A Review of Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Magazine
[This review of Eugene’s Jarecki’s recent Why We Fight recently appeared in National Review Magazine.]
Let’s be clear at the outset: Eugene’s Jarecki’s Why We Fight is a reprehensible film in its intellectual dishonesty. But it is so poorly cobbled together that it never rises above the propaganda level of Fahrenheit 9/11. It purports to be a serious documentary not about soldiers in the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, or even Iraq, but about all sorts of conspiracies of how they got there. Unfortunately, after four years of “No blood for oil,” “Bush lied, thousands died,” Halliburton, neo-con wars for Israel, and intimations of September 11 foreknowledge, it is hard for an anti-war propagandist to shock movie audiences in any way that can be considered novel.
To the extent that this predictable film has a coherent script it seems to be the following. We remember that Frank Capra’s Why We Fight documentaries of the 1940s reminded the wartime public that our GIs were dying for freedom and democracy in World War II. But we now learn that that was not the whole story: see, more often our military was blasting away at elected governments in out-of-the-way places to make profits. Or in the words of talking-head Washington insider Charles Lewis, American wars have usually been about capitalism and extinguishing democracy-corporate profits abroad to feed the military-industrial complex at home. How does the film advance this novel insight? In three ways.
First, critics such as Lewis, Gore Vidal, retired Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, Chalmers Johnston, and Joseph Cirincione confirm that neo-cons, CEOs, and arms merchants run our lives. Authors of books with “Empire” and “imperial” in their titles spell out foolish concepts like “blowback” and “economic colonialism.” Jarecki brings these conspiracists in at opportune moments to assert that legions of capitalists — not an elected Congress, president, or independent judiciary — hold the real power in our political system.
Second, there are the standard mini-clips of Lyndon Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin speech, the courageous Cassandra, Robert Byrd, who warns us about war from the floor of the Senate, the Shock-and-Awe campaign that lit up Baghdad in March 2003, and the obligatory charred bodies from an Iraqi mortuary. That visual record apparently proves that our gallant sages were not heard, and the result was the death of thousands of innocents.
Third, from the other side, clean and crisp military pilots are made to look foolish as they talk in antiseptic terms about their high-altitude drops — as if complaints have not been voiced about the impersonal nature of war since Spartan kings railed against the advent of artillery. And in a similar vein, domestic arms fabricators express pride in their missiles as they roll by on the assembly line — all clueless to the Iraqi deaths that are the real fruits of their hourly wages. In the world of Why We Fight, there is no such thing as an enemy of the United States, and there is certainly no mention that some innocents may have actually been saved by American munitions and interference across the globe.
Critics grant Eugene Jarecki more credibility than Michael Moore, presumably for showing “the other side.” The film follows a working-class military recruit and a retired New York cop who lost a son on September 11 in their respective odysseys searching for the truth. As they work through their tragedies, each finally comes to “see” the real story about America — the one advanced by Gore Vidal and Chalmers Johnson throughout the film. But this tact, only makes this film more underhanded, since the “other side” is nothing more than Jarecki’s own sanitized vision.
Republican president Dwight Eisenhower is apotheosized as the wise man who warned us about the military-industrial complex and the horrors of the Bomb. In thoughtful tones, Ike’s son and granddaughter assure us of his eleventh-hour angst. But no mention is made his Secretary of State’s Cold War globetrotting and saber-rattling, or Ike’s thinly veiled threats to use the Bomb to thwart Communists in Korea. John McCain likewise lectures on the undeniable danger of the revolving-door arms-hawking that goes on in Washington, D.C. But no one would ever learn from this film that Senator McCain wholeheartedly supported the war in Iraq, and does to this day. Bill Kristol and Richard Perle make smiling appearances to praise preemption and the new American century. But neither is quoted warning about the peril we face from anti-liberal Islamic fascists who have murdered reformers worldwide — even though both speak regularly on this issue.
Ironies abound, as well. Jarecki raises the specter of pernicious “think-tanks,” whose unaccountable schemers apparently got us into Iraq. But nearly every person who so far has guided us through the movie — Joseph Cirincione, Susan Eisenhower, Chalmers Johnson, and Charles Lewis — inhabits such an institution of subsidized thought, often smack-dab in the heart of Washington. So it turns out that Jarecki is not really warning of think-tanks as he implies (not even the old standbys like AEI, Brookings, Heritage, Hoover, or Hudson). Rather, only one is mentioned by name — the bogeyman called The Project For the New American Century that Kristol and Perle belong to. With Kwiatkowski and Vidal’s previous screeds about Israeli influence on U.S. foreign policies, and frequent references to a “Special Plans” division in the Pentagon, the viewer is led to believe it’s all a veiled sinister plot that brought us to Iraq. Like so much in this documentary, the goal is guilt by insinuation and association.
Should we laugh or cry when a now-discredited Dan Rather gives an on-air sermon about truth and ethics? The populist subtext of the film is that the unthinking hoi polloi are used as cannon fodder by profit-drunk corporate insiders and corrupt politicians, symbolized by the multimillionaire Dick Cheney of Halliburton infamy. But the film’s own footage and interviews provide an even worse example of aristocratic superciliousness: Erudite and arrogant men in fashionable turtle necks and Nehru-collars give pompous lectures about how we ignorant yokels are fooled by salesmen and flag wavers-as glib images flash by of the American mob enjoying video games, carnival gun shooting, and red, white, and blue parades.
Like Hollywood’s similarly lame Syriana, the conspiracy-theory stuff is badly dated. No one seems to have told Jarecki that the Chinese have piled up billions in American cash while jetting the globe to sell their weapons to any dictator they can find, while a debt-ridden United States pays $70 a barrel for oil to Middle East autocracies whose cost per barrel is around $5.
History is warped — or, when inconvenient, omitted entirely. There is not a word about three successful elections in Iraq, or American efforts to depose dictators and leave democracies in Grenada, Panama, and the Balkans, much less the American effort to promote reform in Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine. The removal of the Taliban and the new democracy in Afghanistan are never mentioned. American soldiers are shown taping and handcuffing Iraqi civilians, never building schools or power plants (an enterprise Karen Kwiatkowski assures us “had nothing to do with the liberation of the Iraqi people”). We, of course, “armed” Saddam (whose crimes are never mentioned); yet, we are never told that less than 5 percent of his arsenal was American-made, or that the billions given to Stalin to fight Hitler is the story of realpolitik par excellence.
The Bomb was not dropped on Hiroshima, as Gore Vidal now tells us, “to show off” or “to show Stalin” something about our ability to wage “preemptive World War,” but because just a few weeks earlier we had incurred 50,000 American casualties on Okinawa, a death-toll that could be dwarfed by an assault on the Japanese mainland. Chalmers Johnson needs a history lesson about Rome, too: Its greatest bloodletting was a product of civil war during the late republic, not during the early empire in which the Augustan army shrunk in size and imperial writers railed about the newfound pernicious effects of a “luxurious peace.”
Nor was the Iraqi war an unauthorized executive decision: Unlike Bill Clinton’s 1998 bombing of Milosevic, the Iraq war was approved by the Senate, which offered 23 reasons to remove Saddam Hussein, almost all of them ignored in the film. The Cold War is always evoked, but never in the context of trying to contain a political system that led to 100 million killed under Stalin and Mao. Instead, it is cliff-noted as mostly a colossal waste of American resources, all squandered in pursuit of profits.
Documentary makers like Jarecki fail to realize that the ascendance of Fox News and conservative talk-radio is directly correlated to the arrogance of the big networks, whose anchors seem to believe that their slant will be taken as gospel. The elitism and bias of public television and radio is of the same kind that prompted the prairie revolt the bloggers have used to strike back against the smugness of the mainstream newspaper guild. Why We Fight shows precisely why the documentary industry now risks falling into the same pit of irrelevance. Such propaganda will either prompt a counter-response, replete with similar biased techniques mustered by the Right, or it could bring about a new counter-genre altogether — as most Americans start to pass on these tired left-wing melodramas. Splicing together gory pictures, liberal elites talking down to clueless Americans, and missiles rolling off an assembly line isn’t even silly any more. It’s just boring.
©2006 Victor Davis Hanson