Even if you know that the phrase ”military-industrial complex” was first uttered in 1961, during the final televised address of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency — a farewell couched as a warning — it’s a revelation to see that speech to the nation, in all its glowering rectitude, interspersed throughout Eugene Jarecki’s passionate and sobering documentary Why We Fight. Eisenhower’s declaration of the power, and danger, of the new American war machine had the fervor of a mission statement, yet Jarecki’s decision to use it as a frame for his movie carries its own strategic thrust. It’s not just the truth of Ike’s words that grips us but the fact that they were spoken by a don’t-rock-the-boat Republican, a World War II general devoted to defense. Before it gets around to updating how the military-industrial complex actually works (hint: It’s grown a bit more powerful since 1961), Why We Fight asks us to revel in the irony that President Eisenhower now sounds like the sort of guy who would get tarred as a leader of the ”Hate America” crowd.
Jarecki is no glib ideologue thumbing his nose at power. He hits us early on with the eye-opening statistic that America spends more on defense than on all other parts of the federal budget combined, and he then showcases the vastness of the munitions industry at work. At a trade show, companies such as Lockheed Martin hawk weapons systems at booths like the latest generation of computer gizmos, sports cars, or bridal paraphernalia. The former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson describes how the B-2 bomber includes parts made in each and every state, so that congressional approval for it is all but guaranteed. The clips of eager Congress members, of assorted ideologies, groveling before weapons bills induce a cringe.
Gore Vidal, in all his trenchant cynicism, is on hand to testify to the deep structural interlacing of corporations and the military, but so is that long-haired peacenik John McCain. Each lends his own credence to the film’s diary of 50 years of U.S. military aggression, which is juxtaposed with the distortions (e.g., the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident, used to trigger the escalation of Vietnam) that too many of those actions have rested upon. Jarecki interviews Wilton Sekzer, a Vietnam vet and retired New York City cop who lost his son on 9/11, and Sekzer’s outrage over the trumped-up pretenses that triggered the war in Iraq (the Saddam?al-Qaeda ”connection,” etc.) stands in for a spreading national disillusion. Why We Fight’s analysis of the Iraq war as imperialist folly is the least original thing about it. Yet by the end of the movie, with its images of Saddam Hussein videogames, crowds being roused by the explosions at an air show, and a desolate recruit who joins the Army because he has nothing else to do, we’re left with a vision of America grown accustomed, if not addictively numb, to the deadening spirit of war.