Fighting for Money

A Chat with Eugene Jarecki, Director of Why We
Fight

by Matt Kettmann

EugeneJarecki.jpg 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.

eisenhower.jpgThis 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.”

soldier.jpg 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.

dept_defense.jpgI 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.

running_soldiers.jpgWe 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.

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