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Eugene Jarecki on “The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril”

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Election Day is two weeks away, and this year may see one of the highest voter turnouts in US history. But filmmaker and author Eugene Jarecki argues that while voting is essential, it is not enough. He writes, “Unless we see our vote as part of a commitment to involve ourselves consistently and unrelentingly in the political process, our vote is wasted. This is because the forces that have led us to this economic, military, and political precipice exert such awesome power over the mechanics of Washington that no single candidate or group of legislators, whatever their intentions, can possibly go up against them unless armed with an irrepressible public mandate.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Election Day is two weeks away. This year may see one of the highest voter turnouts in US history, if not the highest. But filmmaker and author Eugene Jarecki argues that while voting is essential, it’s not enough. He writes, “Unless we see our vote as part of a commitment to involve ourselves consistently and unrelentingly in the political process, our vote is wasted. This is because the forces that have led us to this economic, military, and political precipice exert such awesome power over the mechanics of Washington that no single candidate or group of legislators, whatever their intentions, can possibly go up against them unless armed with an irrepressible public mandate.”

Eugene Jarecki argues American democracy has been undermined by the military-industrial complex. President Eisenhower warned about this in his farewell address to the nation in 1961.

    PRESIDENT DWIGHT 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 armaments 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: President Dwight Eisenhower, delivering his final address as president of the United States in 1961. He is featured in Eugene Jarecki’s film Why We Fight. He also did the film The Trials of Henry Kissinger. His new book, just published, is called The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril. He joins us in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

EUGENE JARECKI: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: The American way of war, what is it?

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, the American way of war is usually a term used to think about sort of what America brought to war making that other countries hadn’t done before, typically sort of mass production of equipment and weapons and logistics. And I sort of saw something evolve over our history that I thought was better represented by that term, “the American way of war,” which is really how America lost her way through war making, what war has done, the best of wars, the worst of wars, wars that seemed, quote, “necessary” and wars that seemed frivolous or sort of shadowy motives, like the one we’ve just experienced. The wars of all kinds, they guide America away from her founding principles, from basic standard norms of decency and humanity. And I think the American way of war is a sort of — is a very tragic way, in a sense, that needs now to be fixed, needs to be rescued. And that’s where I think the public comes in so necessarily.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about President Eisenhower’s last address.

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, it’s an incredible moment. Here you have a general turned president; the hero of World War II becomes a two-term Republican president. And he takes his last few moments in office to warn his fellow Americans about this extraordinary threat to democracy: the military-industrial complex, a term he really coins that night and leaves us with to now sit, forty years later, and think, well, what exactly did he mean, and how do we apply it to today?

AMY GOODMAN: Republican president.

EUGENE JARECKI: Republican two-term president, and really the hero of Republicanism for the twentieth century in so many ways.

AMY GOODMAN: And general.

EUGENE JARECKI: And general. And a guy who knew very, very well, from the absolute front lines of battle and then from the front lines of the battles of Washington — he was once overheard in the Oval Office; he got so exasperated with the way in which the defense sector was manipulating public policy and really, as he said, holding his public policy captive, that he said out loud in exasperation in the Oval Office, “God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.”

AMY GOODMAN: Barack Obama, who is now ahead in the polls two weeks ahead of the election — early voting has begun in scores of states right now, so people have already cast their votes — has pledged to increase military spending —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- and has called for a surge in Afghanistan.

EUGENE JARECKI: Yes. Well, this is — you know, this is business as usual in Washington. And I think, you know, somebody like Barack Obama, you see somebody with what you would feel are probably very good intentions, and you get the sense that around the Obama kitchen table there’s a lot of heartfelt, well-meaning thought going on, and yet the machine does not care how well-meaning Barack Obama is, doesn’t care how well-meaning the voters are who hope that Barack Obama can make change. The machine is a cutthroat instrument of power. And all the rest of us are kind of cannon fodder in it.

And it’s not because it’s, you know, run by evil men like Dick Cheney. That’s kind of incidental. What really is happening is that you have a machine out there that has a vested interest, that simply pulses forward. And the only thing that can slow it is what Eisenhower called an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, basically all of us being deeply engaged. And we’re not, for several reasons that have to do with how our society evolved and how the American way of war took over the American way.

AMY GOODMAN: This call you’re making at the Huffington Post, saying voting is, yeah, essential, but not enough, talk more about the activism that you’re calling for.

EUGENE JARECKI: Sure. Well, you know, it’s an amazing thing. The one elephant in the room that’s always there, that we all never talk about, is just what we can do. And I get asked this question everywhere I talk to audiences. People really are scratching their heads about, well, what can I do? I’m just an everyday person. I’m overworked. I’m torn between paying bills and trying to put my kids through school, and I’ve got the cell phone and the computer and mortgage and everything. And it’s very hard, you know, to then say to somebody, “Well, your society is in peril. You need to be a Jefferson. You need to be a Madison. You need to think about this society.”

But I dare say, no matter how busy people are, we all have two things that we can do that are very crucial. One is to figure out, honestly, candidly, that we all have a bunch of time we waste in life watching American Idol, surfing the internet, whatever we do that’s our version of wasting time. And we all have something, no matter how busy we are. It’s sort of human nature. You’ve got to take some of that time and figure out how to direct it toward social change, because if all you do is vote at election time and sort of wake up and go, “Oh, my god, something’s happening; I’ll throw my vote in,” it services your conscience, it services your feel — your desire to feel like you’re doing something, but the actual practical implications of that are that a single candidate, up against the incredibly tangled corruption of this system, is hopeless. And they’re made more hopeless by the fact that we are disengaged, because without a public mandate, somebody like Barack Obama will enter the White House, and, as you see, it’s already happened in the evolution of his policy paradigms, he’ll enter the White House without a mandate. And if he doesn’t have a mandate, those enormous forces of power will give him a mandate. They’ll give him a very clear mandate.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain your example of the B-1 bomber.

EUGENE JARECKI: Perfect example. You know, the B-1 bomber has a piece of it made, a piece of the plane made, in every single US state. Now, why? I mean, that’s not an efficient way to make a product. So, it must be serving some end. And the end, it turns out, that it serves is that the B-1 bomber was designed by its makers according to a process called political engineering, fancy word for distributing the contracts and subcontracts to build a given weapons system to as many states, as many congressional districts as possible, not let’s make it as efficient as possible, but rather, let’s put it in as many districts as possible, so that if this thing ever comes up for review, everybody’s getting a piece of the action, everybody’s in on it. And as a result, when, you know, the questions arise — Do we need the B-1 bomber? Do we need to be spending this money? — there is a constituency built in in Congress that’s going to keep that thing going.

And what does that tell us? That tells us that — first of all, the defense sector is not alone in that. Every industry has their version of politically engineering Congress. But what it does is it puts the congressperson in a position of being a professional pleader to that corporation, that corporate interest, on behalf of them to the federal government. And it suborns, it really undermines the purity of their decision making. It produces some of the very tragic and wrong-headed decisions that we’ve seen in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: In both your film and your new book, The American Way of War, you interview Senator John McCain.

EUGENE JARECKI: Yeah, I had the distinguished pleasure to interview John McCain.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that interview.

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, you know, John McCain appeared in Why We Fight, and it was kind of an amazing story, because audiences across the country really loved watching him in the film, and a lot of people said, “Wow, he’s like a modern-day Eisenhower.” You know, he’s outspoken in the film. He criticizes American imperialism. He criticizes the military-industrial complex. He even goes to the length in the film of commenting on Halliburton and the sort of shadowy feeling that was given off by the no-bid contracts. He says in the film at one point, when asked what he thinks about the no-bid contracts, he says, “It looks bad. It looks bad.” And then, when asked, “Well, what should be done about it?” he says, “I think there should be a public investigation of what went on.” Well, that was great, and the public loved watching that.

But again, if you watch how these forces of corruption transfigure and sort of disfigure our public policy and our public policy makers, within short order of having said that in the film, the film then came out, and I got calls from John McCain staffers, notably his lead staffer, Mark Salter, that were literally verbally abusive and were pressuring me, as a lowly journalist person — and they were the big guys — they were pressuring me to modify my behavior, to change the film or to give them the ammunition to have some sort of attack on me. They wanted to look into my files. They were extremely pointed in this attack.

And why? Because the, as it were, Straight Talk Express had just started going. They were thinking, OK, this is going to head to the White House if we can play our cards right. And the last thing we need is a bunch of impolitic stuff that the maverick senator said in this movie. So they decided the point of least resistance was to go after me. They did that by smearing my name in the media. They went onto Roll Call, which is the Capitol Hill newspaper, and called me a slippery son of a gun and a bunch of other sort of funny adjectives. And, you know, it was an amazing window for me into — obviously, that the Straight Talk Express is a farce, but beyond that, it was more a window into just how powerful the Washington paradigm of corruption is, because what was he afraid of? He was afraid that he had offended Dick Cheney. And his staffers were afraid that by criticizing Halliburton — he never mentions the word “Cheney,” I think they equate Halliburton with Cheney — that he had — that he had overstepped that kind of invisible barrier that exists in Washington that protects the interests, the joint interests, the collusion of interests.

AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you in doing the film and now the book, The American Way of War? And why did you change the title from Why We Fight to The American Way of War? It reminds me of Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death.

EUGENE JARECKI: Yeah. You know, I was going all over the country with the film, and I spoke to a lot of audiences, and, I mean, I’ve talked — spoken to thousands of people about this subject at this point, just in live audiences. And it was amazing to me the kind of questions I was getting and the kind of dialogue I was having with audiences. I had been teaching several times at West Point with this film, so I’ve been at military establishments and then in civilian audiences. And the range of questions spoke of a common humanity that we all share in trying to understand these very confusing issues.

This country has gone in a direction — I don’t care who you are — that nobody really understands. And the confusion of that seemed to me to be explainable, at least to some small degree, by understanding the way in which our military system took over our peaceable goals and that basically, as Washington himself warned, he feared that overgrown military establishments — George Washington’s term — were the enemy of republican liberties — small “r” republic, like the republic, like rule of the people, all those good things — that you can’t really have that during a time of war.

Why? Because if you and I are sitting here right now and we’re talking about democracy and we care about democracy on a global scale and a bomb dropped out on Lafayette Street right now, there’s some small part of both of us that would say, “There’s no time to deliberate, just do something.” It’s a human impulse, no matter how stupid it is. It’s a human impulse. We all think that, for a certain moment. At that moment, when you move away from deliberation toward doing something, you move away from the legislative branch to the executive branch, because the executive does something. All of a sudden there’s no time for the whole stupidity of like the gavel in Congress and “hear ye” and the honorable senator from wherever and all that stuff. That just seems inappropriate to wartime.

So, what Madison said early on is, therefore, war favors the executive. That means that the executive wants war. That means that that congressperson I mentioned earlier who’s stuck in that conflict of interest where he’s got to plead for his corporate benefactor, he’s got to plead to the executive. Well, what does that mean? That means — and this is where the kind of the tragic joke ends — is that when he’s pleading to the executive on a Monday, because he wants to continue some weapons system, and he’s contacting the DoD, the Department of Defense, which is in the executive branch, well, on a Tuesday, when he’s asking for that favor the day before, now the President is calling, saying, “I think there’s WMDs in Iraq, and I’m hoping I can count on your support, Senator.” Well, you’re the guy asking for the favor, so — just the day before, and now suddenly you’re going to stand and say, you know, “Show me the evidence”? You’re going to go very quiet, which is what so many representatives did when their constituencies thought they might speak out.

That issue, that quiet, that silence — in the book I call it “the missing C,” which is the missing Congress — has to do with how the American way of war came to trample the American way that many of us hold dear and raises the question how to find our way back.

AMY GOODMAN: Eugene Jarecki, I want to thank you for being with us. His new book, just out, is called The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril.

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