'Why We Fight," the new film by Eugene Jarecki which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is an unflinching look at the anatomy of the American war machine, weaving unforgettable personal stories with commentary by a "who's who" of military and beltway insiders. Featuring John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol, Chalmers Johnson, Richard Perle and others, 'Why We Fight' launches a bipartisan inquiry into the workings of the military industrial complex and the rise of the American Empire.
Inspired by Dwight Eisenhower's legendary farewell speech (in which he coined the phrase "military industrial complex"), filmmaker Jarecki ("The Trials of Henry Kissinger") surveys the scorched landscape of a half-century's military adventures, asking how - and telling why - a nation of, by, and for the people has become the savings-and-loan of a system whose survival depends on a state of constant war.
The film moves beyond the headlines of various American military operations to the deeper questions of why - why does America fight? What are the forces - political, economic, ideological - that drive us to fight against an ever-changing enemy?
"Frank Capra made a series of films during World War II called 'Why We Fight' that explored America's reasons for entering the war," Jarecki notes. "Today, with our troops engaged in Iraq and elsewhere for reasons far less clear, I think it's crucial to ask the questions: 'Why are we doing what we are doing? What is it doing to others? And what is it doing to us?'"
Q&A with Director Eugene Jarecki
What is the film about?
The perils of empire. I think the film is ultimately about where America is today, how we got here, and where we are going. For many people, the war in Iraq and the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war seem like a frightening new chapter in the history of US foreign policy. But what I learned in making the film is that where we are today is as much an extension of the past as a departure from it. Since World War II, America has been on a path toward empire. Eisenhower and Washington before him warned us that to build and protect an empire requires standing armies - a permanent military establishment - and that these come to threaten democracy itself. Eisenhower warned of "destroying from within that which you are trying to protect from without."
What compelled you to make the film?
Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address. In his 1961 Farewell Address as President, Dwight Eisenhower surprised everyone when he warned America that a"military-industrial complex" was acquiring national influence that could threaten democracy on a global scale. At a time of exploding defence profits and when an unprecedented number of people inside the government hail from former posts at defence contractors, I wanted to investigate whether Eisenhower's fears have come to pass.
WHY WE FIGHT was actually the title of a series of films made by Frank Capra during World War II. Why did you borrow the title?
To connect past and present. After Pearl Harbour, Frank Capra was asked to make a series of films examining America's reasons for entering World War II. Back then, the reasons were clear - fascism, genocide, oppression, Today, if you ask people why we are fighting in Iraq, I think the reasons are far less clear. So much has changed about how Americans see themselves and our role in the world. If Frank Capra asked his question today, I wondered, what would they look like? PS We didn't just borrow Capra's title. In some cases we also borrowed beautiful images from his films to portray America from that time.
There are a number of people whose stories are told in the film. Who are they and what interested you about them?
They are part of America's military family. People are the victims of war, but they are also its perpetrators. At every level, from the White House to the defence factory to the front line, it is people that make wars happen. So looking at why America fights would be incomplete without portraying the stories of people whose lives are interwoven in the American war machine - from its dreamers to its disillusioned. There are a handful of characters in the film and, without giving the surprises in their stories, I can say that each of them had a unique twist that drew me to them - something I didn't expect that made me rethink my preconceptions.
What do you most want people to take away from the film?
A sense of urgency. Americans today are at a crossroads. With the public deeply divided over the Iraq war and a number of domestic issues, people across the political spectrum are examining more closely than ever America's identity at home and abroad. These people - what Eisenhower called an "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" - have more in common than they think. Real change is not made or broken by who wins a given election or scores short-term points. Rather, it comes when people look closely at how they are governed and what their society represents.
What was the greatest challenge in making the film?
After making my last film The Trials of Henry Kissinger, I travelled to theatres across the country to talk to audiences and answer questions. I was surprised how much people wanted to talk about Henry Kissinger the man rather than the system he represents.
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 America is systemically geared to fight wars is a far deeper issue than the particular actions of any one person.
But it is a real challenge - as I discovered - to make a film without a villain. People like to have someone they can love to hate. But the problem is that too often the villain you choose is really a proxy for a system that itself needs repair. Stopping at the villain - whether it's Henry Kissinger, George Bush or anyone - is stopping short. It may feel satisfying. But it is politically impotent.
This has very much been a year of political documentaries. How does WHY WE FIGHT figure in this trend?
It has been a big year for docs. But a lot of the films that have gotten the most recognition were very focused on the 2004 American election. Now that it's over, I am hoping that WHY WE FIGHT can be part of a new wave of films that can move to deeper questions that haven't gone away - questions that go beyond one election cycle.
The film covers a number of highly sensitive subjects. How did you get access?
Early on in the process, we were given approval by the Department of Defence to interview people up and down the chain of command. Once we got access, we discovered - no surprise - that people want to tell their story. At times, I found the people we spoke to in the military wonderfully candid. Sometimes people who see the film ask me "did you tell people what the movie was about?" I say I always did when asked, but often, the military personnel didn't ask too many questions. I think many in the military feel they are fighting for freedom - including the freedom of a documentary maker to explore a sensitive subject of his choice. So in a way, if they would have to ask me what I am doing, then what are they fighting for?
Have any of the characters in the film seen it? What was their reaction?
Only one of the characters in the film has actually seen it. In general, making a documentary, I am careful for journalistic reasons about showing characters the material until it is finished. The only character to whom I showed the film before it was finished was Wilton Sekzer, a former NY City Policeman who lost his son on 9/11. The film partly tells the story of Wilton's immense emotional struggle in the wake of his loss. Because the material is so sensitive and so deeply personal to him and because he had put so much faith in me to handle his story caringly, I felt compelled to show him the film before others would see it. I was enormously gratified when he told me he thought the film did justice to his experience and to his desire to memorialize his son. I was overjoyed when Wilton and his family decided to accompany the film to its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
There are also interviews with Iraqis in the film. Why did you include their voices?
In asking the question Why We Fight, I was concerned not only with the viewpoint of Americans as our country conducts a war but also on the perspective of those on the receiving end. When we started conducting interviews in Iraq, we were struck at how textured and surprising the viewpoints of everyday Iraqis were. Their vantage point as war approached was invaluable for enriching the film's perspective on American militarism.
The film's title asks a question. Do you answer it?
Yes and no. My first goal was to ask the question. When you ask Americans why we fight they give reasons that are understandable to them - freedom, democracy, national security. But inside the Pentagon, you discover forces driving the war machine that are so much more textured. This gap between perception and reality is at the heart of WHY WE FIGHT. Of course, there can't be one right answer to a complex question, but my hope was at least to close the gap a bit.
Why do you think we are fighting in Iraq?
Many reasons. There have been so many reasons given for why we are in Iraq - from WMDs to oil, from a democratic crusade to the desire by influential geo-strategists to reassert American global power in the wake of 9/11. None of these answers alone is comprehensive. Rather, I think they're all partially true. The war seems to have been of shared service to a range of interests - a coming together of imperial thinkers, global petroleum concerns, and a culture of militarism that tilts toward/requires war to self-perpetuate. After 9/11 all of these came together to create the almost unexplainable momentum that pushed the country to war.
Description of Key Participants
"Am I sorry I asked for my son's name to be put on the bomb? No, because I acted under the conditions at that time. Was it wrong, yeah it was wrong but I didn't know that. Is it regrettable? "
Wilton Sekzer was a New York City cop for 35 years. On 9/11, his son Jason died in Tower 1 of the World Trade Centre.
He struggled to find a way to do something for his son's memory. Wilton remembered that, as a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam, he used to get requests to write the names of fallen soldiers on bombs dropped on the enemy. Then the President explained that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Wilton got an idea.
He emailed all branches of the armed forces. A simple request from a Vietnam veteran and former NYC cop - could they write his son's name on a bomb to be dropped on Iraq?
To his amazement, Wilton got back an extraordinary stream of e-mail traffic. From privates to sergeants, majors to colonels, the message came back: "Can do. Semper Fi." In a macabre indulgence of the 9/11-Saddam link, the Air Force even enclosed photos of the bomb with the words "In Loving Memory of Jason Sekzer" - together with a full report of its release over targets east of Baghdad.
Months later, as the President maintained he had never suggested a link between Saddam and 9/11, Wilton was incredulous. His patriotism and desire for revenge had been exploited. "Was I wrong," he wondered, "to write my son's name on the bomb?"
Wilton is now retired from the police force and living in Queens, New York. He is involved in 9/11 family groups concerned with improved homeland security.
"These three problems, my mother's death, my financial hardship and my inability to complete my education. All of these problems are gonna be solved by my enlistment in the military."
William, 23, worked a string of chain-store jobs before losing his single mother. She had urged him not to join the military. "Then don't die," he told her. But she did. Alone with mounting debts, William visits an Army recruiter.
His friends think he's crazy, but William signs a 6-year contract, hoping one day to become a pilot. "If my relationship with my recruiter is any indication, I have nothing but high hopes for joining the service."
With his departure date approaching, there is a lot to do. He empties the apartment he shared with his mother, puts childhood mementos into storage, gives back the keys, and tears up the lease.
When the day arrives, William takes a last look at his New York neighbourhood. Wonders if he will miss it. And how his life will change.
On 10 January 2005, Private William Solomon was shipped to Iraq where he will serve for 18 months as a helicopter mechanic.
FUJI and TOOMS
"How many times in a person's life does one get to fire the opening shots in a conflict that will liberate a people?"
As the world waited for "Shock and Awe", the elite Black Sheep stealth fighter wing was on standby at a dusty desert outpost. With a phone call from the Pentagon came a change in plan. Orders from the President. A secret leadership strike. The planes were loaded with state-of-the-art 2000 lb bunker-buster bombs. Pilots Fuji and Tooms took off into the night sky to fire the opening shots of the war.
Their flight was a race against time. Travelling in invisible silence, every second would count and every action was critical. They knew the mission was significant but did not know the target. They were understandably anxious - flying alone over enemy territory as dawn was breaking.
They were confident, though, in the rightness of their mission and the precision of their weapons.
Finally, it's "time over target." With the sun out one window and the moon out the other, they release their payload. Fuji recalls seeing people walking and cars drifting silently along the streets below. Tooms wonders if he hit the only Catholic church in Baghdad.
Home, they are informed that the target of their mission had been "the head of the snake itself" and that intelligence reports suggest a direct hit. Months later, with evidence of significant collateral damage and a missed strike, they will learn firsthand the danger of flawed intelligence - that smart weapons can only be as smart as the intelligence that guides them.
I was in the Pentagon when we got hit. And yes, it does change your perspective. But the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terrorism. That was a huge leap, a manufactured leap, in order to implement a calculated and pre-developed foreign policy."
When Karen Kwiatkowski was assigned to the Pentagon's Iraq Desk in August of 2002, she immediately knew something was wrong. "I could see that war was going to happen. The decision had been made and it was just a matter of bringing the American people up to speed." After twenty-five years in the air force, Karen found herself at the epicentre of America's imperial designs in the Iraq War. Unfamiliar faces were appearing in the halls of the Pentagon - neoconservative civilians appointed by the Vice President.
Karen and other desk officers knew all intelligence on Saddam Hussein. They knew he was judged to be less than a threat. But these civilians had other plans. They were intent on making a case for war against Saddam. Before long, they broke off from the desk officers to form their own office - "the Office of Special Plans." From here, they would forge intelligence to make the case for war. "I thought I was seeing a hijack of our defence policy," Karen recalls. As she looked into it, she discovered firsthand shadowy motives behind America's war on Iraq - geo-strategic goals to stop Saddam from converting his oil supplies to Euro, to establish a broad network of permanent military bases in the oil-rich region, and to qualify American companies for lucrative contracts to rebuild the war-torn country.
As the war began, after a twenty year career in the Armed forces, Karen came to a crossroads. "I had to remove myself," she concluded, retiring from the Pentagon to raise horses in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. "My heart was with the military I chose to serve. I did not look back."
"As a refugee of war, I understand the pain, the suffering, that war could cause."
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon needed a new weapon - a bomb to penetrate the cave and tunnel complexes of America's enemies in the War on Terror.
The job fell to a remarkable woman. Anh Duong fled Saigon in 1975, vowing to fight tyranny for her adopted country. She became one of the country's top explosives experts, running the Navy's Indianhead Air-to-Ground Explosive Centre. When the Pentagon order came, she saw a chance to repay her lifelong debt to the "American war fighters" who rescued her in Vietnam.
Her team successfully developed the "thermobaric" bunker buster used against targets in Afghanistan and then Iraq in just 60 days. "As a refugee, I feel I understand the cost of war firsthand. We in South Vietnam didn't ask for war. It was forced on us. Sometimes you don't have a choice but to fight."
Description of Other Participants
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN (R/AZ)
Sen John McCain was born in Panama Canal Zone, 29 August 1936. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD 1958, and the National War College, Washington DC. 1973. He was a pilot in the United States Navy and a prisoner of war in Vietnam from 1967-1973. He received numerous awards, including the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Flying Cross. He was elected as a Republican in 1982 to the Ninety-eighth Congress and elected to the United States Senate in 1986. He is widely regarded as an expert in national security matters as well as a watchdog on defence corruption.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, Editor The Weekly Standard
Before starting The Weekly Standard in 1995, Mr Kristol led the Project for the Republican Future, where he helped shape the strategy that produced the 1994 Republican congressional victory. Prior to that, Mr Kristol served as Chief of Staff to Vice President Dan Quayle during the Bush administration and to Secretary of Education William Bennett under President Reagan. Before coming to Washington in 1985, Mr Kristol taught politics at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
In 1997, Mr Kristol co-founded the Project for a New American Century, a foreign policy think tank that has been credited as an influential force in shaping US foreign policy during the first Bush administration.
Richard Perle is Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington DC (1987-) where he had directed its commission on Future Defences. He is a leading authority on national security, military requirements, arms proliferation and defence, and regional conflicts. From 2001-2003, he served as Chairman of the Defence Policy Board, an advisory group appointed to serve the Secretary of Defence. He was Assistant Secretary of Defence under Ronald Reagan (1981-87); and served on the US Senate Staff (1960-1980). Mr Perle writes frequently for the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Daily Telegraph (London),Jerusalem Post and other publications. He appears on radio and television on matters of security and foreign policy. He is the co- author of "An End to Evil" and author of "Hard Line," a political novel. He is viewed as one of the architects of the Bush administration's foreign policy, particularly with regard to the lead-up to the Iraq war.
GORE VIDAL, Author "Imperial America"
Gore Vidal is the author of twenty-two novels, five plays, many screenplays and short stories, more than two hundred essays, and a memoir. Two of his novels, Lincoln and 1876, were the subject of cover stories in Time and Newsweek, respectively. In 1993, a collection of his criticism, United States: Essays 1952-1992, won the National Book Award. He received an award from the Cannes Film Festival for best screenplay for The Best Man. He divides his time between Ravello, Italy, and Los Angeles. He is also the author of several books on US foreign policy, including Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War, and, most recently, Imperial America.
JOHN SD EISENHOWER, Son of President Eisenhower, Military Historian
Son of President Dwight D Eisenhower, JOHN SD Eisenhower served on the White House Staff between October 1958 and the end of the Eisenhower administration. From 1961 to 1963 he assisted his father in writing "The White House Years," his presidential memoirs. Mr Eisenhower is also a retired Brigadier General (AUS) and served as Ambassador to Belgium between 1969 and 1971. He is a military historian who has written several books, including Allies: Pearl Harbour to D-Day, Yanks, and General Ike, A Personal Reminiscence in June 2003.
JAMES G ROCHE, Secretary of the Air Force
Dr JAMES G Roche is the 20th Secretary of the Air Force. In this role, he is responsible for the affairs of the Department of the Air Force, including the organizing, training, equipping, and providing for the welfare of its nearly 370,000 men and women on active duty, 180,000 members of the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, 160,000 civilians, and their families. As head of the Department of the Air Force, Secretary Roche is responsible for its functioning and efficiency, the formulation of its policies and programs, and the timely implementation of decisions and instructions of the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defence. With an annual budget of approximately $90 billion, he ensures the Air Force can meet its current and future operational requirements.
Prior to this appointment, Secretary Roche held several executive positions with Northrop Grumman Corp, including Corporate Vice President and President, Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector. Prior to joining Northrop Grumman in 1984, he was Democratic Staff Director of the US Senate Armed Services Committee.
CHALMERS JOHNSON, Political Scientist
Chalmers Johnson is President of the Japan Policy Research Institute, a public affairs organization concerned with international relations in the Pacific. His fifty-year career in foreign policy began with his first visit to Japan in 1953 as a US Navy officer. From 1967-73, Johnson served as a consultant in the CIA's Office of Strategic Assessments. He taught at the Berkley and San Diego campuses of the University of California for thirty years and holds endowed chairs in both of them. He was also Chairman of the Department of Political Science at Berkley. He is the author of countless articles as well as some 15 books including, most recently, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire and The Sorrows of Empire.
CHARLES LEWIS, Centre for Public Integrity
Charles Lewis is the founder and was until 2004 the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Integrity, a non-profit, nonpartisan watchdog organization conducting investigative reporting and research on public policy issues. Since its inception in 1989, the Centre has grown to a full-time staff of 40, and issued more than 200 investigative reports, including 12 books. Under Lewis' direction, Centre reports have been honoured by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and others 28 times. Centre findings or perspectives have appeared in roughly 8,000 news media stories since 1990. Since 1990, he has conducted more than 30 news conferences at the National Press Club, many of them nationally televised. National Journal has called Lewis and the Centre a "watchdog in the corridors of power." The Chicago Tribune has said that, "if Lewis didn't exist, somebody would have to invent him."
The Village Voice called Lewis "the Paul Revere of our time" in early 2003 after he obtained a copy of the Justice Department's draft legislation "sequel" to the USA Patriot Act, and posted it on the Centre's Website,
JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Joseph Cirincione is the author of Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction (Carnegie Endowment, 2002) and a senior associate and director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He is a frequent commentator on proliferation and security issues in the media, and teaches at the Georgetown University Graduate School of Foreign Service. In May 2004 the National Journal listed Cirincione as one of the 100 people whose ideas will shape the debates over the 'ten most important issues of the day.' The World Affairs Councils of America previously named him one of 500 people whose views have the most influence in shaping American foreign policy. Cirincione is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is an honours graduate of Boston College and holds a Masters of Science with highest honours from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.
SUSAN EISENHOWER, Granddaughter of President Eisenhower
Susan Eisenhower is a senior fellow and director of programs at the Eisenhower Institute and is best known for her work in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Over the years, Ms. Eisenhower has testified before the Senate Armed Services and Senate Budget Committees on policy toward that region. She has also been appointed to the National Academy of Sciences' standing Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) where she is now serving a third term. In 2000, a year before September 11, she co-edited a book, Islam and Central Asia, which carried the prescient subtitle, An Enduring Legacy or an Evolving Threat?
In the past ten years, Ms Eisenhower has authored three books: two of which, Breaking Free and Mrs Ike, have appeared on bestseller lists. She has also edited three collected volumes on regional security issues, and penned hundreds of op-eds and articles on foreign policy for publications such as The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Naval Institute's Proceedings, The London Spectator, Gannett newspapers. She is also a frequent expert on every major network news program.
Eugene Jarecki - Director, Producer
Eugene Jarecki's first short film, Season of the Lifterbees, premiered at Sundance in 1992 before winning a regional Student Academy Award and Grand Prize at Aspen Shortsfest.
In 2001, Jarecki wrote and directed the dramatic feature The Opponent, distributed by Lions Gate Films. His 2002 documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger was released theatrically in 130 US cities. Winner of the 2002 Amnesty International Award, the film was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, broadcast in over thirty countries. In 2002, Trials was selected to launch the Sundance Channel's DOCday venture as well BBC's prestigious digital channel BBC4.
Susannah Shipman has worked for several years as a Producer in London doing films for British Television including the film House of War which chronicled the bloody battle at Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan in which 300 Taliban prisoners and the CIA agent Mike Spann were killed. The film won the Overseas Press Club Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Documentary on International Affairs. Prior to that, Ms. Shipman worked at ABC News on both documentaries (the weekly series Turning Point and the Peter Jennings Series The Century) and 20/20.
Nancy Kennedy - Editor
Nancy Kennedy is a New York based editor who has worked on a number of award-winning films including Sundance winners Thank You and Goodnight and Riding the Rails. She has also co-directed and edited several independent documentaries, most recently, Bluegrass Journey and Contact Cuba and is currently producing a film about feminism, She's Beautiful When She's Angry. Her many editing credits include work on television series such as Great Performances, American Experience, City Arts, National Geographic and other documentary specials for ABC, CBS and NBC.
Robert Miller - Composer
Award winning composer Robert Miller was formally trained at the Mannes College of Music in NYC, and studied privately with American Masters William Schuman and Aaron Copland. Miller has written several works that have been performed by orchestras nationwide. He has been the Composer-In-Residence with the New York-based Jupiter Symphony. The New York pops performed his orchestrations to Leonard Bernstein's famed West Side Story Variations at Carnegie Hall. Prior to composing the score for WHY WE FIGHT, Miller completed scoring the dramatic film Red Doors.
List of Participants
Wilton Sekzer - Officer, NYPD
Fuji & Tooms - Stealth Fighter Pilots, US Air Force
Lt. Col Karen Kwiatkowski - Officer, Pentagon Middle East Desk
William Solomon - New Recruit, US Army
Anh Duong - Explosives Expert, Indianhead Naval Centre