A Chat with Eugene Jarecki, Director of Why We Fight
by Matt Kettmann
Why We Fight is a thoroughly indicting documentary about the rise of the United States’ military-industrial complex, a term coined by President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address. Though a military man, Eisenhower did not use the term lightly. Rather, his usage is in the form of a warning, specifically that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” With interviews of policy makers, military officers, weapons dealers, and others, Why We Fight—which is being screened at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, July 26—shows that Eisenhower’s 1961 predictions proved disastrously true. These days, America spends more money on bombs than books, and the military-industrial complex has systematically interwoven itself into American life. The documentary’s director Eugene Jarecki, an eloquently brilliant man from New York City, spent some time chatting about his film and the world over the phone from Vermont recently.
This film is a massive undertaking. How did you stumble upon the topic? In making my previous film, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, I was doing a lot of archival research, and I came across Eisenhower’s farewell address. It was Eisenhower who inspired this movie … I’d never seen a president speak as honestly on any subject. It became imperative for me to make sense of Eisenhower’s warning this many years later.
Is it safe to say that, whether by malicious intent or not, people in positions of power are effectively bought off? I’m glad you say “malicious or not.” I don’t believe malice is a necessary ingredient to see how this system works. The system is corrupt because our democracy is vulnerable to the corrupt machinations of corporate political collusion. Though we have many checks and balances, we don’t have checks able to keep democracy away from capitalism. … When a public figure comes to office, it doesn’t matter whether he’s red or blue, money is green. … Special interests corrupt public policy and the military-industrial complex has the added power of carrying a big gun. It can stigmatize and embarrass those who vote against it. It’s so easy to construe criticism or inquiry as being against “national security.”
Is the problem intensified by so many civilians running the Pentagon? I’m very sensitive to that. I’ve shown this film to a number of military people, shown it at West Point … I learned a great deal about the wisdom of our military thinkers, very often wisdom that I wish one would find in the minds of the civilian leadership. There’s a longstanding philosophy in America that war shouldn’t be left to the generals. But take the war in Iraq. The tragedy of this war is that it was launched by civilians, operating in air-conditioned conference rooms in Washington, thousands of miles from the consequences. These are civilians who launched this war against the better judgment of the military. They may be an example that war may be just as dangerous to leave to frivolous civilians. … We may have to go forward with the knowledge that war is dangerous no matter what.
Eisenhower used military-industrial complex as a bad word. Nowadays, though, it’s not really a bad word. How’d that connotation get changed? I’ll tell you what I think happened. Like any special interest, one significant department of the military-industrial complex is its PR department. It has not been lost on the complex that you have to keep the public happy with their existence. One way is keeping people frightened. So there are all these think tanks and messengers of doom who say we need to be ever vigilant against those who wish us ill. It keeps the public jumpy and supportive of quick-fix answers to deep-seated, complex global problems. … There was also a campaign to demonstrate to the American public that it is out of military machinations that our modern luxuries come—that TV came from radar; that when you fly a Boeing luxury airliner, its technology came from the military. That it has military pedigree is a kind of blackmail. … They’re saying, “Did you know you wouldn’t be driving that car if it weren’t for the war we fight?” … I’m not saying they’re invalid; it’s just that one of the dangers of the military-industrial complex is that militarization weaves its way into everyday life until everything becomes militarized.
I was at a Fourth of July parade, and two F-14 fighters roared over the crowd and did acrobatics. They weren’t invited by my town, and they weren’t invited by my county. They were sent by the federal government to parade by and scare and delight the masses with the power of our arsenal. I wished the crowd would understand the agonizing tragedy of this, but then they erupt in a cheer. So now I am surrounded by people who are cheering a weapon of incredible destruction. … Now we celebrate our independence from the presence of [British colonial] troops at peacetime by cheering the presence of [American contemporary] troops among us at peacetime. Can you imagine a greater tragedy?
How much is the current situation in Israel a direct result of us selling weapons to them? I think that the private inner motivations of the military, industrial, and political elites in Washington gave birth to this war as part of the larger Bush doctrine for what they call a “one-superpower world.” In the bigger picture, all that this group has done is to magnify the sense in the world that might makes right. … George Bush doesn’t own a copyright on misleading people into war, but this war is in the most delicate part of the world possible, especially with issues related to resource control on an ever-shrinking planet.
We have sent a signal to the Middle East that there is a division between them and us, and that Israel is on the “us” side of it. Of course, that exacerbates tensions. … All of that lawlessness by the American body politic encourages lawlessness elsewhere. … Hezbollah should act lawlessly, Israel should act lawlessly, Kim Jong Il should act lawlessly. … We have now indicated to the Arab world … that attacking Israel might be a good idea. To the Israelis, we said if you want to take the law into your own hands, do it. We’re simultaneously giving these mixed signals to both sides … and it’s so heartbreaking, because America didn’t invent democracy; we inherited it from other countries. We are having our moment; we are carrying the torch for global hopes for democracy. But in this period of carrying the torch, we’re damaging the idea of democracy by mingling it with the interests of big business. “Having it your way” at Burger King has essentially become our version of democracy. … The fundamental set of problems we have on our hands is that of a republic becoming an empire. We are a superpower of unprecedented proportions: We have 860 military bases in 130 foreign countries today. Combine that with our economic, political, and cultural footprint—Rome never dreamt of that.
How do we fix it? In his farewell address, Eisenhower talked about an alert and knowledgeable citizenry. Ultimately, it’s the people who, during the darkness, become the force for change. They become dissatisfied and disillusioned. … I don’t think it will be pitchforks in the streets, but the American people need to become engaged in a massive way.
It seems that since Eisenhower warned us, we kind of jumped off the cliff. It’s been a bit deranged and a bit tragic. We need to recognize that the necessary purity of our system of checks and balances is being compromised by the unchecked growth and influence of special interests over the policy-making decisions of the country.
Are you an optimist, or are we too far down the road to fix this? I think we are extremely far down the road, and if people don’t treat this and the environment as emergencies, they won’t have a democracy or a planet to speak of.
4•1•1 Why We Fightscreens Wednesday, July 26, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535.