Column: The Public Eye ‘Why We Fight’ Doesn’t Go Far Enough By Bob Burnett

Friday February 24, 2006

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary Why We Fight is playing at several Bay Area theaters, including downtown Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. Although it won the grand jury prize for documentaries at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and made a much-touted appearance on the BBC, for a considerable period it appeared that the film wouldn’t be seen in the United States. Finally Sony agreed to distribute Why We Fight and it opened nationwide on Feb. 10. 

Given all the advance publicity and considering the importance of its primary subject, the dominant role of the military-industrial complex in the American economy and worldview, the film is surprisingly disappointing. It has such a heavy-handed propaganda tone that it is unlikely to be taken seriously by anyone who is not already part of the anti-war movement. More importantly, it raises important questions without bothering to answer them. 

The documentary is organized around President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous farewell address to the nation. On his last day in office, the former five-star general warned, “We have been compelled to create a permanent armament industry of vast proportions… 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. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” 

Jarecki interviewed Eisenhower’s son John, who remembers his dad’s concern, “God help the United States when someone is elected president, who doesn’t know how to deal with [the military-industrial complex].” Of course, since Eisenhower, no military professional has been president. The implication is clear: the military-industrial complex has out-maneuvered every president since Ike and, in the process, turned America into a permanent war economy, to our great detriment. The film hints at this conclusion but doesn’t make it clear or say what citizens should do about it. 

There are several threads that Jarecki could follow to illustrate the perfidy of the military-industrial complex. One would be to focus on the issue of “smart” bombs. The film’s most compelling footage is of a retired New York cop, Wilton Sekzer, who lost his son on 9/11. Sekzer supported the invasion of Iraq, going so far as to persuade the Pentagon to inscribe his son’s name on one of the new generation of smart weapons—bunker-busters—dropped on Iraq in the initial bombing runs.  

Jarecki followed this story to its conclusion. He interviewed two F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter pilots who bombed supposedly key Iraqi military facilities in two Baghdad locations early in the morning of March 20, 2003. The pilots explained how sophisticated their planes were and the accuracy of their EGBU-27 laser-guided bunker-busters, which had added satellite and inertial navigation. They’re convinced that in the opening salvo of the invasion they pummeled a major military facility, possibly killing key Iraqi leaders. 

The documentary follows up on their attack and reports that the bombs missed the intended targets and, instead, hit nearby civilian residences. Jarecki interviews a grandfather whose son and two grandchildren were killed in the attack. While the audience gets the point, the director misses the irony that a bomb sent to avenge one grieving father caused another to suffer. 

Next, Jarecki cut to TV footage of Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, boasting that in the Iraqi invasion, America’s new bombing technology is 90-95 percent accurate. Rumsfeld claimed that there would be very few civilian casualties; our ordinance is only killing bad guys. Then the documentary flashes a graphic on the screen: Approximately 50 new-generation smart bombs were used in the opening days of the Iraq war. All missed their targets. 

What happened? Was the technology faulty? Was Rumsfeld deliberately lying? Was the military actually targeting civilians? Was the intelligence bad? Was it all of the above? Jarecki doesn’t provide answers. He followed a provocative thread but didn’t tie off the end. The writer-director failed to provide what seems to be the obvious conclusion: America’s military-industrial complex tricked the Department of Defense into paying zillions of dollars for weapons that don’t work.  

That’s illustrative of the general problem with Why We Fight. It asks important questions, but doesn’t provide substantive answers. Most of the probable audience for the film already knows that the military-industrial complex is bad for America; they just don’t know what to do about it. Nor, apparently, does Eugene Jarecki. 


See Page Seventeen for a review of Occupation: Dreamland, a documentary following the 82nd Airborne in Falluja in early 2004, just before the city became a major battleground in the Iraq war.  


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at