Film and TV

Let's Make a Deal

It's hard to imagine President Dwight D. Eisenhower shackled in a cage at Guantanamo Bay. But if Ike were around today to say what he said in 1961 in his famous farewell speech to the nation, the radical nationalists of the Bush administration would surely not take kindly to it. I'm referring, of course, to Eisenhower's oft-quoted warning about the insidious power of the "military-industrial complex," which has been previously invoked by filmmakers as varied as the fantasist Oliver Stone, who used it as a conspiratorial building block in JFK, and the slipshod polemicist Michael Moore, who calls upon it whenever and wherever it fits his agenda of self-promotion.

For Eugene Jaurecki, the documentarian who brings us Why We Fight, Eisenhower's caution is not just some musty political irony. It is the acorn from which a great poison oak has grown: the ever-more-lucrative partnership between the Pentagon and the manufacturers of weaponry that has the potential of perpetuating war ad infinitum as it nourishes corporate greed and strengthens the new American Imperium. Right-wingers are sure to detest and denounce almost every frame of Why We Fight (the title is a bittersweet bow to Frank Capra's stirring World War II-era propaganda films), but they may also be sorely discomfited -- not least because Jaurecki is a far more elusive target than the sloppy Moore, and because Jaurecki's indictment of U.S. foreign policy since the Truman years, while familiar, is far more articulate, wide-ranging and well-reasoned than the clumsy manipulations of Fahrenheit 9/11.

It's one thing for Gore Vidal, the fiercely dissident novelist and social commentator, to rebrand the nation as "the United States of Amnesia" in light of our belligerent past, quite another for Republican senator John McCain to worry aloud about the excesses of the Bush Doctrine, which amounts to the dissemination of democracy at gunpoint. Those who don't balk at Pentagon ideologue Richard Perle's acknowledgement of "a radical shift of policy" in the days and weeks following 9/11 may still take pause at the proud assertion of a defense contractor at a weapons trade show regarding his relationship with the U.S. government: "Collusion is our business," he boasts. And no one in the house -- lefty, neo-con or middle-of-the-roader -- could fail to heed retired New York cop and Vietnam veteran Wilton Sekzer, whose son was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Grief-stricken and outraged, Sekzer sought some kind of satisfaction for his loss and thought he finally got it when the U.S. military agreed to paint his son's name on a bomb dropped in Iraq. Late in Why We Fight, though, we witness the drama of Sekzer's disillusionment when he learned that the supposed link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein was a Bush fiction. "Why did he lie?" Sekzer asks. "There's something wrong with the entire system."

The system that worried Eisenhower has in recent years expanded into four powerful components, Jaurecki asserts: the Pentagon (which now manufactures its own falsified intelligence); defense contractors (who provide all those not-so-"smart" bombs); Congress (whose members create economic incentives for their districts); and think tanks (which dream up new threats and new rationalizations for war). In other words, as one exasperated critic points out, "The corporate elites and the political elites are the same people." The military-industrial complex in the 21st century is so far-reaching, political scientist and former top CIA man Chalmers Johnson adds, that we no longer even see it. Don't believe that? Witness the considerable powers of Deadeye Dick Cheney, who left the Halliburton boardroom to become a chief architect of the so-called war on terror. In Jaurecki's film, we find the vice president opining once more on what awaits American troops in the streets of Fallujah: "We will be greeted as liberators." Or at least as suppliers of portable toilets and bologna sandwiches.

To the extent that Why We Fight is agitprop, it's more convincing agitprop than most of the outraged political documentaries that have flooded the screen in the last three years, and that may account for its winning the Grand Jury Prize last year at Sundance. Jaurecki (whose earlier cry of the heart was The Trials of Henry Kissinger) is angry, all right: Witness his telling visit to to the main Baghdad morgue, where 90 percent of the dead are civilians, or his exchanges with defrocked lieutenant colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, a whisteblower now opposing her former colleagues at the Pentagon's Middle East desk. But Jaurecki's anger is measured and focused, and in the end his film is more melancholy than heated, a lament for trampled American values and squandered American prestige. Greed has thrashed democracy in the free marketplace, Why We Fight concludes, and we may pay the price for generations to come. Wherever he is, that commie peacenik Eisenhower must be enjoying a bitter laugh.