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Why We Fight: New Film Takes a Hard Look at the American War Machine From World War II to Iraq

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A new film opening in theaters nationwide Friday takes a look at the American war machine over the past half century. “Why We Fight” looks at conflicts from World War II right up to the current war in Iraq to examine the political, economic and ideological reasons that drive American war policy. We play excerpts from the film and speak with award-winning director Eugene Jarecki. [includes rush transcript]

Forty five years ago–January 1961–Dwight Eisenhower gave his final address as President of the United States.

  • Dwight Eisenhower, January 17, 1961.

Those words are the starting point for a new film that takes a look at the American war machine over the past half century. “Why We Fight” by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki looks at conflicts from World War II right up to the current war in Iraq to examine the political, economic and ideological reasons that drive American war policy.

The film includes interviews with John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol and Richard Perle, as well as a retired New York City cop and Vietnam vet who lost a son in the World Trade Center attacks.

“Why We Fight” won the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It opens in theaters nationwide today. Director Eugene Jarecki’s previous film, “The Trials of Henry Kissinger” was widely acclaimed and won the 2002 Amnesty International Award.

Read Eugene’s article: “An Unhappy Anniversary”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: 45 years ago, January, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his final address as President of the United States.

PRES. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: My fellow Americans, this evening I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell and to share a few final thoughts with you, my countrymen. We have been compelled to create a permanent armament industry of vast proportions. Three-and-a-half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. 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. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

AMY GOODMAN: Those words are the starting point for a new film that examines the forces that take a look at the American war machine over the past half-century. The film is called Why We Fight. It’s by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, looking at conflicts from World War II right up until the current war in Iraq, to examine the political, economic and ideological reasons that drive American war policy. The film includes interviews with John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol, Richard Perle, as well as a retired New York City cop and Vietnam vet, who lost a son in the World Trade Center attacks. Why We Fight has won the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It opens in theaters nationwide today. The director Eugene Jarecki’s previous film, The Trials of Henry Kissinger was widely acclaimed and won the 2002 Amnesty International Award. Eugene Jarecki joins us in our studio today. Welcome.

EUGENE JARECKI: Hi, thanks for having me

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. The cover of Time-Out New York is a picture of, well, President Eisenhower, and it says “I told you so.”

EUGENE JARECKI: Yeah, I was very proud to see Eisenhower on the cover of Time Out. That was a real milestone for us in making the film, because he’s been on my mind for some years, and getting him into the public mind is a big deal for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower sounds very radical, very revolutionary today.

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, he’s remarkable. I mean, here you have a hero of World War II and ultimately a man who then finds his way into the Oval Office quite grudgingly and ends up in the presidency witnessing firsthand how policy is made. And you know, we’ve been told by Bismarck, that if you don’t — “there are two things you don’t want to see getting made. One of them is sausages and the other is policy,” and Eisenhower had to watch that.

AMY GOODMAN: His famous line “military-industrial complex” actually was longer, right? “Military-industrial-congressional complex”?

EUGENE JARECKI: Yes. Eisenhower’s family appears in the film, and they talk about this speech and why he made it, and what it was about, and yes, they do reveal that in the early drafts of the speech, the formulation was “military-industrial-congressional complex,” because Eisenhower, as President, was keenly aware of the central role played by Congress in making possible the aspirations of the military-industrial elites. Without the help of Congress, where would the money come from?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of Why We Fight that deals with interventions and begins with, well, Gore Vidal.

GORE VIDAL: We live here in the United States of Amnesia. No one remembers anything before Monday morning. Everything is a blank. We have no history.

CHARLES LEWIS: There are so many theories about what happened in Iraq and why we really went in, but when you look at the history of the United States, almost every president, there is something we don’t like somewhere in the world, and we’ve got to dispense military force.

This is not about one president or one party. We fight as a nation because we perceive it is in our interest to fight. We then mention words like “freedom” and nice common values that — who can be against freedom? — when in fact much more has been going on privately.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Charles Lewis, and this is the film Why We Fight, going through the interventions. Why is that important to your thesis?

EUGENE JARECKI: Because I think Americans right now are preoccupied with thinking this is a one-off, that we’ve never done this before, that the American public has never found itself deeply in a war, far too in to go back, learning that the reasons we were given up front turn out not to have been what was discussed behind closed doors. And the sad reality is, Iraq is not unique in that way. The weapons of mass destruction are as grave an illusion as the Gulf of Tonkin was. And we’ve had a number of wars, all too many, where there’s a huge gap between what the public understands and what is truly driving the machine.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say Gulf of Tonkin, for those who weren’t even born then —

EUGENE JARECKI: Like myself. The Gulf of Tonkin was the myth on which Johnson’s entry into the Vietnam War was based. The idea that our ships had been attacked in the Gulf later turned out not to have been true, but it was very useful illusion for those who wanted to compel us to war.

AMY GOODMAN: The title, Eugene Jarecki, of your film, Why We Fight, also goes back.

EUGENE JARECKI: It sure does, and you know, people have said that I took the title from Frank Capra’s World War II films, the “Why We Fight” series. And, yes, guilty as charged. Not only that, I’d like to think I took Frank Capra’s movie. I mean, he’s a better movie maker than me, but Frank Capra was an extraordinary defender of democracy, and he was ultimately one of the most committed artists we’ve ever had to protecting the little guy against the forces in our society that can compromise democracy and threaten the little guy. How do I see that? Well, in It’s a Wonderful Life Jimmie Stuart plays George Bailey trying to protect little Bedford Falls essentially from Wal-Mart. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jefferson Smith travels to Washington to stand until he’s weary on his feet to protect his little creek back home from special interests. And the fact is, when Frank Capra made the “Why We Fight” films, he took that concern for democracy global, and he told Americans that they had to stand up to fight to protect democracy. This sounds like a plug for your show, but the fact is he did. He wanted us to stand up and fight to protect democracy on a global scale. And at this moment in our history, like many people, I fear that our own democracy is in peril, both from without, but more importantly, from within, in many of the ways that Mr. Eisenhower pointed out.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene, there’s a central figure in your film Why We Fight, a man who lost his son on September 11th. Can you talk about him?

EUGENE JARECKI: Yeah, Wilton Sekzer was a New York City police officer for most of his adult life, and before that he had served in Vietnam as a door gunner. And, you know, he lived an extraordinary life, and it was a life devoted to his country. It has been, it continues to be. And on 9/11, he turned a corner on an elevated train in New York City, looking across the river to the city, and he saw that the tower of the World Trade Center was on fire. To those in the train, it was a horror. To Wilton, it was an unimaginable horror, because his son, Jason, worked in the building, and he knew at that moment, I think, that it wasn’t good, and when he lost Jason, Wilton, like many people, dealt with that kind of strange mix of anguish and the impulse toward revenge. The impulse toward revenge was there in some people, not all people, but certainly in Wilton, and I think he felt particularly helpless that morning, because he was a cop. I think, you know, imagine if you’re someone who is used to thinking that your job is to get people’s cat out of the tree and help somebody on their way to school, and you watch something unfold in your own city about which you’re completely helpless, and it affects you so directly.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of Why We Fight.

WILTON SEKZER: I think I was reading something about the bombing in Iraq. And I get this email to Major Thomas V. Johnson from the Lieutenant Commander Steven Franzoni, the private to the corporal to the captain to this — must have been like 42 emails. And some of them were saying, “Well I don’t know if we can do this, sirs. Normally we do not take personal requests.” “Son died on 9/11, wants to know if we can put name on bomb.” Passing it up, “Harry, this is Jerry, do you think we can do something like that?” Joe: “Fairly easy, don’t you think?” “Well, we’ll look into it. Let me go ask Harry,” and you read this whole list of emails. “Sorry for the delay, but business is booming. The weapons don’t stay still long enough to write on them,” and finally, he goes to this Marine Air Division, “Can do, semper fi.” I get back the pictures. I’m looking at the pictures, I’m saying, “Holy smokes, there’s a picture of a bomb, and then a close-up of the same bomb, and on the side of it, “In loving memory of Jason Sekzer.” And the story that this is a 2,000-pound guided bomb, and that it was dropped on April 1, and it met with 100% success.

AMY GOODMAN: Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City cop, in Why We Fight. Eugene Jarecki, a little more about him?

EUGENE JARECKI: It’s an extraordinary story. I mean, Wilton was one of those Americans who was led by the current administration to think that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda organization, something that anybody who knows the first thing about the Middle East, knows it’s almost systemically impossible. They believe in different things. They are fundamentally opposed already themselves at the time that they’re being linked by an administration that sees it as useful to play upon Americans’ natural racisms and natural lack of knowledge about other peoples, because it’s easy to kind of say — to lump Arabs all into one group, lump Middle-Eastern people all into one group and say: One person’s 9/11 must be another person’s 9/11. And so Wilton is put in a position to believe, from his president, who he trusts greatly and voted for — he’s put in a position to believe that Saddam is behind the attacks, and therefore, that he should become involved in the Iraq war in a direct way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to the clip that you have in the film of President Bush, and then this retired New York City cop reacting.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: We — we —- we’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th. No, what the Vice President said was that he had -—

WILTON SEKZER: What did he just say? I mean, I almost jumped out of the chair. I don’t know where people got the idea that I connected Iraq to 9/11. What is he, nuts or what? What the hell did we go in there for? We’re getting back for 9/11. Well, if he didn’t have anything to do with 9/11, why did we go in there? I was mad. I was mad. My first thought is: you know, you’re a liar.

I’m from the old school. Certain people walk on water, and the President of the United States is one of them. If I can’t trust the President of the United States, I don’t know. It’s a terrible thing, when American citizens can’t trust their president. You begin to wonder, what the hell is with the whole system? There’s something wrong with the entire system. The government exploited my feelings of patriotism, of a deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son, but I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Wilton Sekzer, he is a retired New York cop, lost his son on September 11th, one of the people that is featured in Eugene Jarecki’s award-winning documentary, Why We Fight. Eugene, in our studio, won the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and congratulations for that. Deeply moving story of this transformation of this man.

EUGENE JARECKI: Yeah, he’s an incredible person. And I think, you know, when you’re a filmmaker, you start out — anybody who tells you it’s an objective form, is lying. It’s a subjective form. You start out with ideas and feelings you have about a subject and then hopefully you do what we did, which is you go and you reach out to people who think very differently and don’t have those impulses. And let’s say you’re A, you meet them and they’re B, and the tragedy in America on the shouting match on television right now is that supposedly A or B is supposed to win. And I end up in a situation where I’m A, I meet B, I want to end up at A plus B equals C. I want to end up in a new place, and I’m a changed person for having met Wilton. And I hope he’s changed to some extent for having been involved in the film, and that audiences feel that change on all of our parts.

AMY GOODMAN: And you show a young man, who — you worked with young filmmakers, who, — well, E.V.C., Educational Video Center, used to be here in the Firehouse we broadcast from at Downtown Community Television. Talk about that part, that thread in Why We Fight?

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, the Educational Video Center is an incredible group here in New York City, run by Steve Goodman, who invented this wonderful apparatus for teaching young people how to document their lives with cameras, and for professionals like myself, it’s a wonderful opportunity to do something very hands-on and not just sit in a dark room somewhere contemplating the fate of mankind. You can actually become directly involved in it. And movies can get pretty tiresome, and you can spend years not knowing if you’ll ever come out with your movie. So I was teaching these kids in this inner city youth program how to document things around them.

And they knew I was making a movie about war. The kids were cool, and they were smart, and they figured if they made a movie that was also sort of tangentially related to war, it would have a sporting chance of ending up in my movie, and they played their cards right, because they decided to start filming the story of the recruitment of one of their friends, because people are being recruited on all sides of them right now, because we do have, as so many of us recognize, a kind of poverty back-door draft in America that is forcing young people by economics to put themselves in harm’s way at a time of war and join the military. And so they said, “We’re going to go off and film the story of one of our recruits.”

Now, a lot of the kids are black and Latino, so out of probably my own just presumptuous, you know, impulse, I thought they would come back with a black or Latino kid and the story of some kid who was in their ethnic groups. And they didn’t. They came back with a white kid. And what was fascinating about that was that they were — the kids were race-blind and very class-aware. They knew that this is a class issue, that ultimately, if you’re poor in America right now, there’s a draft.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene Jarecki, your film is going nationwide today, but the politics of how a film makes it in this country is not very well-known, because the very corporations that control the message on television — How does something like this get out there amidst all the Hollywood hype?

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, it starts in the worst way, because we couldn’t raise the money for this film in the United States anywhere, and so a filmmaker like myself, wanting to make a critical film and a concerned film, has to go abroad. And so, I had to go to Britain, to Canada, to France, to Germany, to sister nations of the United States, whose media systems are far more healthy, that have not been emaciated by the dogs of corporatism in the way that ours have, where we have let those dogs run loose, and they have erased the kind of regulations that used to protect freedom of communication, where we have shrunk the range of the sort of biodiversity of opinion in American television, to what Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting calls the full spectrum from A to B.

It’s a harrowing time here, and so getting the money is the hard part. Once you’ve got the money from abroad, then we made a film, and then winning Sundance, actually, it’s what Michael Moore said about capitalism, “will give you the rope to hang itself,” or sorry, better said, “It will sell you the rope to hang yourself.” You know, we were successful, and once you’re successful, there was the bidding war to pick up the film, and then Sony Pictures Classics, who really are one of the most decent and honorable companies that take out films in a very committed way that is more than just about the bottom line, they, thankfully, picked up the film and are taking it out, you know, to about 200 cities. It’s a very wide release.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I know it’s coming out here in New York and all over the country?

EUGENE JARECKI: Yeah, it is. You know, and it’s a remarkable thing. Having said that it’s got this great big distributor, I cannot stress to audiences enough that this is all about them, that the listeners you have, if they don’t come to the theater, they don’t send a message to corporate America that these films matter. And I can’t — I sit with these corporate guys right now, and I get to know them, and I watch how they read the numbers, and frankly, when they see that people are showing up, they see that it’s both good for bottom line, and it actually makes them think that what they’re doing means something, and it’s a very important point that I don’t think a lot of people recognize because they just picture that — you know, we have so many examples of how corporate America is our enemy that the few case studies where there are actually corporations, like bringing out my movie, which is about as, you know, which is about as critical a movie as there could be, does mean a lot, and we’ve got to show up at the theater.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, if it makes it in the big cities, it goes out all over America.

EUGENE JARECKI: Yes, because it sends them a signal that this dog can hunt, and if they think it can, then they really get behind it.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene Jarecki, I want to thank you very much for being with us, award-winning documentary filmmaker. His film Why We Fight is opening nationwide today.

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