Arms and the Man

Why We Fight

Good times.

Good times.

Rated 3.0

Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight has a clever title, though you have to be a film buff to get the joke. The original Why We Fight was a series of short subjects produced by director Frank Capra for the War Department between 1943 and 1945. Those films were propaganda in the most value-neutral sense of the word: material disseminated by advocates to explain and build support for their cause, to buck up morale in an America that, after years of setbacks and mounting casualties, wasn’t always as united and resolute as hindsight now suggests.

Capra’s Why We Fight was successful propaganda; after all, we stuck it out and won the war. Jarecki’s Why We Fight is propaganda of a different sort, and it will take future hindsight to decide how successful it was.

Jarecki reverses the thrust of the title; if Capra’s title might have been Why We Have to Fight, then Jarecki’s might be Why We Fight When We Don’t Really Have To. Jarecki begins and ends his film with former President Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning against the growing influence of the “military-industrial complex.” Why we fight, Jarecki says, is because the military-industrial complex has grown too big for its britches—is now, in fact, the military-industrial-congressional-think-tank complex and has become the tail wagging the dog of the U.S. government.

Jarecki seems to suggest that, although the sort of military coup imagined by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II in their novel Seven Days in May never actually came to pass, what we have today is a de-facto coup much more subtle and insidious, with the arms industry ensuring its own prosperity by currying broad support in Congress while nominating a fresh batch of enemies every few years to frighten the common folk and keep them in a fighting mood.

Put that way, and depending on your point of view, it sounds either brilliantly simple or pathetically simple-minded. Jarecki goes about building his case in an almost plodding manner, flipping back and forth between, on the one hand, archival footage creatively edited and assembled, and on the other, talking-head commentary by political figures and policy wonks.

Jarecki is doggedly thorough, but he does slip up occasionally. He leans heavily at first on Gore Vidal (whose comments are, uh, not always heavily nuanced), yet Vidal disappears fairly early on—Jarecki perhaps having decided that Vidal’s dyspepsia is more off-putting than enlightening. We hear more from Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, who oddly observes that America is riven by a conflict “between democracy and capitalism”—as if it goes without saying that the two are mutually exclusive—“and capitalism has won.”

Another talking head, Senator John McCain, says, “When does the United States go from a force for good to a force of imperialism?” Jarecki’s implied answer is “When it invades Iraq,” and at that point Why We Fight becomes most like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, echoing the grieving mother singled out in Moore’s film, Jarecki’s best scenes feature the retired New York cop Wilton Sekzer. We see Sekzer, whose son died in the World Trade Center, go from wholehearted support to bitter disappointment with the invasion of Iraq, denouncing President Bush for exploiting his grief and patriotism.

But where Michael Moore was raffish and pugnacious, Eugene Jarecki is staid and dignified. It’s as if Jarecki were the polite kid who agrees with his rebellious older brother’s outbursts but thinks there’s a better way to get the point across. Moore portrayed a Bush administration in thrall to Saudi Arabia; Jarecki has the administration in thrall to weapons manufacturers.

Despite their differences of style, Jarecki and Moore are two of a kind: debaters, not journalists. Like Moore, Jarecki had his thesis firmly in mind when he began Why We Fight; making the film was just a matter of building a case to support it. The result is propaganda to reinforce those who agree rather than to persuade those who don’t. It’s preaching to the choir, yes—but they’re sure to find it beautiful music.