Before the credits are over, the film jumps to life with the surprising presence of the grandfatherly Eisenhower, the five-star general who led allied forces in Europe during World War II, warning the nation of "the grave consequences" of creating a permanent arms industry. Using that as a starting point, Jarecki argues that the wars of the last 50 years -- Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq -- have been motivated more by profits than policy. Interviews with Eisenhower's son John and granddaughter Susan highlight the president's growing concern that the military build-up following World War II was a dangerous precedent for the country. Weighing in from two sides of the political spectrum are Sen. John McCain, who notes that "the complex is so pervasive, it's become invisible," to William Kristol, head of the neo-con think tank the Project for the New American Century, an architect of American foreign policy. Chalmers Johnson, an ex-CIA operative and critic of current developments, and Richard Perle, former adviser to the Bush administration, square off for and against.
Jarecki, who directed the revealing The Trials of Henry Kissinger, has learned to allow the material to speak for itself, so when Perle simplistically argues that pre-emptive strikes are akin to defending yourself against personal attack, he seems merely foolish. Summing up American foreign policy of the last 50 years, author Gore Vidal says this is "the United States of Amnesia," where everything is forgotten by Monday morning.
But the impact of Why We Fight, a title taken from the name of Frank Capra's WWII propaganda films for the State Department, goes well beyond a collection of talking heads. Jarecki personalizes the effects of war by including individual stories. One of them is Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City cop who lost a son on Sept. 11 and petitioned the government to put his son's name on a bomb destined to be dropped on Iraq. When President Bush finally admits that Iraq had no hand in the terrorist attacks, Sekzer is disillusioned and feels that the government "exploited my feelings of patriotism for the death of my son."
Jarecki captures the price of the military-industrial complex in human terms, but sometimes the film's focus seems to wander to presenting arguments against the war. It is necessary to accept Jarecki's premise that the Iraq war is the result of America's imperialistic agenda in order to see corporate greed as the underlying cause.
But he makes his case convincingly, pointing out that we spend more on defense than all other parts of our budget combined. When war becomes that profitable, we have seen and will continue to see more of it. Jarecki uses graphic war footage, a visit to a weapons trade show and interviews with retired military officers -- stitched together seamlessly by editor Nancy Kennedy -- to dispel the notion advanced by presidents Johnson, Reagan and Bush, that America has been a force for peace in the world. Instead, what we see is a militaristic nation in which capitalism is at war with democracy -- and capitalism is winning.
WHY WE FIGHT
A BBC Storyville presentation of a Charlotte Street film in association with BBC and Arte
Director: Eugene Jarecki
Producer: Susannah Shipman, Jarecki
Executive producers: Roy Ackerman, Nick Fraser, Hans Robert Eisenhauer
Directors of photography: Etienne Sauret, May-Ying Welch, Brett Wiley, Foster Wiley, Chris Li, Sam Cullman
Music: Robert Miller
Editor: Nancy Kennedy
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 90 minutes