Monday, March 22, 2010

Film Review: "Why We Fight"


Perhaps the great paradox of this age it that more information is available to more people than at any time in history and yet the nature of power remains a mystery. Eugene Jarecki's documentary,Why We Fight, is an attempt to understand post 9/11 foreign policy. It is on one level an examination of the military-industrial complex and on another level a critique of the American empire. The right questions are raised but it takes on a little too much - not necessarily a bad thing.

The title is a play on the Why We Fight propaganda series produced by Frank Capra during the Second World War. America's contribution defeating fascism is celebrated as the last "good war." Because every war since remains shrouded in moral ambiguity - to the "Forgotten War" in Korea (1950-53) to the Vietnam War (1965-73) all the way up to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - it is a relevant question. The Iraq war and reasons for the invasion are the film's primary focus. While never straying into Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 territory, it is highly critical of the Bush administration (2001-09). And that may date the film somewhat since Iraq appears to be heading towards stability. Few will remember the imbroglio over weapons of mass destruction, but the film dwells on it. History will be kinder to Bush and Company, as is often the case with polarizing presidencies.

But it's all part of a much larger and complex story. Let's start with the military-industrial complex. On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the world changed. The use of a weapon with the ability to destroy an entire city marked the culmination of America's transformation from an industrial juggernaut to a military superpower. Historians refer to this as the birth of the National Security State, a nation on a permanent wartime footing, ready for war anytime, anywhere, or anyhow. So far for five decades America competed with Soviet Union and pushing the world to the brink the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis - that was the Cold War.

Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, is the film's unlikely hero. Unlikely in the sense that in the 1950s Eisenhower was viewed as the incarnation of bland conformity of that decade. Cultural critics, most notably the historian Richard Hofstadter, ridiculed Eisenhower's apparent lack of intellectual curiosity in his classic book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hindsight has proved his critics wrong on most counts. For eight years he kept the peace and negotiated an end to the Korean War. In 1957, Eisenhower ordered the 101st airborne to enforce school integration laws in Little Rock, Arkansas, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. In his farewell address he issued a warning about the growing ties between the military and financial establishments and their influence on congress.
Now to jump ahead to 2010. The Cold War is over. We now live in post-Cold War age and no one really understands it. At millennium's end American seemed untouchable and at the height of its power. Then came the 2000 election, 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and finally economic collapse. So, what happened?

Why We Fight blames the Neoconservatives for just about everything. To their credit, they interview prominent Neocons like Richard Perle and William Kristol to give the opposing view. So, just what do Neoconservatives believe? In a nutshell, American foreign policy must foster the spread of democracy - even through war if necessary. They were the primary advocates of the Iraq war and were later blamed for the chaotic months after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. That angle may date the film since the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically in the past five years.

Despite its somewhat biased viewpoint the film raises some pertinent questions. The viewer hears multiple viewpoints from a diverse group of people. Jarecki calls for a more informed public that is more engaged with politics as the only way to preserve democracy - and that is sound. That is preferable alternative to falling into the abyss of conspiracy theories that only confuse people by their easy answers (but I will admit they are creative). It remains unclear, however, just what the film sees as America's proper role in the world - leave everyone alone? Despite all the anti-Americanism prevalent at home and abroad, America will always have its ideals and it is troubling to imagine a world where no nation carries those values.