But instead of embracing subjectivity (again, think Greenwalt or the more rambunctious and annoying Michael Moore – we know who the good guys and bad guys are before we get within miles of the projection room), Jarecki strives for some modicum of balance. (Name another film where will you see war hawk Richard Perle and neoconservative Bill Kristol get the same amount of camera time as the curmudgeonly anti-imperialist Gore Vidal?). And Jarecki’s editing sense and production values are first-rate. Unlike other important documentaries like "The End of Suburbia," which contains no fewer than 3 "false" endings, Jarecki superbly lays out his story, keeps his narrative trains running efficiently and on time, and arranges his voices in ways that compel.
Jarecki also tackles one of the thorniest questions of our time, a question to which, oddly enough, few people seem to have a ready answer.
Why do we fight?
The "we," of course, is the United States. U.S. Us.
One would expect the answer to this question to be immediately obvious. After all, according to Jarecki’s film, the United States has a larger annual military budget than all 18 NATO member countries, Russia, and China combined. The U.S. spends more than a billion dollars on war weekly. And, of 191 U.N. member nations, the United States has a publicly-acknowledged military presence in 153 of them. The United States has become, in the words of former CIA insider-turned-critic Chalmers Johnson (who proves a steady voice of dispassionate reason in the film): the "New Rome."
So, why do we fight? To "defend" ourselves from external threats? To depose foreign dictators and spread democracy? To unmask WMDs? To combat "terrorism" and the "terrorists" who allegedly (my word) attacked us unilaterally? To demonstrate U.S. military muscle globally? To establish consistent U.S. foreign policy doctrine, like the notion of "pre-emptive war"? (To put it in crude terms: we gotta "off" your peeps before you "off" us.) "What’s the big fuss about pre-emption?" asks Richard Perle in the film. "You’d shoot first if someone was planning to shoot you, right?"
Of course, it ain’t that simple, Dick. And Jarecki’s film steers into candid and controversial waters in exposing the cozy connections between the U.S. military-industrial complex’s major players: government elites (The Pentagon, the Executive Branch, and members of Congress), weapons-making corporations, arms dealers, the think tanks who get paid extravagant sums to serve up and distribute propaganda, and the corporate commercial media who serve as stenographic lapdogs for the powerful (Dan Rather has his moment in the sun in this film – finally – now that he is retired.)
And, unlike other films of the same ilk (Think "Hijacking Catastrophe" or "Fahrenheit 911), Jarecki provides more historical context, book-ending his film’s central question with outgoing Republican president and celebrated WWII hero Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 "military-industrial complex" speech (beware the perils of the same, Ike famously warned) and the September 11, 2001 attacks, which injected new life into tired old rationales for war (the Commies had left the building by the 1990s) by providing new pretexts for the imperial invasion of other countries. He also sprinkles in a wide variety of short interviews and live footage (Can you say "Warren 4th of July parade, anyone?) with a wide array of impressive (and well-filmed) "talking head" commentaries, including real American heroes like Chalmers Johnson, the Center for Public Integrity’s Charles Lewis, and Pentagon whistleblower Karen Kwiatkowski (who has appeared in a number of post-911 films, and is at her best here.)
I was dissatisfied with the film, in some ways. In his quest for balance, Jarecki doesn’t aggressively go after some of the more ludicrous claims made by various power-brokering elites. And he is shrewd (or safely conservative) enough, I suppose, not to challenge our agreed-upon but patently absurd 911 mythology – 19 box-cutter wielding Muslim fanatics single-handedly hijacking 4 commercial airliners and catching the entire U.S. military-industrial-defense-intelligence complex with their collective pants down – though I hope that he will someday seek out the credible "conspiracy nuts" and take a good hard look at the evidence.
But there is something magisterial and haunting is this fine piece of film-making, as we hear a presidential voice intone that we in the United States "fight for principles of self-determination," and realize that it is liberal Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson speaking of Vietnam more than forty years ago now, although now it sounds like only yesterday.
Visit http://www.sonyclassics.com/whywefight/ for more information.
Historian, musician, and media educator Rob Williams lives in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Read, listen to, and watch his stuff at www.robwilliamsmedia.com.