Guns + money

In his alarming documentary Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki uses Eisenhower's dire warning about the military-industrial complex to shed light on our country's current war

THIS MEANS WAR Jarecki's film shows how the hell we got into this mess.

On January 17, 1961, shortly before John F. Kennedy was about to be sworn in as chief executive, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his final address as President of the United States. The speech was a review of the nation's place in the world at mid-century, and though Eisenhower had little doubt about America's strength, he was troubled by what he saw as the potential cost of that power. "We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments indus-try of vast proportions," he said. "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

Those words are the point of departure for filmmaker Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, his analysis of the forces that have driven American defense policy since the '50s. Jarecki's thesis: The danger Eisenhower warned against has come to pass. "We are moving toward imperial dominion," the director says animatedly, sitting at the Library Bar of the Hudson Hotel. He likewise argues that domestic needs have dramatically taken a backseat to the demands of the Pentagon and its enablers.

While far-reaching, the movie is grounded in the stories of individual Americans, including that of Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City cop and Vietnam vet who lost a son in the World Trade Center attacks. Sekzer's political perspective is central to the film, and his evolution gives Jarecki hope. "I do not believe the republic is dead," the filmmaker insists, "and I won't believe that until all the people are dead."

Time Out New York: What led you to make Why We Fight?
Eugene Jarecki: My previous film, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, which I thought was very much a look at foreign policy, was often perceived by audiences as a story of a simple villain. It gave the audience a chance to feel, "Phew, for a minute there, I thought my society was in trouble! Thank God it's just Henry Kissinger!" I didn't want to take the risk again. And so a film that looks deeply and inwardly at the system itself was something I had to do.

TONY: The title, Why We Fight, is taken from a film series that Frank Capra directed for the Pentagon during the Second World War. But you use it ironically, since your documentary suggests that we no longer have any reason to fight wars, other than to support a permanent defense establishment.
EJ: If Frank Capra made Why We Fight today, he'd make the film I made. He was a devoted believer in democracy, and as a filmmaker, he was always on the lookout for preserving the power of the individual, the struggle of the every-day person trying to have a voice amid the big players—like Mr. Potter and his designs to turn good old Bedford Falls into Pottersville in It's a Wonderful Life. If Capra were to see America today, he would see our democracy in peril.

TONY: What happened?
EJ: At the end of World War II, we became the world's central power, and it was perfectly under-standable—given the ravages of totalitarianism—to have thought, It's better to have the world controlled by a caring America. But what came with that choice was a permanent military apparatus. It's what George Washington warned against when he talked about standing armies leading to empires. And it's what Dwight Eisenhower meant by coining the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address: a set of interests so great and overpowering that they simply outmuscle the other influences that are supposed to shape a democratic state.

TONY: You begin and end with Eisenhower. Wasn't he an architect of the very thing he warned against?
EJ: Eisenhower is a remarkable figure. Basically, he emerges as the hero of World War II, advocating military industrialization in the late 1940s, saying that the real lesson of the war had been industry helping our military prevail. But by the end of his presidency, he saw the dangers that come with that.

TONY: Why was his warning ignored back then, and why is it still being ignored?
EJ: Eisenhower's address was exactly the kind of moment that the status quo hates, so it was inconvenient for the powerful to make much of that speech. It was left to the public to do what they could with it. But the only thing we can really do anything about is Congress, and in fact, in the original draft of his speech, Eisenhower had written the "military-industrial-congressional complex." Congress provides the money for defense and votes on going to war. But in remov-ing the word from his speech—he wanted to leave office in a spirit of bipartisanship—he pulled a punch, leaving the public unable to connect Congress to the role it plays in making the military-industrial complex possible.

TONY: You interview people who, I imagine, disagree with your views—neocons William Kristol and Richard Perle—and yet you portray them as being quite cogent.
EJ: I belong to the old school of documentary making, in which you're tough on your friends and easy on your adversaries. Otherwise, the audience leaves the theater feeling that they were just being manipulated.

TONY: Are documentaries today manipulative? I guess I'm thinking of Michael Moore.
EJ: There's a boom happening in documentaries. Why? Because the public is looking at documentaries to fill a void left by two things: a failure of imagination coming out of Hollywood and a simultaneous collapse of public trust in mainstream journalism. What Michael Moore does in a film is not what I do. But he inspired many filmmakers to become engaged in politics. The cost factor for Moore is that as he fights fire with fire; it's necessary for him to cut corners with the proof sometimes. I know that if I want to make my film more entertaining, it often requires some departure from the simple truth of something. The danger is, if documentaries are going to be looked to more and more to satisfy the public's need for information, there comes a very delicate balancing act for the filmmaker between satisfying the demands of entertainment and being true to the subject at hand.

TONY: You mentioned how people thought of Kissinger as being the villain of your last film. Eisenhower is obviously the hero of this one, but what do you make of George W. Bush?
EJ: There's an old expression: You can boil a frog in warm water and he doesn't know he's been cooked. For a long time, this country was being boiled in warm water, moving toward the right in baby steps. What the Bush administration did was take that low simmer the country's been on since Richard Nixon and ratchet it up to volcanic levels. By doing so, the pot has boiled over. We probably owe Mr. Bush a debt of gratitude, because he's forced the country to confront a glimpse of what the world looks like if you let the forces of corporatism and profiteering run rampant over the delicate structure of democracy. The world looks like Fallujah; the world looks like New Orleans.

TONY: The world looks like Pottersville?
EJ: Yes. And the question is, are we going to wake up and discover that Bedford Falls is still possible, or are we stuck in Pottersville forever?

Why We Fight opens January 20.