main competitor, they must be looking at our involvement in Iraq the same way we gleefully watched the Soviets become mired in Afghanistan. A satellite skirmish becomes an all-encompassing national crisis. Where do we go from here? America is facing a crossroads. What I hope my film can do is provide information to Americans facing that crossroads. Information that isn't simply about one policymaker or one president or one party, but that tries to get at the basic problem of a system that is disproportionately emphatic on war, and on solving all problems through violence.

That imbalance, which Eisenhower warned us about, is something that those in Washington really have no power to change. They are on the payroll. The rest of us are not -- we pay the payroll. People have become very disillusioned in recent years, because of corruption, because of the complexity of American life. It's hard to keep your wits about you, between putting the kids to bed and paying bills, enough to say, "Oh, I've gotta look deeply at my society." But it is necessary. If Americans do not start to look deeply at their society, ignoring party differences and finding areas of common concern, this will be the short, happy life of the American empire. All the ideals and dreams we vested in this country, this work in progress, will vanish.

"Why We Fight" opens Jan. 20 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout beginning Feb. 10.

Fast forward: The amazing Melvin Van Peebles, the delights of "Pizza," and a promise about Sundance
I don't have time or space this week to give Joe Angio's "How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)" the praise it deserves. Let's just say that beneath this unwieldy and potentially offensive title lurks a loving tribute to one of the strangest and most enjoyable figures to emerge from American pop culture in its entire history.

Melvin Van Peebles is known to posterity, if at all, as the writer-director-entrepreneur behind "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," the quasi-legendary 1971 film that both pioneered the "blaxploitation" genre and pioneered a fully independent movie-production model. But African-American film auteur has been only one of Van Peebles' chameleonic personas; he's also been a San Francisco cable-car gripman, an Amsterdam astronomy student, a Parisian novelist writing in self-taught French (author of "Un Ours pour le FBI," and even if you get out your French-English dictionary, that still won't make sense), a composer of proto-hip-hop revolution-minded music, and one of the only playwrights to have two musicals on Broadway at the same time.

That's without discussing Van Peebles' stint as a floor trader on the American Stock Exchange, or his mid-'80s gig as a guest commentator on a New York local news broadcast, where he once suggested that the solution to the homeless problem lay with prostitutes ("the ladies and gentlemen of the evening, or the in-betweens"), who had bed-space to share when they weren't working in it. Is Van Peebles also a shameless lecher, Lothario and self-promoter, whose life is in fact more memorable than any of his artistic work? OK, sure. But Angio's film is a genuinely inspiring portrait of a man who has steadfastly refused to acknowledge or respect boundaries, whether of race, nationality, language, talent, age or anything else. See it if and when you can. (Opens Jan. 20 at Film Forum in New York, with other cities to follow.)

"Welcome to the Dollhouse" meets "After Hours" in Mark Christopher's doggedly zany "Pizza," the kind of little indie you'll either hate or find impossible to resist. I fall into the latter camp, but can appreciate opposing views. Christopher takes us on a seriocomic dark-night-of-the-soul journey through suburbia, along with a precocious, obese and friendless teenage girl named Cara-Ethyl (Kylie Sparks) and a hunky pizza guy named Matt (Ethan Embry) who's pushing 30 and playing chicken with permanent-loser status. For no particular reason, there is dialogue in the Irish language (i.e., Gaelic), an excruciating musical number from "Bye Bye Birdie," and a scene involving a human hairball.

If Matt is plagued with too little self-knowledge, Cara-Ethyl is plagued with way, way too much. If you fear this is the kind of movie that ends up with lessons learned and growth experiences, I'm right there with you. The good news is that Christopher never surrenders the vulgar, cruel and completely inappropriate comic spirit of "Pizza," and never makes either of his protagonists completely likable. You can't imagine a more unlikely coupling, but the answer to the question crudely posed by Cara-Ethyl's diabolical little brother early in the film (as to whether these two are going to, um, copulate) remains uncertain throughout. (Opens Jan. 20 at the IFC Center in New York, with other cities to follow.)

Finally, no, I'm not on a plane to Utah right now, although arguably I should be. We'll discuss the Sundance problem further next week, but much of it can be summarized thusly: I can tell what a lot of the so-called hot films will be (and predict their commercial fates) from 2,000 miles away. Herewith your first guide to buzz-worthy movies that hardly anyone has seen yet: Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential," the Beastie Boys' "Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That!", Clive Gordon's "Cargo," Maria Maggenti's "Puccini for Beginners," Wim Wenders' "Don't Come Knocking," Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money," Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson," Julian Goldberger's "The Hawk Is Dying," James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments," Lian Lunson's "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man," John Hillcoat's "The Proposition," and Goran Dukic's "Wristcutters: A Love Story." Have I missed something important? We'll discuss.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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