The History Place - Movie Review

Why We Fight

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Why We Fight is the movie Michael Moore would have made if he weren't so flamboyant. Writer-Director Eugene Jerecki's first-rate documentary won recognition at the Sundance Film Festival last year, but you'll still have to hunt hard, if you want to see it. In Greater Philadelphia, where I live, only one art-film house in downtown Philly is screening it.

That's too bad, because you should want to see it. Why We Fight, which steals its title from the famous Frank Capra WWII propaganda films, frames the debate about what Ike called "the military-industrial complex." The debaters include neocons such as Richard Perle and William Kristol and gadfly-novelist Gore Vidal (who once upon a time was sued by conservative icon William F. Buckley for labeling him a Neo-Nazi on a national TV talk show).

Positioning President Eisenhower's farewell address at the start of Why We Fight, Jerecki sets up his thesis that America's many armed incursions of the past half century were driven by a demand to feed the beast, built initially to match the Soviet Union stride for stride in the Cold War. Proponents of pax Americana like Kristol and Perle actually get a good deal less than equal time with critics of the war in Iraq. Vidal calls our country "the United States of Amnesia," complaining that "We don't remember anything before Monday morning," meaning, of course, that we've forgotten the lessons of Vietnam. Jerecki's bottom line is that we the people are systematically deceived into going to war by a triumvirate of government, corporate and think-tank war lords, who work hand-in-hand to keep our armed forces and our arms industry lavishly funded and frequently flexed.

While the film makes some impressive points, one might fairly accuse it of suffering from the same sort of amnesia about which Gore Vidal complains. Undeniably, U.S. forces have found themselves in "police actions," coup d'etats, garrison duties, and red-hot shooting wars all over the world--from Korea in the late forties and early fifties right down to present-day Iraq. But, for better or worse, this is nothing new in American history, as author Max Boot brilliantly documents in his 2002 book The Savage Wars of Peace. Boot, who was at the Council on Foreign Relations when he published his book, chronicles America's small, undeclared wars from the early 19th century onward. Despite George Washington's warning to avoid foreign entanglements, Thomas Jefferson started the Tripolitan War by dispatching a naval squadron in pursuit of Barbary pirates without so much as a "by your leave" in the direction of Capitol Hill.

Want to talk about an incursion without an exit strategy? Boot brings in the Nicaraguan intervention, which garrisoned that banana republic from 1926 to 1933. Pre-World War II, Uncle Sam's soldiers and marines spent a total of 23 years in Nicaragua, 19 in Haiti, 44 in the Philippines, and--the mother of all garrison operations--nearly a century securing American interests in China.

Should we then be surprised that last week President Bush made headline news, when he revealed that some US forces may very well remain in Iraq when he leaves office in January 2009? I think not. After all, as Jerecki documents, more than just the American military machine relies upon a steady stream of petroleum. Almost every one of us is equally dependent on petro-products, especially gasoline. Would anyone seriously contend that protecting the most significant source of oil is not in the national interest? And if you are determined to stabilize the Middle East, you have to pay attention to the three biggest players there: Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

As a colleague of mine at Rider University, Mid-East expert Dr. Jonathan Mendilow points out, America's hopes that a radical Iran would die with the Ayatollah Khomeini have been dashed. Saudi Arabia, he adds, is an arcane kingdom doomed to fall sooner or later; a US incursion into a radicalized Arabia is probably a practical impossibility, because the desert kingdom is home to the most sacred Muslim shrines. Policy makers sharing Mendilow's assessment might understandably conclude that Iraq is the linchpin of a secure Mid-Eastern oil source. This theory, while difficult to prove without confirmation from Bush White House insiders, explains the absence of an exit strategy in 2003: America has no present intent to leave.

Seen in the context of America's small-war history, this explanation seems still more credible. The sad fact, which Why We Fight is at its best in documenting--notably through the eyes of a retired New York policeman who lost a son on 9/11, is that from the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 to the weapons-of-mass-destruction debacle of 2003, our leaders apparently feel that we the people won't embrace our pragmatic geopolitical interests unless they come packaged in the American flag.

Rated PG-13 - For disturbing war images and language.

Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and lawyer, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.

Why We Fight - Official Website
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