Why We Fight deserved all the accolades it got, but I have difficulty with the title. Why we fight is specific to the fight—the title is overly broad for the relatively limited discussion. It is eye catching, but a literalist would dismiss the documentary almost from the get ready because the title doesn’t match the subject.
A documentary like this one is extremely difficult to summarize. It is the filmmaker’s opinion that wars fought after President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address (when he warned against the military-industrial complex) have been fought for money. The hundred minutes that make up this documentary define and defend this from several directions. Mixed in with this are stories from experts and from a few civilians affected in some way or another by the current conflicts in which America is involved.
There is nothing to give away; there are no plot twists. I doubt there are too many out there who would pick up the documentary who do not already have a strong opinion about the wars in the Middle East and Near East and why we are fighting. What follows are quotes from the documentary and my analysis. I will try to be unbiased, but I will say from the outset this will be extremely difficult and I have little hope to succeed.
I need to start with an incredible statement made by Richard Perle, the disgraced former advisor to the disgraced Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon in general: “The world has changed. We’re not going back to where we were. I find one of the sillier ideas is the notion, and you hear it all the time, American policy has been hijacked by a handful of people and as soon as they’re out of there, you go back to the way it was. They’re wrong about that because we are not the same people we were before.”
First, please notice that he doesn’t deny that the military and foreign policy of the nation hasn’t been hijacked by a handful of people. No, we can’t go back to the way it was before. First, it is never possible; but second, these people have created such a dangerous mess that we couldn’t go back even if it were logically possible. You cannot rebuild the shattered lives of hundreds of thousands. That he could be so glib about it considering that the fighting is not over in either of the places where the US started a war is disgusting. What he said is true, how he said it is both unnecessary and, frankly mean-spirited. It’s almost a goad to those of us who want to help try to patch up the mess he and his created; you can’t go back, so what do you do now? I’ll get to this in a moment.
The everyman that director Eugene Jarecki chose was Wilton Sekzer, an officer with the NYPD who lost his son in WTC Tower 1 on September 11, 2001. He fought in Vietnam and had this to say: “You grow up thinking that if the bugle calls, you go.” Then he made comments afterwards about how the Gulf of Tonkin incident was fabricated so the whole reason for the war was something other than freedom, democracy, or any of the other empty buzzwords. The documentary goes back to him from time to time to offer grounding and to remind the viewer that the people who make decisions about war are not the ones who pay. There is a touching incident where he asks the Pentagon to paint his son’s name on a bomb being used in the Iraq war—this becomes important again, but below (apologies for this, but there are many stories that all converge and I can’t write this in 4 different columns).
What the documentary makes clear is that the Iraq war was more important to the Bush 43 Administration than anything else. This is a quote from the 2002 State of the Union Speech (given more than a year before the beginning of the War in Iraq): If war is forced upon us, we will fight with the full force and might of the US military and . . . we . . .will. . . prevail” (speech effects mine). Add this to the fact that the Pentagon spent $1.2 billion in advertising between that speech and the war. It is impossible to read this any other way than as a build up to a war of choice—or worse a war started on false premises. Hitler staged his attack on a radio station on the German side of the Polish boarder. Mr. Bush simply said we can go in because we know there are weapons of mass destruction, so if we don’t go in, it would be irresponsible.
Now it is time to call back Officer Sekzer. After he discovered the lie that led to the increase in fighting in Vietnam, he became cynical. Many in his situation did. Shortly before the fall of Saigon in April of 1975, Nixon resigned in disgrace causing more cynicism. The me generation of the 1970’s turned into the greed generation of the 1980’s. Political cynicism became a national pastime. This means that the public, who has no real faith in politicians will let them do almost anything except touch Social Security. Start a war, cut taxes to the point that makes no sense, add more to entitlements despite wanting fewer entitlements and smaller government. Add a cabinet position and add even more employees to the federal coffers despite wanting to cut the size of government. We see this every day and become inured to the senselessness of it. I was born a cynic, my bona fides could fill a book nearly the size of Moby Dick so I can recognize a new cynic from an old cynic from a bred in the bone cynic. The last two presidents have so polarized the nation that we are filled past the tipping point with cynics. This becomes so much worse when there is an unpopular war. People outside the positions of power have to start paying for the sins of others and there are three routes to go: kill, become hopeless, become a cynic. The first is seldom used except as suicide perhaps, so that leaves the other two. I would weep, but I got past that point when the White House was scrambling for a new reason to define a war fought for incorrect and potentially forged reasons.
Officer Sekzer got what he asked for. He was joking about the length of the email chain that finally ended in just 4 words: Can do. Semper fi. He was then sent pictures of the bomb baring his son’s name. The bomb was used successfully, he was told, on April 1 (the year was not given). At the end of the documentary he is apparently asked what his feelings were now that he knew more about the war. He said he was pleased that he did it and succeeded; I applauded that, not because I think something like that should be encouraged, but because one father’s emotional journey came to an end that was good for him. But then he said he regretted that the bomb had to be used and implied he wouldn’t do it again. There was a hopelessness in his eyes and tone when he said that. To him, it was like he was being reminded that his son died for nothing, that the bomb was used in an incorrect manner. This is how complex war is. A father who was doing something he felt would make him feel better is forced to rethink the whole thing because he was fed a line of crap along with the rest of us. So now he doesn’t just mourn the son but the decision. If a bomb is going to be used, why not have a name on it? I want dead soldier’s names etched on the side of every Hummer and Escalade and Tahoe and Yukon out there. Every time they go in for service, they get a new American and Iraqi name etched onto the body somewhere.
First, a broad, then a specific question—almost exactly the same. Why do we fight? Pick the fight, each one has a different reason. You can point to the Pentagon and say they want to play with new toys, and this may be true of all wars, but it isn’t the reason why we do it. Each fight has different culprits, different threats, different motives. The filmmakers want to point to all wars after the military-industrial complex speech as being done for money. I’ll cover Vietnam in a moment. Men died in Lebanon trying to help stop a civil war whose antagonists were neighboring countries. Grenada rescued a few medical students, Libya was done entirely from the air and in response to the Pan Am 103 Lockerbie bombing. We went into Haiti to try to avert a humanitarian crisis that would have meant thousands dying while trying to make it here. We went into Somalia for sort of the same thing, but since it was poorly planned any execution of it would have been bad—the cynic in me also says that the lame duck Bush 41 wanted to leave Clinton with a military situation not of his choosing. We went into the former Yugoslavia, late, but finally and again for humanitarian reasons. But the three big wars since Vietnam (Iraq and Iraq the sequel and Afghanistan) have been fought for different reasons and we cannot claim humanitarianism for any of them. We did not give Kuwaitis freedom in 1991, we gave them back their monarchy. We didn’t free the people from tyranny in Afghanistan; we left it prematurely so that the warlords have more power than the so-called president and the Taliban is making a comeback—we will return to Afghanistan and it won’t be by our choosing. Iraq 2 . . .
Why did we fight in Vietnam and are now fighting in Iraq? This is the most frustrating question facing us today. The problem is that there are many answers and few of them are wrong, none are totally correct, and any answer we get is never going to be satisfactory. Almost 60 thousand American soldiers died in Vietnam—more than a million Vietnamese were killed. To date we are nearing the 3100 mark in Iraq with maybe 50-100 times more dead Iraqis.
One expert says that there was no exit strategy for Iraq because we never intended to leave, that we are building 14 permanent bases there. I think this is simplistic and after the fact reasoning. I think the administration was caught with everyone having their pants around their ankles when the Iraqis started greeting us with IEDs instead of flowers (that many readers know what an IED is is reason enough to shed a tear or two); however, recognizing the likelihood that we can never leave, we would have to have places to house the soldiers, so the bases only make sense. We still have them in Germany and Japan and Korea and Saudi Arabia. So this answer is a perfect example of something that isn’t totally wrong, isn’t right and isn’t satisfactory or satisfying.
We are just now starting to normalize relations with Vietnam 30 years after the end of the war there. They have little to offer us except a relatively small market for American goods. We have not finished in Iraq. How long will it take to normalize relations with whatever is left of it and its untrusting neighbors? They have much to offer us and know it. We’ve been stretched over an oil barrel before with the idea that the amount of oil in the barrel was controlled by people we could barely contain. Now it isn’t the amount of oil in the barrel that is the guiding image, it is the fact that everyone around the barrel has a torch and are just arguing about who is going to light the barrel and watch us roast.
No Mr. Perle we are not the same people we were before Mr. Bush became president. We are a jaded, angry, sensitive people dealing with complexities that none of us asked for. The cliché is that the middle class bares all the fiscal burdens of the country (there is no denying this, at present there are more in the middle class than both other major classes defined, so logically. . .). The truism now is that every one of us in no position to do anything about it are now paying for the sins of others who will never pay. I mentioned in another essay that I desperately want to believe in a Hell because people like those who started this war should have a coach class ticket to it. I don’t believe in Hell, so the only thing I can hope for is a total lack of inner peace for them and a public ignominy that has never really existed in this country. Maybe that can be the negative role model for those of us who want to rise to the challenge of fixing the mess caused by the irresponsible ‘intellectuals’ and war mongers who never held a rifle.
Viewing Format: DVD
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