A Look at the Documentary "Why We Fight?"
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. ~ Dwight Eisenhower, 1961
Why We Fight? opens with Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address to the American people. Eisenhower urged Americans to remain vigilant against the growing system of interlocking power between the defense establishment and business community. He warned that this system, which he called the “military-industrial complex”, would threaten democracy itself.
Fast-forward 50 years: Eisenhower’s gravest warnings have come true. The military industrial complex has continued to grow and entrench itself in our political and economical systems. Today there are four components: One, private defense contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, Halliburton, etc. Two, the Pentagon. Three, Congress. And four, think tanks.
Think tanks are private organizations, untouchable to American voters, that set policy. They are the outsourcing of political decision making. To go one step further is to realize that it almost doesn’t matter who is in office, if these groups are where policy initiatives and planning starts then the politicians are interchangeable. In this way, policy becomes unaccountable to the voter.
One notorious think tank covered by the film is the Project for the New American Century, PNAC. PNAC is the group that agitated for war against Iraq through the 1990s. Its members included many of the neoconservatives ushered into the administration after Bush took power. The Perle's, Rumsfelds, Wolfowitz's, Cheneys, et al were involved in PNAC.
Congress serves as the conduit through which the public’s money, yours and mine, is funneled to the military industrial complex. In other words, they control the spigot. We currently spend as much as the rest of the world combined on our military, not counting black budgets and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Half of our federal budget spending goes to this system, again, not counting black budgets and wars. Bush’s last budget proposal cut spending from almost every department except for Defense and Homeland Security. Polling data indicates that the American public underestimates how much we spend on rich-welfare for defense corporations and overestimate how much we spend on foreign aid or poor-welfare for private citizens. Nonetheless, they favor cutting defense spending and reallocating it social services like health care or education. No one seems to be listening to them because the truth is, the public has very little control over public policy.
Which brings us to a subplot of the movie: the growing democratic deficit in America. The elites have successfully marginalized the American public in several ways. First, they moved decision making out of public office into think tanks where no voter can touch them. Secondly, private contractors call on both parties to ensure that their interests will be represented by either team independent of which way the public votes. Thirdly, the economy is so tightly intertwined with the military industrial complex that there is no way to get off the ride. As former CIA agent and Asian historian Chalmers Johnson notes, the B2 fighter plane has at least one component made in every state to ensure that if anyone ever tried to stop the program, it would be next to impossible. Congressmen from all fifty states would howl in outrage.
There is another question buried in this: why don't we fight? We, the American people. Why aren't we fighting this erosion of our democratic system?
While this has been going down, the American public have become much more cynical than they were a few generations ago. The filmmakers attempt to demonstrate this disconnect in both the macro and micro.
The micro features an ex NYPD sergeant and proud Vietnam veteran who lost a son in the 9/11 attacks. The man says he comes from the old school, where one does not question politicians. He supported the Iraq war based on his perception that we were going in there as a response to 9/11. He successfully lobbied the marines to write a tribute to his son on one of the 2000 pound bombs destined for Iraq.
Then he heard Bush on television clarifying that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.
The documentary featured several man on the street interviews. They asked them why we are fighting in Iraq. The answers were alternatively contradictory, naively idealistic, or incoherent. Some of the adults and children gave similar answers (“for truth/ideals/freedom.”) Their conviction could be described as tenuous at best; it didn’t look like they had really given it much thought or research. One guy answered that we were fighting for our ideals, and then he grinned self consciously as if he realized how naïve it sounded once spoken aloud. He added that at least he hoped that were true.
At the macro level, the documentary called attention to the unprecedented level of global protest and resistance to the war, before it even began. Recall that protest in Vietnam took years to build, in this case millions of people were in the streets before the first shot. So the people are becoming more skeptical and resistant to what is happening even as they are increasingly marginalized and separated from meaningful decision making. But they are not yet fighting to resist it. Why not?
The catch to all of this is that our economy is very dependent on the military industrial complex. Dismantling the system and absorbing the shocks from doing so would take an extremely focused, dedicated, and vigilant public. It would take tremendous organization and political activism. It would mean job loss and turmoil as the economy adapted. The only people that meet those qualifications are the lobbyists and defense contractors.
“Why we fight?” never stops asking that question. It includes interviews with people from all over the spectrum such as John McCain, Richard Perle, numerous military analysts and contractors, and historians like Chalmers Johnson. The movie ends with a not so subtle call for greater involvement from Americans. A retired Air Force officer with 20 years of service finally answers the question: we fight because not enough people are standing up and refusing to put up with it. Or, "we" fight because we are not fighting.