by Jan Baughman
(Swans - February 27, 2006) "Why do we fight?" is a question posed throughout this movie to people of all ages and walks of life; the responses vary from a confidently repeated "freedom" to "it's necessary and right," to the clearly unsure yet prescient young boy's conclusion, "it's the people who start the war who know what they're fighting about."
Why We Fight opens with familiar footage of Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 farewell address in which he warns of the danger of the military-industrial complex, followed by expressions of the noble causes for which we wage war from John McCain, John F. Kennedy, William Kristol, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, initially lending the appearance of just another collection of stories and talking heads we've heard time and again with little impact. Yet the film quickly evolves to a powerfully constructed thread of parallel stories, woven together to explain the evolution of America's march to endless war and the methods by which this policy became the very fabric of the country's modus operandi. The cast of characters span the political spectrum, from McCain, Kristol, and Richard Perle; to Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal, and Karen Kwiatkowski; to Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter Susan and son David; with both citizens and soldiers whose lives were influenced by war, together lending a broad perspective on the myriad, complex forces at play in molding and perpetuating the US foreign policy of economic colonialism.
A poignant story line traces the path of Wilton Sekzer, whose son was killed in the World Trade Center attack. Sekzer whole-heartedly supported the War on Iraq in the name of revenge for 9/11 and his son's death. His experiences as a Vietnam War veteran and his quest to do something in his son's memory to prevent another attack collide as he learns of the disconnect between 9/11 and Iraq. Juxtaposed are the stories of Anh Duong who as a child fled Saigon before its fall for the US and now works as a munitions expert, and the tense build-up to the official start of the Iraq War on March 19, 2003 as told by the two fighter pilots who would drop the bombs that would be the beginning of the end, or as it were, merely the beginning of the quagmire. No matter the outcome, "we just do what we're told," says one. Add to that the 23-year-old man going through the process of enlisting in the military; his mother recently dead, he is seeking a solution to his family and financial problems, and a guarantee of a good job and career, with no understanding of what's in store for him.
As the deeply personal stories of war reveal themselves, the cold and calculated evolution of the military-industrial complex is divulged, following the laundry-list of invasions launched by every US president, Republican and Democrat alike, to support our vital interests in the name of "freedom," leading to the post-Cold War era grand strategy to maintain and expand the US role as the New Rome. From fighting communism in every corner of the world, to declaring a global War on Terrorism with no post-war era foreseeable, the stage of Rome has been set. As Pentagon advisor Richard Perle puts it, "what's the big fuss about pre-emption?" A key message of Why We Fight is the pervasiveness of the military-industrial complex; a complex which now includes think tanks filled with private citizens accountable to no one yet setting foreign policy agenda, and members of Congress, who award vast amounts of money to weapons contractors in the name of jobs for people, read: voters, in their districts. ("God bless our contractors," as one Senator says.) Defense contractors enjoyed a 25% increase in profits in the past year, the film reports. As they develop weapons to "carry out the American way of war," capitalism is winning over democracy and perpetual war feeds the shareholders' greed.
The revolving door between public office and the defense industry is well oiled, as Vice President Dick Cheney exemplifies. The role of Congress per se in the military-industrial complex is not a focal point of the movie, but it is a particularly important message to get across as the upcoming election cycles approach. That is, we must stop expecting to find a candidate for change among the existing power base; Democrat or Republican, all are embroiled in and benefit from this permanent armaments industry. As Senator Robert Byrd is shown eloquently pointing out while the world was demonstrating against the War on Iraq, "This chamber is for the most part ominously, ominously, dreadfully silent."
At present, undaunted by the exposé of its pre-9/11 sights on invading Iraq and non- existent WMDs repackaged as a battle for liberty and democracy, the Bush administration is turning its attention to the newest target for democratization, Iran. A regime that, we are told, represses its people; sponsors terrorists; seeks a nuclear arsenal that will threaten the world... Just days after Donald Rumsfeld recently spoke of the need for a new media strategy, or "strategic communications framework" in the war on terrorism, Mr. Bush announced $75 million in "emergency funds" to support democracy in Iran; funds that "will allow us to expand radio and television broadcasts into Iran." Is this a new tool to hasten the spread of democracy in the Middle East to counter terrorism, or an effort to spread propaganda in attempt to thwart blowback from US military policies? Will we yet again accept the rationale for why we need to fight? There is much to learn from this film before the next country falls victim to America's agenda.
Why We Fight pointedly reveals the patterns repeated from war to war. Of note, the film's title was taken from the name of a series of seven propaganda films produced by Frank Kapra in the early 1940s. The role of the media in perpetuating the present war propaganda could have been expounded, but is touched upon by Dan Rather, who speaks of the danger of the government limiting access to information, and the Pentagon's efforts in shaping how news is reported. The powerful impact that the images of body bags had on support for the Vietnam War has been thwarted in the War on Terror, and journalists have been embedded with US troops to skew their reporting towards the plight of the troops, and away from the casualties. In his February 17, 2006 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Donald Rumsfeld stated that "During the Cold War, institutions such as the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe proved to be valuable instruments for the United States of America. We need to consider the possibility of new organizations and programs that can serve a similarly valuable role in the War on Terror in this new century.... [W]hile the enemy is increasingly skillful at manipulating the media and using the tools of communications to their advantage, it should be noted that we have an advantage as well: and that is, quite simply, that truth is on our side -- and that ultimately, truth wins out."
Why We Fight should be widely disseminated and repeatedly viewed, while we still have access to the unofficial truth. Our option is to remain ignorant, complicit, blinded by "patriotism," and duped by propaganda as the US destroys one country after another in the name of freedom and democracy. So why do we fight? The final answer in the film is reserved for retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, a 20-year veteran of the US Air Force, former Pentagon analyst and outspoken critic of the faulty intelligence leading to the invasion of Iraq.
It is imperative upon all of us to view this film, and to heed her words.
Why We Fight won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
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