God Bless Americash

Sony Pictures Classics/MovieWeb

Washington City Paper | February 10, 2006
The title of Why We Fight comes from a series of U.S. propaganda films made during World War II, co-directed by no less a virtuoso of American myth-making than Frank Capra. Those movies include some deliberate distortions of fact, but their central thesis holds up well: Hitler’s Germany and Hirohito’s Japan are a danger to the entire world, thus “we” have no choice but to oppose them. (Never mind that this necessity didn’t become clear when Japan attacked China or when Germany invaded Poland, but only after Pearl Harbor.)

The argument is so crisp that it’s been recycled again and again, most recently to support the invasion of Iraq. But it doesn’t have the same persuasiveness in that case, contends writer-director Eugene Jarecki, who previously made the underwhelming The Trials of Henry Kissinger. To explain why, he turns to a staple of American antiwar rhetoric: President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address, which warned against “the military-industrial complex.”

Jarecki’s broadside includes commentary from right and left, from Richard Perle and John McCain to Gore Vidal and Belle and Sebastian (represented by “I Fought in a War”). But the central interpretation of Ike’s text comes from leftist university professor Chalmers Johnson, author of such books as The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic and Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. After an account of how Dick Cheney, back in Bush Daddy’s administration, hired military-contractor Halliburton to study—and, of course, endorse—military contracting, Jarecki interjects this Johnson remark: “When war becomes that profitable, you’re going to see a lot of it.”

Halliburton’s profits may be unconscionable, and Cheney’s connection to that company may be outrageous, but neither explains why American troops are in Iraq. If corporate revenues were the whole story, the United States could have found many more countries to invade in the three decades since it retreated from Vietnam. In fact, the United States hasn’t seen a lot of war over the period. Instead, it’s specialized in surrogate operations (the Contras, the Taliban) and police actions (Grenada, Panama), which can’t have been as lucrative for Halliburton and its ilk as Bush Baby’s full-bore Iraq debacle.

This may not make Jarecki feel any better, but defense contractors don’t need an actual war to turn a profit. The threat of attack is just as good, and possibly better. Take, for example, the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”) antimissile shield, whose effectiveness has yet to be demonstrated. Final costs for this project have been estimated at up to $1 trillion, and you can be sure that defense-contractor returns are factored into that figure.

So what else has Jarecki got? Why We Fight also supposes that the Bush administration invaded Iraq because it wants to establish permanent U.S. military bases there, which is plausible. And it offers a brief history of Anglo-American interference in the Middle East in the cause of controlling the region’s oil, noting that the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein both came to power with U.S. assistance.

The movie’s principal backup device, however, is the story of Wilton Sekzer, a New York Police Department retiree whose son was killed in the World Trade Center. Sekzer embodies the instinctive New Yawk–blue–collar–get–dat–bastahd outlook that Bush and his handlers exploited so enthusiastically after the Twin Towers fell. Now that even Dubya concedes that 9/11 and Iraq are unconnected, Sekzer is angry again, but with someone else: the people who made the case that Saddam equals al Qaeda.

Fair enough, but Sekzer’s disillusionment doesn’t have all that much to do with Eisenhower’s warning. Jingoism, deception, and profiteering constantly promote war, but they barely constitute the beginning of an explanation of why Bush & Co. set out to topple Hussein. What’s most interesting—and possibly most relevant—about the invasion and occupation of Iraq is how it deviates from previous U.S. policy, including Bush’s own stated aversion to “nation-building.” That’s exactly why Why We Fight is so ineffective: It seeks to find a recurring pattern in a war that, thanks to arrogance, incompetence, and other still-hidden reasons, breaks many of the long-standing rules of American military engagement.

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