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Why We Fight

Blame the Military-Industrial Complex

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Eugene Jarecki's (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) incisive documentary, Why We Fight, examines what President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell speech called the "military-industrial complex", the coordination between the defense department, defense contractors, and Congress, with financial profit exchanged for political influence and power. Eisenhower warned that the "military-industrial complex" would result in the abuse of power and the need, real or imagined, for an enemy to serve as the rationale for ever-expanding defense appropriations.

Using Eisenhower's farewell speech as a starting point, Jarecki takes a systematic, macro-level approach to more than five decades of American interventionism abroad. The protracted war in Vietnam led to a massive, prolonged increase in defense spending. At the time, Vietnam was seen as a key front in the long-term struggle against Soviet-led communism. When the Vietnam War ended, the specter of Soviet-led communism spreading across the world was still very real and of concern to politicians from both major parties.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the dissolution of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe due to internal contradictions and American resilience, defense spending was expected to decrease markedly. It didn't. George W. Bush's election to the presidency caused a shift in foreign policy toward more aggressive unilateralism, due to the neo-cons in the Bush administration, with their utopian dreams of converting autocratic Middle Eastern countries into pro-Western, Western-style democracies. But there was no active enemy to justify high levels of defense spending. 9/11 changed everything, and not always in anticipated ways.

Less than two years after the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. We're still there. Jarecki argues that the responsibility for the Iraq war goes beyond Bush and the neo-cons, underestimating the structural factors that make wars of aggression almost inevitable, the military-industrial complex (one critic adds "think tanks" to the tri-partite concept first developed by Eisenhower).

Jarecki makes his argument through interviews from partisans and non-partisans, including John McCain, a Republican Senator, Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, Bill Kristol, a senior editor for the conservative Weekly Standard, Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA official turned author and critic, Joseph Cirincione, a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, Charles Lewis, an academic from the Center for Public Integrity, and Gore Vidal, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and American Empire.

Jarecki, however, doesn't just interview academics or politicians. Retired Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, an officer assigned to the Middle East Desk at the Pentagon gets the most screen time. An outspoken critic of the Bush administration, Kwiatkowski was inside the Pentagon when one of the hijacked jetliners struck the building on 9/11. She was also present during the extended preparations for the Iraq war, which focused, not on whether we should go to war (that was assumed), but how best to convince the American public of the necessity of war with Iraq.

Jarecki also touches on the micro-level, following a new recruit, William Solomon, from his agreement to join the U.S. Army, primarily for financial reasons, through to his last moments before he enters the army. Jarecki rounds out Why We Fight by interviewing a retired New York City police officer, Wilton Sekzer, who lost one of his sons on 9/11. Believing that Iraq was involved in aiding the 9/11 terrorists, Sekzer supported the war, going as far as requesting that a bomb be dedicated to his son's memory. Weeks later, Sekzer began to question the reasons for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, ultimately led him to a profound sense of betrayal and distrust of the current administration.

With its fast pace and complex subject matter, viewers unfamiliar with the last half century of American history and foreign policy might have trouble following Why We Fight. At minimum, the subject demands a more in-depth approach, something along the lines of a multi-part series (but the risk there is losing potential viewers). Either way, Why We Fight is essential viewing for anyone interested in foreign policy and why the United States finds itself in yet another intractable war, this time in the Middle East.

That conservative apologists or critics will dismiss or ignore Why We Fight is a given of the current political atmosphere. Progressives, however, will find much to learn from or find their suspicions confirmed (depending on their level of knowledge). At minimum, Why We Fight should serve as the basis for an honest, national conversation about foreign policy, defense spending, and the military-industrial complex. Sadly, it won't.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars