Why We Fight

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Eugene Jarecki

Eugene Jarecki made a name for himself on the art-house circuit a few years back with The Trials of Henry Kissinger, a stinging indictment of the former secretary of state as an architect and instrument of President Nixon’s rapacious foreign policy. But in talking with audiences at screenings, Jarecki began to feel his 2002 film had missed the mark. “I was surprised how much people wanted to talk about Henry Kissinger the man rather than the system he represents,” he says in press notes for his new film, Why We Fight. “This time, I wanted to make a film that would not offer a simple villain, but instead invite viewers to look more broadly at the system itself.”

Why We Fight makes good on this ambition, opening with President Eisenhower’s prophetic 1961 farewell speech, in which he identified the military-industrial complex as a threat to democratic governance, and following this premise through 9/11 and the Iraq war. Jarecki looks at the arms industry’s cozy relationship with Congress and visits one of the neocon think tanks where the Bush Doctrine was hatched. He revisits Dick Cheney’s career with Halliburton and the administration’s massaging of the facts in the case against Saddam Hussein. He listens respectfully to political commentators both right (Richard Perle, William Kristol, John McCain) and left (Gore Vidal, Charles Lewis, Dan Rather) as they review 60 years of American realpolitik and weigh in on the current conflict. But replacing the villain at the movie’s core are a half-dozen private individuals Jarecki picked up along the way, and their very human relationships with America’s military machine demonstrate the depth of the problem.

Jarecki borrowed his title from the series of short indoctrination films Frank Capra directed for the U.S. military during World War II. For Capra the title was a statement, and a decidedly uncritical one. (“This isn’t just a war,” a narrator announces in one short. “This is a common man’s struggle against those who would put him back into slavery.”) Jarecki turns the title into a question, posing it to nearly everyone he interviews and providing a much-needed through line for his bulging narrative. “We fight for the principle of self-determination,” President Johnson declares in a speech about Vietnam. “We fight because it’s necessary, and because it’s right,” says smiley Bill Kristol. But those are the short answers. The long one, articulated mostly by author and CIA vet Chalmers Johnson (Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire), is that we fight because our domestic economy has been structured around war since World War II.

But for some of the people drafted into the film, the answer to Jarecki’s question lies closer to home. Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City cop, recalls riding the elevated train into the city from Queens the morning of 9/11. Jarecki combines his voice-over with footage of Sekzer on the train itself, re-creating down to the screech of the wheels the moment when the train turned a corner

and Sekzer first glimpsed the World Trade Center belching black smoke. “I’m just thinking to myself, How did my son get out of there? Well, I don’t know how, but he got out of there. There’s no two ways about that. He can’t be in there. Because anybody who’s in there is gonna die.” After a clip of President Bush’s bullhorn moment at Ground Zero, Sekzer tells Jarecki, “Somebody had to pay for this. Somebody had to pay for 9/11. I want the enemy dead. I want to see their bodies stacked up for what they did, for taking my son.”

If Sekzer’s motivated by misplaced vengeance, 23-year-old William Solomon is simply misplaced. His mother’s recent death has left him without any family, and he’s enlisted in the army because it’s the only way he can support himself and go to college–there’s a poignant sequence in which he packs up his cheap knickknacks, with their childhood memories, and takes them to a storage center before shipping out. On-screen the recruiter who signed Solomon up confides that it’s hard to win the recruits’ trust. But as Jarecki revealed during a recent local appearance, cadets at a West Point screening of Why We Fight laughed aloud at some of Solomon’s mistaken impressions about what he’d be doing in the army.

Fluidly edited by Nancy Kennedy, Why We Fight interweaves these personal stories not only with history but with one another, yielding some choice ironies. A clip of President Johnson announcing attacks against two American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin–attacks that, though the second was later disproved, were the basis for the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam–introduces Sekzer’s memories of serving as a helicopter door gunner in that war. “From the perspective of a helicopter,” he says, “you’re up x-number hundreds of feet, and you’re shooting at little dots that are running around. You’re not shooting at somebody face-to-face. It’s almost like they’re not real human beings. They’re objects.” From here Jarecki introduces Ahn Duong, who came to the U.S. at age 15 after her family was evacuated from Saigon in April 1975. Her story might seem like a facile rebuke to Sekzer if not for the fact that she’s now a navy explosives expert, part of the team that developed the “bunker-buster” bombs heralded at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Not every character pays off emotionally: Jarecki’s treatment of two U.S. fighter pilots who ran the first bombing mission of Operation Iraqi Freedom is notably stilted. Identified only as Fuji and Tooms, they recount their secret mission but shrug off the question of why they fight. “It’s not ours to decide,” says one. “We do what we’re told.” Jarecki ultimately yanks the rug out from under them with statistics and footage from Iraq indicating that scores of civilians were killed by U.S. precision weapons in the early days of the war. The point may be valid, but it feels rhetorical.

More effective are those characters with an actual story arc–like Sekzer, who responded to Bush’s assertion of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link by asking the military to inscribe his son’s name on a weapon headed for Iraq. In no short time he got a message reporting that a 2,000-pound guided bomb had been dropped in loving memory of his son and “met with 100 percent success.” When the president later denied any link between Iraq and 9/11, Sekzer was stunned. “The government exploited my feelings of patriotism, of a deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son,” he says. “But I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything.” Asked if he regrets his request, Sekzer is forced into the excruciating position of parroting the administration’s line: “No, because I acted under the conditions at that time. Was it wrong? It was wrong, but I didn’t know that.”

The last of Jarecki’s key subjects, Karen Kwiatkowski, recounts similar disillusionment. Now retired, she was a lieutenant colonel in the air force working for the Pentagon when it was hit on 9/11. “It was a very dramatic and terrible thing,” she says. “And it does change your perspective. But the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism.” Of the private individuals Jarecki brought into the film, Kwiatkowski has been the most public; since stepping down as an officer on the Iraq Desk in April 2003 she’s made the rounds of national media alleging that the Pentagon’s Iraq intelligence was manipulated by a group of neoconservative Cheney appointees calling themselves the Office of Special Plans (her charges were dismissed by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence).

Despite Jarecki’s varied success in bringing these six people’s stories to life, their stories personalize our current geopolitical predicament and remind us that in a democracy no one can shrug off responsibility for the war. When Jarecki heads into flyover country for some quick man-on-the-street interviews, the answers he gets are obscenely disengaged. “I think we fight for ideals and for what we believe in,” says one man, glancing nervously at the camera. “I hope that’s what it is.” Another replies, “I’m not sure if we’re fighting for the oil or not. We could be, we could not be. The government has more knowledge than I know.” Perhaps if more people had to sacrifice life and limb–or sacrifice anything at all–the reasons to fight, or not, would register more clearly.

Why We Fight

Where: Landmark’s Century Centre & Century 12 and CineArts 6

When: Daily