Just as Why We Fight plays like a near scholarly dissection of what Dwight D. Eisenhower first termed the “military-industrial complex,” director Eugene Jarecki discusses the movie and its issues in paragraphs rather than sentences, talking at points like a veteran professor of American history. We need more filmmakers with Jarecki’s ambition and intelligence. But that doesn’t stop one from thinking that he maybe ought to run for office.
Has the film changed at all in the year since it premiered at Sundance? It’s sort of a sad statement of the times that, no, we didn’t have to make any changes. Except we’ve kept having to increase the casualty figures that are listed in the movie with regard to the Iraq war, because the body count keeps going up.
The film argues that the forces now at play in Iraq aren’t a few years old or 15, but 50 or 60. Why is that perspective so rare even among progressives in the U.S.? There’s a tendency to lay all our problems at the feet of George W. Bush, to want to see him as taking a radical departure from the traditions of U.S. foreign policy. But Bush wasn’t born overnight: He’s the product of decades of movement by this country away from its origins and ideals, and toward something more aggressive, more arrogant, more imperial. The Iraq war certainly isn’t the first time that the reasons we were given to go to war have turned out not to be the real reasons why we went. Ultimately I think it’s a political distraction for us to be obsessed with Bush or any other single figure. The larger forces that the film examines are those—including the military- industrial complex—that are undoing the very fabric of the democracy we’re fighting for. It’s what Eisenhower meant when he said, “We must avoid destroying from within that which we are trying to protect from without.”
What seems to have changed more than anything since, say, the Vietnam War is the volume of protest. I don’t want to sound like a nutcase, but I don’t see that at all. In 2003, 10 million people around the world marched in protest even before a single shot had been fired in anger. A lot of us have complained that Americans are apathetic. And it’s convenient for those in power to say that we’re apathetic, though what we really are is helpless. We live in a complex society that bears a heavy weight on us. Still, that didn’t stop hundreds of thousands of Americans from participating in those protests. If you take the analogous year in Vietnam—1963—I think there were maybe 14 Quakers who marched down Fifth Avenue.
Those hundreds of thousands weren’t seen much on network TV, which is where Why We Fight could best reach the unconverted, right? The film was aired on the BBC in March, and, absurdly, that’s how it was deemed ineligible for an Oscar nomination. I have every confidence that the film, after showing theatrically all over the U.S., will make it to [U.S.] television and reach that audience. As for the Oscar [ineligibility], it seems there’s a little bit of jingoism in the Academy’s rules. The chief of the BBC talked to me about this. He said, “You know, it’s funny that films can’t qualify for Academy consideration here in Europe, but they can disqualify.” It’s just sort of ironic. The only reason we had to go overseas for funding is that the media system here is suffering.