Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Why We Fight

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why We Fight

Why did we fight after 9/11? Why did we fight in Iraq? Why have we fought since World War II? Why do we fight at all? What does Gore Vidal have to say about all this? Perhaps if Why We Fight had tackled any of these questions individually (well, maybe not the last one), it would be a more focused and satisfying documentary. Then again, given the paucity of answers Eugene Jaracki's award-winning 2005 documentary provides despite all the questions, we might still have come up empty-handed. Anyway, great documentaries like Hearts and Minds can juggle numerous topics and questions, so Why We Fight's big muddle is ultimately the result of a formal failure and not over-ambition.

If any war required a documentary explaining its motives, it's this one. But like the Iraq invasion itself, Why We Fight is constantly employing sleight-of-hand, moving us from one topic to another without settling down, until we feel like we're in a restaurant examining an endless array of appetizers but no entrees. No explanation is compelling enough in and of itself, nor are enough connections drawn between the various threads to give us a composite answer. It's as if Jaracki was handed a Rubik's cube, furrowed his brow, set to work, and triumphantly returned it to our hands two hours later in a new and even more confusing jumble.


Opening with Dwight Eisenhower's infamous farewell address, the 1961 speech in which he warned Americans of the sinister "military-industrial complex," the film sets itself up as the inquiry into and expose of the complicated relations between the armaments industry and the federal government. But Why We Fight's distracted approach and inability to tie its disparate threads together leads to more questions than answers. One minute we're focusing on the creation of a permanent military machine in the wake of World War II. Then we're with a bereaved father who wants to place the name of his son (a 9/11 victim) on a bomb. Before we know it, we're following a confused kid who's enrolled in the army despite his friends' warnings. Oh, and back to the fifties to romanticize President Eisenhower, the film's noble hero until it's acknowledged that he authorized the coup in Iran (after which we don't hear much from him).

Contradictions (abundant in Why We Fight ) aside, these digressions could work if the film presented itself as a series of tangents under the aegis of the Iraq War (though even then, some tougher editing choices would have to be made). But Why We Fight, in title, opening, and various attempts along the way, sets itself up as a systematic analysis and as such it fails on its own terms. Furthermore, these separate strands are not even fully satisfying in and of themselves. The editing has an annoying habit of using the interviewees as de facto narrators; it's as if there's an attempt being made to avoid the old voice-of-God trick, yet in its place we get interviews reduced to heavily-cut sound bites, which is worse. The often-repeated points about unseemly connections between government and private industry are punctuated by endless variations on the show-rockets-and-marching-troops-while-playing-ironic-pop-music theory of montage.

Among the new and unwelcome questions that arise as Why We Fight meanders towards its conclusion: if the U.S. has been doing this sort of thing for 60 years, why are we told the government "began" to enforce its new theories of world domination only after 9/11? Was it the think tanks that fueled the war for ideological reasons, or was it an attempt to build and use new weapons systems, or both and if so how do they relate? How do we distinguish the good wars (World War II and Afghanistan, presumably) from all these purely mercenary ventures the film condemns - and are there mixed motives in the good and the bad? In what sense do military adventures in places like Bosnia (to fight ethnic cleansing), Liberia (against a corrupt president), and Afghanistan (to repel a Soviet invasion) belong on the same map of shame as Chile, Guatemala, and Iran - countries whose governments we overthrew for challenging our hegemony? Why do we hear about the munitions worker's son in the military, or the other munitions worker's resentment at the U.S. for abandoning Vietnam (after we've just heard so much about how the war was a mistake, though the reasons for said mistake are almost entirely elided)?

Another model Why We Fight could have taken is that later pursued by the superior Iraq documentary No End in Sight, which is also made up of interviews, but which delves into the meat of what happened. It does not offer explanations for why things went wrong, but it shows how they did, in excruciating detail. Ultimately, Why We Fight casts its net too wide, and then flops around in it helplessly.

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