Tonight Kris and I watched Why We Fight, the 2005 documentary about the United States military-industrial complex. The filmmakers ask: Why is the United States fighting in Iraq? More generally, they wonder why this country seems obsessed with a policy of Imperialism, a policy promoted by every President in the last forty years (except perhaps Carter).
Why We Fight uses as a touchstone the Farewell Address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a speech made in 1961. Here’s an mp3 of the entire thing, and here’s the relevant excerpt:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.
Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three-and-a-half-million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
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.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
[The second half of Eisenhower's Farewell Address cautions against the rise of Federally-funded scientific research. He was wary of this marriage, too.]
Why We Fight explores the consequences of having ignored Eisenhower’s warning. Our nation is now controlled by the military-industrial complex. The budget is dominated by military spending. The government is beholden to the companies that manufacture armaments. There is a vast and complex web of spending and mutual support that perpetuates a need for more fighting, the use of more weapons.
This may sound like some sort of conspiracy theory, but it’s not. It is simply a statement of facts. It’s our interpretation of these facts that gives them value. For you, this military-industrial complex may be a much-needed safety net. But for me, as a pacifist, as a thinking person who opposes our invasion of Iraq, as a citizen disgusted by the enormity of the military budget (especially at the expense of other programs), I find the military-industrial complex abhorrent.
I was especially pleased that the one of the commentators in the film provided some brief historical context for the 9/11 attacks, context that seems sorely lacking in nearly every discussion of the event. (For more on this, read How did we get here?, a compilation of the research I made in the days following 9/11.)
Here’s the trailer for Why We Fight:
Why We Fight is an interesting film — one that will go unwatched by most Americans — but it is not wholly successful. Its many subjects do not seem unified. The film never seems to make a point, to arrive at a conclusion.
If you’re interested in a sobering evening of reflection about war, I recommend watching Why We Fight with the recent The Fog of War, in which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara discusses the nature of modern war. The Fog of War is a great film (my review).