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Why We Fight

military-industrial complex

Documentary by Eugene Jarecki

What are the forces that shape and propel American militarism? This award-winning film provides an inside look at the anatomy of the American war machine. Is American foreign policy dominated by the idea of military supremacy? Has the military become too important in American life? Jarecki's shrewd & intelligent polemic would seem to give an affirmative answer to each of these questions


(click to watch the video in a seperate RealPlayer)
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Eugene Jarecki


Thursday 3 March 2005

Eugene Jarecki's previous film The Trials of Henry Kissinger was widely acclaimed and won the 2002 Amnesty International Award. He spoke to us from New York about making Why We Fight and his concerns about America.

BBC Four: What was the spark for such an ambitious film?
Eugene Jarecki: It really followed on from the experience we had making The Trials of Henry Kissinger. That film came out in about 130 US cities, and in every one I met with audiences and talked about the film. I thought I had made a film about US foreign policy but the audiences seemed to be most interested in talking about Henry Kissinger the man. To me, that felt politically impotent because the forces that are driving American foreign policy are so much larger than any one man. With the next film I wanted to go further - I didn't want to stop at an easy villain or a simple scapegoat. I wanted to have a much more holistic approach that really took on the whole system.

BBC Four: Did the film become bigger in scope than you initially imagined?
EJ: I didn't expect it to be this ambitious when we started out. I knew we were making something called Why We Fight, and I knew I was going to try to look deep at the heart of America's predilection for war. But I did not know what an extraordinarily tangled web the American military landscape is. You also underestimate people. I originally thought that I'd just talk to a few people and get their viewpoints, but before long their viewpoints became stories that drive the film. So the film ended up combining these critical viewpoints with an emphasis on story and the human cost of war. When that started to happen I think the film became a more far-reaching enterprise than anyone of us had anticipated.

BBC Four: The two characters that stand out for me are Wilton Sekzer, the former New York cop and Anh Duong, the Vietnamese-born munitions expert. What were you looking for in your interviews with everyday people?
EJ: All of the characters in the film undergo journeys in their understanding. The more I learn about systems and how they internally appear unchangeable, the more you look to people to bring about change.

The only way that happens is that the understanding of the people themselves changes. If a viewer can see a man on screen, like Wilton, who after losing his son in 9/11, comes to understand that the extraordinary patriotism and downright hawkishness of his youth was misguided, and turns in another direction, that's the kind of learning I think everyone should Wilton Sekzer
Wilton Sekzer, retired NY cop
seek. It inspires one to remember that there is the prospect for change.

Anh Duong on the other side is someone, who having been a refugee from Vietnam, becomes one of the leading bomb makers in the United States. Her path from victim of war to someone engaged in the implementation of war is extraordinary. Is she right? I don't really look for that. I look for people who say things that are arresting, who you may not necessarily agree with, but who you also can't just dismiss. So the characters in general in the film all come from a pretty counter-intuitive place where I really look to show people in their full complexity.

BBC Four: How did you tackle the structure of the film when you started editing?
EJ: The challenge was to have the past haunt the present and make sure the stories carry the viewer on a real journey. I guess what I do is to make the scenery of the journey the historical context itself. For example, to understand Wilton's story, a retired cop who lost his son on 9/11, you have to understand his role as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, and then when you are with him in Vietnam you start to understand the context of government deception of how the United States got launched into the Vietnam War and the lies told by President Johnson about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Then along the edges you've got people weighing in who are thoughtful about the subject in a discourse that's meant to be a debate. It's not meant to present one side of the argument but really to give many shades of the story so the audience can find their own way as the journey unfolds.

BBC Four: There isn't an obvious villain of the piece, but I wonder if it's the US Congress?
EJ: One of the things that the film focuses on is the extraordinary prophesy issued by Dwight D Eisenhower in his last moments as president. He warned the American public of this "military-industrial complex" - a confluence of power that he saw as a threat to democracy itself. The film asks to what extent have the military-industrial interests, once a by-product of policy, come to define the policy itself? Eisenhower's children told me that the president's warning had not originally been worded "military-industrial complex". The original formulation was "military-industrial-congressional complex". That was dropped from the final draft, but it represents the fullness of his concern - that only with the collusion of members of Congress could the apparatus of the defence sector grow to wag the dog.
At this point in American history Congress is silent. It is supposed be the part of government that protects the weak from the strong but Congress is very much on the payroll of the strong. One thing to recognise for a
British audience, and I think it's crucial, is that if an American turns on the television and watches Prime Minister's Questions, it's a demonstration of accountability that we do not have in the United States. You will never see an American politician open to questions at the level that Tony Blair is during that hour each Wednesday. Why We Fight: Capra
Frank Capra's Why We Fight
Whatever British people might think about their own government, that is a massive leap toward democracy compared to what we have here. Also, the MPs in the House of Commons, by and large, appear to be socially and economically, not poor, but not enormously wealthy people. If you look at the members of Congress and the Senate, you are often looking at multi-millionaires. Their lives are inextricably interwoven with the life of the financial elite in America and it's difficult to differentiate the interests after a while.

BBC Four: It's interesting that a man like Eisenhower, a World War II general and early Cold War warrior, was himself so concerned.
EJ: Eisenhower seemed a key figure for me because as a military person he was a balanced man and had what turns out to have been a very holistic and thorough understanding of what he was doing. But it wasn't lost on me that he was an almost pioneering actor in American covert action throughout the world, he was responsible for a number of the steps that led to the Vietnam War, and certainly he had his share of serious engagements. But it does in its own perverse way give him a certain credibility to come and say, "Hey - even a guy like me has got to think twice about this. I can't slow this machine down and if I can't no one can". But I would say a society is far gone into militarism when it looks to its militarists to be the critics of the military!

BBC Four: You ask members of the public, "Why do we fight?" Were the replies what you expected?
EJ: No. We must have asked about 150 people all over the country that and other questions. For over 120 of the people, their very first word was "freedom". It's fine that people do want to feel that that's what we are fighting for, but you have to ask yourself what kind of open society are we living in with that consistency of response. I think it's a knee-jerk reaction. If you were living in a state-controlled society how would it be any different? I trust people, I just think that the powerful media that we have is incredibly manipulative. It's unprecedented.

BBC Four: There are a lot of big documentaries around at the moment. Are there any you'd pick to be on a double bill with?
EJ: In a sense I'd want to double bill the film with a competent piece of testimony that is very much opposed to what is in my film, but it's hard for me to say. Basically you want to go dancing afterwards, internalise it and let off steam after seeing it. Either that or picket in the street. But I think the movies in the past bunch of years that I've been most taken by are those that were not afraid of treating their audience respectfully. I think that's what's very special about Adam Curtis' films [Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares]. He obviously has a very high regard for the attention span and intellect of his viewer. He doesn't pull any punches about that and I think that's great. The essayist style that is unafraid to be opinionated is exactly where documentaries are carrying the torch that was once carried by journalists. I think it's a great time to be working in documentary and help promote the kind of discourse I am interested in seeing.


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