‘Why We Fight’ picks apart the politics of war | AspenTimes.com

‘Why We Fight’ picks apart the politics of war

Stewart Oksenhorn
Dwight Eisenhower in a scene from the documentary "Why We Fight," showing this week at the Wheeler Opera House. (Charlotte Street Films/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

In 2003, the documentary “The Corporation” offered a cautionary, and surprisingly entertaining, look at the concept of the corporation and its built-in focus on the bottom line. Almost a natural extension was “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” which took the general and made it specific, expertly dissecting the energy conglomerate as a textbook case in ruinous greed and deceit.Diving even further into the shadows of the business world is “Why We Fight.” On the surface – and for the film’s first 20 minutes – Eugene Jarecki’s film is not about business, but America’s history of war and foreign policy over the last 60 years. The warm-up sequences touch on both the personal and the big-picture overview, and there appears to be a disconnect between the two. When asked why we fight, folks on the street reply with answers relating to necessity, self-determination, peace and, most often, freedom.

Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity and one of numerous talking heads to appear in the film, has a different take on our military activity. For Lewis, it has become our nature to make war. “When you look at the history of the United States,” said Lewis, as a backdrop of battle scenes, recent and dated, streams across the screen, “almost every president, there is something we don’t like somewhere in the world, and we’ve got to dispense with it.”These points are all prologue to a less philosophical discussion. Jarecki’s conclusion is that America fights because war is big business, the biggest, most profitable business of all. Chalmers Johnson, identified as “CIA, 1967-73,” observes that the defense budget has risen to three-quarters of a trillion dollars, and that profits in the defense industry were up 25 percent in one recent year. If Enron executives were willing to risk jail and their employees’ 401(k)s for a few billion, then surely there is an enormous invisible hand ensuring that the war machine rolls on and on. “I guarantee you,” concludes Johnson, “when war becomes that profitable, you’re going to get more war.”Of all people to ignite the warnings, it was Dwight Eisenhower, president and five-star Army general, who cautioned the country to keep a vigilant eye on the “military-industrial complex.” The phrase was coined in Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address. As the post-World War II president facing the challenge of containing communism, Eisenhower oversaw the unprecedented buildup of the defense business, a phenomenon that eluded his control. Noting that more than 3 million people were employed in the defense industry, Eisenhower – who would go on to write the 1965 book “Waging Peace” – told America, “We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. We must guard against … unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists.”Forty-five years later, Jarecki takes the “potential” out of Ike’s warning. “Why We Fight” makes the case that the complex has actually grown far more complex over the decades; no surprise that arguably the most powerful person on the planet is the former defense industry chief, and current vice president, Dick Cheney. It is not just military and industry joining forces, but also Congress, whose members approve defense spending and protect jobs in their districts. (The film points out that parts for the B-2 bomber come from every state in the union, virtually assuring support for building more of them.) Most dangerous is the rise of the think tanks, comprising unelected experts wielding vast influence – the “misplaced power” in Eisenhower’s formulation.

Jarecki does a superb job of connecting the dots from the theoretical to the personal. One figure revisited through the film is Wilton Sekzer, a burly, straight-talking retired New York cop. Sekzer knew why he wanted to fight Iraq: to avenge the death, on 9/11, of his son. But when President Bush finally says there was no evidence linking Iraq to 9/11, Sekzer is bewildered by the shift in the administration’s stance.Why did we go to war in Iraq? Why do we fight? Eisenhower seemed to know. Eugene Jarecki reminds us not to swallow the corporate line.”Why We Fight” shows Sunday and Monday, March 26-27, at the Wheeler Opera House.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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