Ace documentary exposes America’s covert rule by war profiteers
Opening a year after its coronation at Sundance 2005, Eugene Jarecki’s magnificent documentary “Why We Fight” is poised to incite the national dialogue about our corrupt administration and its profit-driven endless war into a furor. Assembled with a jeweler’s precision and finesse, the film’s tightly reasoned, diamond-edged argument is designed to pierce the mystifications of Bush and his corporate media handmaidens.
Looking as reassuringly familiar as any public TV doc, with sober, talking-head interviews surrounded by rafts of archival footage, “Why We Fight” speaks a conventional grammar to articulate its iconoclastic thesis. Proceeding from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s televised farewell address, warning about the threat to democracy of an incipient “military-industrial complex,” Jarecki does nothing less than reveal the deep structures of America’s national security state—that interlocking network of the overwhelmingly Republican defense establishment, arms industry executives, and extreme-right think tanks which have brought the nation to the gravest constitutional crisis in our history.
The film starts off close to home, on the elevated 7 train pulling out of Queensboro Plaza, with Manhattan’s skyline filling the horizon. Here we meet Wilton Sekzer, who describes himself as “just a regular cop, living on a pension,” as well as “a proud Vietnam veteran.” He recalls riding the same train to work the morning of 9/11, describing the sight of the smoking towers, aligned in perfect symmetry from his vantage, not knowing at first whether his son Jason was in the burning building or its twin, before grasping the worst.
From Sekzer’s remembered trauma, conveyed respectfully and without inflation, the film cuts to one of the several experts whose comments are nimbly woven throughout. Former cold warrior Chalmers Johnson provides a concise definition of “blowback”—unforeseen fallout resulting specifically from U.S. covert operations—elaborated further in his book “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire,” which in 2000 presciently observed the bitter hostility that American policies had sown far and wide, creating the conditions for inevitable retaliation. Johnson’s account torches the popular axiom of a blameless America, a shining city on a hill, attacked without provocation.
W. is seen posed atop the rubble at Ground Zero, arm draped around the fire chief, the uniformed proletarian beaming at his sworn class enemy. Bush’s tough talk of retribution is answered by the crowd’s rhythmic chanting of “USA! USA!,” and Jarecki catches the flag-waving völkisch sentiment that emerged from many quarters immediately after 9/11, magnified and exploited by the mainstream media. One of the sparingly used intertitles records that the very next day after 9/11, the hawks seized the opportunity to hit Iraq, a long-cherished neo-con target fingered as early as Bush’s first National Security Council briefing, ten days after his inauguration.
There’s a jarring reminder of the worldwide outpouring of sympathy that also followed in the days immediately after the attacks, and one of the film’s multiple trajectories unfolds along the distance measured between a post-9/11 solidarity march in Tehran (!) and how far every American viewer must understand the U.S. has plummeted in the world’s eyes since. Jarecki evokes how the radical Bush doctrine of “regime change” and preemptive war became enshrined as a new paradigm, fruition of the neo-cons’ strategy, circa the Soviet Union’s demise, for a unipolar global order subservient to American interests.
The film loops back to the Allied victory in World War II, which laid the structural basis for subsequent American military hegemony. Interviews with the pilots who launched the first bombs over Baghdad in March 2003 give way to the Enola Gay’s atomic mission in 1945, and Jarecki bravely takes down the myth of America’s “just” nuclear annihilation of the already vanquished Japanese. Cold War anticommunist paranoia was orchestrated to keep America permanently militarized as the “arsenal of democracy,” ensuring steady business for the arms dealers, selling weapons of “deterrence” that would knowingly never be used.
In exemplary dialectical fashion, “Why We Fight” pursues its inquiry from Donald Rumsfeld’s convening of the rogue Office of Special Plans to devise what former Pentagon analyst Karen Kwiatkowski calls “the manufactured leap” from Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, to Dick Cheney’s rigging of exclusive Iraq reconstruction contracts for ex-employer Halliburton, to hair-raising interviews with medical personnel in Baghdad hospitals and the director of the Baghdad morgue, who have a few things to share about the toll in civilian casualties of the administration’s war.
Viewer assumptions are confounded not least through the person of Anh Duong, who fled Saigon as a 15-year-old refugee in 1975 and went on to become chief of the U.S. Navy’s Indian Head explosives lab, where she masterminded a special “penetrator” guided bomb for use in Afghanistan mere weeks after 9/11. The suppleness with which her narrative is threaded alongside those of Sekzer, Kwiatkowski, and the troubled young enlistee William Solomon, and developed into dramatic arcs thematizing the film’s rhetorical argument, testifies to the mojo of “Why We Fight” ’s not-so covert weapon, editor Nancy Kennedy, whose work here no praise can flatter.
Of the film’s minor shortcomings, most puzzling is an elision that “Why We Fight” shares with Adam Curtis’ pseudo-documentary “The Power of Nightmares,” over the historic role of the U.S.’s relationship with Israel in the development of its foreign policy. The ultra-hawk Richard Perle, former chair of the elite Pentagon Defense Policy Board, features prominently here, upstaging his own appearance in “Nightmares” and inadvertently highlighting this elision. Perle is teasingly presented as Mephisto, draped in shadows and backlit with a blue halo, extolling the doctrine of preemption in a velvety baritone.
Perle’s outlook and influence are profoundly informed by his commitment to Israel. As journalist Thomas Powers has noted, Perle has worked for the Jerusalem Post, consulted for Israeli arms merchants, served as advisor to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, and in 1996 coauthored with fellow American Jewish neo-cons Douglas J. Feith and David Wurmser the policy paper “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” for then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This paper recommended renouncing the peace process with the Palestinians and hardening Israel’s stance against Syria and Iraq, even by preemptive aggression, asserting that “removing Saddam Hussein from power [is] an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right.” Yet this clearly significant aspect of Perle’s influence on the administration’s Middle East policy—Bush’s scrapping of the peace process and Condoleezza Rice’s audacious rhetoric of remaking the Muslim world drawn from “A Clean Break”—goes unexamined in the otherwise near-encyclopedic film.
In all, though, “Why We Fight” is more solidly researched, smartly reasoned, and farther-reaching in its critique than most narcotized American viewers have come to expect. Jarecki eventually gets around to the basic antagonism between the imperatives of capitalism and the requirements of a democracy, floats the t-word (totalitarianism), and subtly insinuates the shared culpability of a supine, amnesiac populace for its government’s atrocities.
By its final frames, “Why We Fight” has not only answered the obvious sense of its title question by recovering the obscured history of the last half-century of US imperialism. It has also demonstrated the urgency of why we—America’s actual anti-Bush majority—must fight to topple the war profiteers and restore our dishonored democracy.