It wasn't so long ago that the term "military-industrial complex" sounded really scary and secretive, like something from "The X-Files" or an Oliver Stone movie.
When President Eisenhower used the phrase in his 1961 farewell address, he was issuing a warning against the dangers of a large standing army, especially the kind needed to protect a vast empire. Little did he know that across 45 years, it would evolve from a favorite catchphrase of the counterculture, complete with conspiracy-theory overtones, to being an uninflected description of the power structure of the United States in 2006.
In his incisive documentary "Why We Fight," filmmaker Eugene Jarecki ("The Trials of Henry Kissinger") begins with Eisenhower's speech as he looks for answers to the implied question of his title (which he borrows, along with some footage, from the Frank Capra World War II propaganda series). Jarecki is painstaking in his dissection of the subject as he poses the question to a host of people, from pundits and policymakers to regular folks at a Fourth of July celebration, particularly as it applies to the current conflict in Iraq, and gets an equally diverse batch of answers. Freedom and democracy are popular, but power and oil also crop up. Some argue that at times war is unavoidable while others contend that we've developed a permanent war-driven economy.
A parade of sound bites lays out American foreign policy from President Kennedy to the second President Bush, and Jarecki masterfully maps the simultaneously expanding militarism, first as a reaction to the growth of communism and later propelled by the war on terrorism. Congress' complicity in the buildup completes the triangle, and it is pointed out that military contracts are dispersed across all 50 states, virtually ensuring supportive politicians will be unwilling to upset their constituents.
In its size and complexity the triangle begins to resemble an amorphous monster, like the alien in "Predator," but Jarecki establishes a spirited debate in defining it. Neocons such as Richard Perle and William Kristol make the case for preemptive warfare as a reasonable post-Sept. 11 strategy, and Kristol acknowledges that the Bush Doctrine would likely have come to be even without the attacks. Liberal author Gore Vidal cites President Truman's use of the atomic bomb on Japan as the nexus in America's turn toward using its might for power and intimidation, while Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity contends there is an innate struggle between democracy and capitalism and the government's increasing obligation to corporations.
The most unsettling thing in the movie may be that the "military-industrial complex" has seemingly become an accepted phenomenon. No one here is denying that there exists a multifarious relationship between corporations and investment firms such as Halliburton and the Carlyle Group with the U.S. military and Congress. Perle downplays any hint of scandal in the affiliations, and Lewis points out that it's all legal.
Jarecki effectively offsets the talking heads and war footage with three stories that tie the film together, providing a structure. Giving the audience a sense of the high-tech military in action -- your tax dollars at work -- the filmmaker illustrates the tense countdown to the start of the Iraq invasion with interviews with the two Stealth fighter pilots who fired the opening shots of the conflict. He humanizes the film through the experiences of a retired New York City policeman and Vietnam vet who lost his son in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and a young man who, despite his mother's objections, joins the Army because of financial difficulties.
The long line of recent muckraking documentaries that has preceded "Why We Fight" does nothing to diminish its force. Nor does the time elapsed since its debut at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won a grand jury documentary prize, for the last 12 months have been full of revelations that generally add to the film's persuasiveness. Jarecki's well-argued, if demoralizing, documentary is a thoughtful discussion of current U.S. foreign policy and lessons not learned. It may not be the words of Eisenhower nor Washington that are needed now but rather a reversal of what historian Chalmers Johnson bemoans as a lack of the "eternal vigilance" that Thomas Jefferson said was the price of freedom.
`Why We Fight'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing war images and brief language
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Eugene Jarecki. Producers Eugene Jarecki, Susannah Shipman. Executive producers Roy Ackerman, Nicholas Fraser. Editor Nancy Kennedy. Music Robert Miller. Camera Etienne Sauret, May Ying Welsh. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In selected theaters.