The Grand Jury Prize winner at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, Why We Fight (now in select cities) uses President Dwight Eisenhower's legendary 1961 farewell speech in which he presciently coined the term "military-industrial complex" as a launching point into a dense discussion of why and for whom the United States decides to go to war. In tackling the formidable topic, director Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) assembles an impressive and more than balanced roster of opinionators, including Senator John McCain, veteran newsman Dan Rather, The Weekly Standard's William Kristol, American political advisor Richard Perle, author Gore Vidal and retired NYPD officer Wilton Sekzer, a Vietnam vet whose son perished in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack.
Recalling the film's genesis, Jarecki says, "It started with the [title] question, which seemed to be getting a partial answer from Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address. One of the things I set out to do was not say to the public, 'Here's Eisenhower, he knows it all. Tell them how it works, Ike.' It was more, 'Here's Dwight Eisenhower, who clearly has unbelievable resonance for today, and the question is, to what extent can we see in his words a diagnosis of contemporary conditions that are troubling to us, and a prognosis for how we may look ahead to a world that's more sustainable for ourselves? Eisenhower was certainly my first inkling into how the film might go about trying to address the question, but he's really among the voices in the film."
But what a voice Ike's is, introducing to our lexicon as it did the notion of a military industrial complex actually a military-industrial-Congressional complex, per the speech's first draft that fuels the war machine in sometimes scrupulous ways. Remembering his first reaction to Eisenhower's farewell address as "absolutely jaw-dropping," Jarecki says, "I don't think before or since an American president has spoken that candidly to the public on any subject, let alone one of such life and death significance, and let alone one that was so dear to the president, having been a general himself. As early as 1953, just a couple of months into office, Eisenhower found himself making the famed 'Chance for Peace' speech, in which he is adamant about what he calls the need for balance in and among national programs. He talks about how 'every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, symbolizes in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and not clothed.' To hear a president understand the tension between the various aspects of our national life and the dangerous allocation of disproportionate resources into defense at the expense of other resources, to me represents a mind of much greater depth than some jarhead who thinks that it's really the generals who should do the talking. Eisenhower had the great benefit of having been both."
But rather than present only a history lesson, Why We Fight asks its panel of experts to focus on today's military campaigns and reasoning. Some opinions may surprise you. "There are people all throughout this film Wilton [Sekzer] is the central one who demonstrate the capacity for change, for evolution as people. We're very much a stuck-in-the-mud society right now, and it's not good mud. So the possibility for change is crucial to all of us feeling less disillusioned about our world."
Having lost his son to 9/11 and then lobbied the Army to scrawl Jason's name on a bomb bound for Iraq as a sort of closure, Sekzer comes from the unique point of view of realizing that the memorial payload actually wasn't headed for the most appropriate address. "I'm a black-and-white-type of fella either I like something or I don't like it and I liked the film. I thought it was a very fair picture," Sekzer says. "I thought it possibly raised and at the same time answered questions about why we always seem to be picking up arms and going someplace. As a Vietnam veteran, I appreciated that. I saw some things in there that I hadn't recognized when I was a young guy going off to war."
Coming away from Why We Fight, it seems almost a forgone conclusion that the military-industrial complex, long left veritably unchecked, is here to stay, that no one president could ever unring that bell. Jarecki, though, insists that the situation isn't hopeless. "We hear all the time that people are apathetic. Well, I don't think they're apathetic; I think the public is becoming deeply disillusioned by a sense that the country has drifted very far from our hopes and ideals," he tells TVGuide.com. "What's very important to recognize is that there have been dark chapters throughout human history, and they have often been followed by periods of enlightenment, and the way that enlightenment came is that the disillusionment led to desperation, frustration and ultimately to action. Ultimately the public demands change. Americans are gradually coming to a deeper and deeper sense that something about our priorities is out of whack. We are printing textbooks and building viaducts in Iraq while our own children are uneducated and drowning in the streets of New Orleans.
"It's understandable that this country should be in a crisis of self-concept," he continues. "This is a little republic in the western hemisphere that woke up one day to discover that it was an empire straddling the globe. It wasn't like there was some evil genius sitting in a dark room in Washington making this all happen; what happened was a lot of things added up over 200 years, not the least of which was World War II. But [becoming an empire] kind of happened to us, so it's understandable that the public needs to scratch its head and look closely at the situation."
And what about today's White House? Should it look closely at Jarecki's film? No screening is planned, but the director wouldn't be afraid to lug his projector to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "You know why? Because this is not a film that thinks that there's a bad guy somewhere. This is a movie that I hope can and should be watched by all Americans with an understanding that it's about all of us, and George Bush is one of us," he says. "There is an unfortunate preoccupation that the public has with George Bush; they see him as some sort of radical departure from past peaceful traditions in U.S. foreign policy. I've got news for you: One look at the wars of the past century will tell you that George Bush was not born overnight and Republicans do not own the copyright on war.
"This country goes to war and it doesn't matter who's in the Oval Office, because the forces that lead us to war know the number for the Oval Office. And it doesn't matter who's sitting there."