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In his riveting and informative new doc, Why We Fight, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki takes a revealing personality profile of America and the military-industrial complex it supports.

By Matthew Ross


When a time capsule is opened 100 years from now and our current cinema is rewatched for the messages it conveys about ourselves, we can be sure that Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 will be the film that helps explain the zeitgeist of turn-of-the-century American political discourse. But after Modern Man 3000 finishes with Moore’s cleverly edited rage, he may turn to Eugene Jarecki’s insightful documentary Why We Fight for the facts and intellectual history behind America’s post–World War II foreign policy.

Documentarian Jarecki, whose previous film was another American foreign policy procedural, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, began this latest doc before the U.S. invaded Iraq, employing as his springboard President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning that U.S. foreign policy was in danger of being controlled by a “military-industrial complex.” However, once the Iraq invasion occurred, Jarecki’s film had its torn-from-the-headlines hook. Along with archival footage and talking head interviews from a variety of mostly Republican politicians and “defense intellectuals” like Senator John McCain and Richard Perle, Jarecki weaves in interview material from ordinary citizens, like a man whose son died in the Twin Towers, who painfully ruminate over 9/11, the Iraq war and the “official” stories Washington has offered about them. Sober, thoughtful and exceedingly well constructed, Jarecki’s doc is a compelling history lesson for a country called by Gore Vidal in the film “the United States of Amnesia.”

I’m pretty obsessive about politics, but your movie still scared the shit out of me.

In that way I guess it’s a bit of a horror film or a tragedy, I suppose.

Why did you make it?

We proposed the film to the BBC and to other distributors and broadcasters once upon a time before there was a war in Iraq. It was [proposed as] a film about a continuum of U.S. foreign policy starting with the U.S. victory in World War II. We seemed to be on a path toward ever-increasing militarism as a society — spiritually, politically and in action. And the question was, had it become the case that the reasons for which we fight have shifted over time? The reasons that might have appeared clear to everyday people during World War II — have those reasons changed? Growing up, it seemed that most people around me had a sense that the wars we fight are not driven by the sort of lofty ideals that we were raised to believe in, the lofty ideals we hear proposed to us by the policy makers as the reasons for those wars. Iraq is certainly not the beginning of questionable moments in U.S. foreign policy, misadventures that turn out later to have been driven by false assumptions, false promises, where you, like the old Johnny Mercer song, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. So I guess the film started out as a study asking fundamental questions about what it is that drives us, the world’s leading superpower and a beacon of democracy, to fight wars so often. And along the way I learned that I had an unlikely bedfellow in my hunt, Dwight Eisenhower. If I was going to run an inquiry into what drives us to fight wars, there was no way to ignore the extraordinary moment where General Eisenhower–turned–President Eisenhower took his wisdom from the battlefield and decided in the 11th hour of his presidency to warn the American public that the “military-industrial complex, “ as he called it, was coming to drive U.S. foreign policy, that the cart was in danger of leading the horse. I guess the film’s question became, did his warning become a sort of prophecy?

Which leads naturally into your discussion of the war in Iraq.



When the Iraq war came, the reasons for it, almost more than any other war before it, were overtly perceived to be economic and geostrategic and not as advertised. So it seemed like it was a very opportune moment to ask, what would Eisenhower think of the war in Iraq? Was it his worst nightmare come to life? The film then became a kind of a mix. On the one hand, it tried to take stock of U.S. foreign policy over the last 50 years and understand the anatomy of the war machine, the mechanisms by which it ticks. And at the same time, it tried to talk to everyday people who were touched by that machine. I was concerned the whole time that I was making a very schizophrenic film, so the artistic challenge was to try to fuse the schizophrenic elements, to fuse these individual stories of people whose lives have been touched by the American war experience and try to give [the viewer] some sense of their context.

Eisenhower is such an unlikely hero for a film about the American war machine.

Well, in a way he is and in a way he isn’t. I mean, nobody should forget that it has very often traditionally been the province of the military itself to let us know when the policy makers are misusing that tool. When you’re a person in the armed services and you’re giving your life to a cause, you’d better be able to believe in that cause. What’s in question is runaway defense, where the defense instrument and the policy instrument become distinct from the ideals of the society. American society is in great peril, far more from the hijacking of its ideals than from the hijacking of its planes. The latter is a small moment in the history of man. It’s not a small moment for those who lose people, but people lose people in war all the time. The numbers that will die in New Orleans through the same kind of loss of ideals in our society and a lack of attention to the role of government in an open society is a much larger issue. That’s really what the film is ultimately about: the military-industrial complex is an extension of runaway corporatism, cronyism and corruption in the fabric of American democracy, and it’s polluting and thwarting our country’s ability to fulfill its creed.

How did you find the military people who appear in the film?

My dad calls it the great personnel office in the sky. Americans are to an unsettling degree touched by the war experience. Everywhere you look you find someone who has a brother, sister, mother or father who has been affected by one part of the American war machine or another. From the very beginning we were given approval by the Department of Defense to interview up and down the chain of command. That got us access to the two pilots who you meet in the film, who were given the very specialized job of launching the very first strike against Baghdad in the war, even before “Shock and Awe,” with the mission to bomb Baghdad in an attempted assassination of Saddam Hussein. These guys believe they’re fighting for freedom, so it’s tricky. Because they put their lives on the line for something they deeply believe in, when it comes under question, that’s a difficult spot for them, and I wanted to pass that on to the viewer with a great deal of empathy.

Did you spend a lot of time developing relationships with your subjects before you shot them?

Yeah, because I can’t very well go into their houses, put a camera in their faces and rush into the questions, especially when they are in such sensitive positions as Wilton’s, who had just lost his son during 9/11. I’m extremely clear with them that life comes first and movies come second. I’m there to get to know them, and if it leads to being able to comfortably involve a camera in the experience, we’ll do that. If it was somebody in the military, it was a matter of working through the chain of command process of getting access. Once you get access, people in the military are very open because they’ve been approved to be open. And remember that these are people fighting for freedom, so it’s their impulse to be open. They’re fighting for the capacity for us to talk openly. But the film has many different types of characters. William, the street kid in the film who loses his mother and goes off to war — getting to know him was a completely different way of getting to know somebody, because he had the skepticism and suspicions of a kid who’s been hurt by a lot of things in life. He had been having a very hard run of it, between money worries and losing his mom, who was the only anchor in his life.



Perhaps the military will give him some structure.

There’s no question that for a boy like William, the military is probably the best game in town, the best option he has. That’s true. But what does it say about any society when the best game in town for a poor person is to be paid to go kill other people? I teach a group of inner-city kids, and they’re the ones who filmed William’s story. He was a buddy of theirs, had been in the same high school program in New York trying to be a documentary maker. But there’s no money in that, no way for him to get a job out of that. These kids are getting hammered by a desperate military all the time because the military desperately needs young blood.

I’ve read quite a bit about Richard Perle, but he was even more extreme and dogmatic than I expected. What you get on camera is astonishing.

He’s his own man. Richard Perle is part of a tradition of what you could call “defense intellectuals.” They form a wing of the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned about, namely that the rise of the military-industrial complex would risk the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power, which is to say too much power in the hands of people not elected by the public. And Richard Perle and other defense intellectuals have an undue amount of influence over the policy machine in ways that are not known to the public.

I think a lot of people — even the most aware and educated ones — will be surprised by some of the information you present in the film. Was it also a process of discovery for you?

Huge. I’ll tell you a cool thing. There’s a very cool restaurateur in New York City who’s a friend of mine. He gives me great advice and feeds me extremely good food. And over food one day he said, “I heard about the movie you’re making, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to make that movie.” I said, “How’s that?” And he said, “Well, you think you’re part of some movement, and I’m not going to argue with you about whether you are or you’re not. But in that movement there are different people with different jobs. One guy, maybe he’s writing pamphlets. Somebody else is dealing with the mayor’s office. Somebody else is making cupcakes. Your job is to be the guy with the flashlight who shines it in dark places. When you do that, because secrets are what they are, you may learn things that make you mad. And when those things make you mad, you may get the idea you want to hit the powerful. So you try to use your flashlight like a stick instead of a flashlight. But then you are going to realize that the powerful are not in a position to be hit by you; they’re walled off very far from where you’ll ever reach. So all you’re going to do is flail desperately with your flashlight, and the light is never going to land in any one place long enough for anybody else to perceive anything. And you will fail. So... just shine your flashlight.” That was literally the best advice I’ve ever gotten about a creative project in my life. It affected every moment of the editing. I knew that even if a character is onscreen hanging himself, my job is not to hang people. My job is to share information. My job is to try, as neutrally as possible, to reveal as much about the inner workings of [the American war effort so that the viewer can draw his or her own conclusion. And I make sure that opposing views are heard as well.



You are describing an approach where you are applying a set of journalistic principles to your subject matter. Michael Moore, on the other hand, is an agitprop character is his films, and Errol Morris takes an approach that is highly stylized. Were you ever tempted to maybe go a little bit farther in one of those directions?

Well, yeah, you’re tempted as a filmmaker, because you’re always pressured by the demands of the marketplace and the recognition that entertainment value is a large part of this. But in a way, I think my films function the way spy movies function. They unfold and utter a bunch of hidden stuff. I think there’s a sleuth in all of us that loves that. What I try to capture in the film is the process of coming to something with an open mind and discovering unfolding layers of deeper hidden realities. And that’s very much the structure of a spy movie. Journalism is by its very nature cinematic. It’s only today’s tragic American journalism that wouldn’t make a good movie. All it would be is a movie about people desperately being pressured by multinational corporations to toe a certain line. Journalists are in a very unfortunate position today. They are people who set out, like me, to uphold and promote the ideals of an open society. And they have now found themselves caught in a matrix that they can’t get out of, a matrix driven by a confluence of powerful interests that want status quo reporting. If you want the next scoop out of the White House, you have to have somebody inside who gives you scoops. So you don’t write things that offend that person, or the next time you don’t get the scoop. In a way I think documentarians are being looked at to fill the void left by the evacuation of standards in contemporary journalism. The only difference between a journalist and myself is that I don’t have a job to lose. I’m not under the same jeopardy that journalists are under who might find themselves on the wrong end of a story, or on the wrong end of a mistake, and find themselves very imperiled by the truth-seeking itself. But if people feel my thumbprint all over the movie and what my opinion is, then I’ve failed, and they’ll walk out and not only think the way they felt when they came in, they’ll probably think it more strongly then when they came in.

But don’t you feel at the same time that the coverage that will surround the film will peg you as an East Coast liberal filmmaker?

I’m not an East Coast liberal, and I made a film that’s dominated by Republicans. There are about 27 people in the movie, and 24 of them are Republicans. If anything, I think the film might get perceived as a Republican film, but we didn’t make it that way. We made a film to reach across the aisle in both directions.

Ideally, what do you think this film can accomplish?

Raise awareness and do so in a way that promotes people to remember the power of the individual engaged in the political life of their time. To remember the potential for learning, the potential for change on the individual’s part, and that the potential to take that [individual power and turn it into] societal impact is what’s so remarkable about the history of man. Bear in mind that Adolph Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, Osama bin Laden, Martin Luther King, and you, the viewer, all have one thing in common. All are individuals. And that’s an amazing thing. It means the individual has as much the potential for wretchedness, which is all we seem to hear about right now, as the individual has the potential for glory, the power for glorious acts and acts of extraordinary humanity.


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