Why We Fight
Directed by Eugene Jarecki. (2006, PG-13, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 10, 2006
“The chief business of the American people is business” is President Calvin Coolidge’s oft-quoted line from his 1925 speech before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Less known is his caveat directly following: “Of course, the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence … there are many other things we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism.” Coolidge’s out-of-context quote has been ground into the gristmill of cliché by decades of over- and outright misuse, more often than not by those in business seeking, as businessmen from William Randolph Hearst to Sam Walton have been wont to do, to further not the American ideal but their own financial ends. Why We Fight, Jarecki’s canny and somewhat overwhelming documentary, adds yet another warning to Coolidge's by arguing – persuasively – that the chief business of American business is nothing less than persistent and perpetual warfare (rechristened when deemed necessary with less bellicose sobriquets – i.e., “police actions”) and the funding and arming of myriad “friendly foreign states,” several of which have turned out in recent years to be not as friendly, or useful, as once presumed. After watching Jarecki’s film, it’s embarrassingly, shamefully difficult to argue the point. Why We Fight opens with a remarkably prescient and, apparently, wholly ignored warning to the American people from outgoing president Dwight D. Eisenhower to guard against the collusion of big business and our national tendency toward pugilism. Citing as evidence the growing list of post-World War II conflicts the U.S. has either initiated or allowed itself to become involved in (and thereby fueling the economy by creating jobs at defense contractors and military support companies such as Lockheed Martin and Halliburton), Jarecki paints a grim picture of war profiteering run amok. First in the name of reining in the Soviet Union and then, after the USSR’s collapse in 1991, with the hazily defined goal of protecting our national interests from terrorism or the promotion of Western-style democracies abroad, Eisenhower’s sage admonition goes increasingly unrealized, while Coolidge appears to have entirely misjudged the American psyche. For all its earnest zeal at pointing out what should be, on the face of it, plainly obvious, Why We Fight is saved from pedantry (or propagandism, depending on your state color), by the presence of Wilton Sekzer, a retired NYPD officer who lost his only son on 9/11. Grief-stricken and fully believing the current administration’s insistence on a link between Iraq and 9/11, Sekzer manages to have his son’s name painted on one of the none-too-smart bombs slated to be dropped on Baghdad (we see the actual ordnance, at once both thrilling and horrific). Later, in the absence of any WMD, Sekzer, the human face of the ghastly flip side of the military industrial complex, is bewildered and angry – again. “I’m old school,” he says. “If you can’t trust the President, then who can you trust?” I don’t know about you Mr. Sekzer, but I like Ike.