THE MAN BEHIND
'WHY WE FIGHT'
GEN. DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER
...as U.S. President, he warned
of "military industrial complex"
...the filmmaker of 'Why We Fight'
New documentary warns
of American imperialism
By JOHN STANLEY
EUGENE JARECKI has a vision of America. He calls it "the global Democratic tradition." To understand that vision, try to realize he isnt reaching out to liberals or conservatives. Put aside Republican or Democrat labels and listen and look for a moment. Is it possible that, instead of two sides screaming bitterly at each other, a new understanding of what America stands for can be reached?
That is Jareckis idealistic hope behind "Why We Fight," the Grand Jury Prize-winner at last years Sundance Film Festival. Now playing in select big-city theaters, it is a compelling and unforgettable 98-minute documentary that searches into current events in America (and beyond) in trying to answer the films very title.
If that title rings historic bells, be reminded that, during World War II, the late Frank Capra, then a leading Hollywood director, produced a series of powerful "Why We Fight" documentaries designed to explain to American soldiers why they were fighting the Axis powers. That 1942-45 series blended propaganda, history and entertainment to make its indoctrinating statements.
Jarecki was fully cognizant of Capras unusual films and wanted them to serve as a connection between the past and the present as he set out cinematically to answer his own question: Has America turned into a culture of imperialism since World War II, and is our burgeoning power-most currently exemplified by America going to war against Iraq in 2003"destroying our nation from within while trying to protect it from without? Are the fibers that hold us together being wrenched apart? And do we as a peopledivided on so many other distracting major issues of the dayeven know it?"
Jareckis deeply-felt search begins with a statement made by President Dwight D. Eisenhowerthe very five-star general who came to symbolize Americas growth as a military power after the winning of World War II. At the war heros January 1961 farewell speech to the nation as he left the Oval Office after eight years, "Ike" startled listeners with a warning: Beware the "military-industrial complex." Implication: The victory against Germany, Japan and Italy has turned America into a military might and, with spending for new weaponry at an all-time high, it could become a pathway to corruptiona confluence of power between high-level forces that could rip away at the delicate fabric of our democracy.
Initially the word "congressional" was to be part of the speechs phrase, but the outgoing President had at the last minute omitted it. Now Jarecki has put that word back in for purposes of his own investigation, and without hesitation explores the incriminating links between Congressional politicians, the industrialists who make our super-weapons for modern war, and the armed forces awaiting their next orders.
Assuming they all depend on each other to flourish, is "military industrial congressional" the new brotherhood that leads to war?
War has a way of touching most of us, but it is easier to understand Jarecki, 36, if you understand how war has touched him. From his office in New York, where he lives with "wife and kids," he explained: "I grew up in a Holocaust refugee household in Asbury Park. So I was raised with dramatic views about war. My father had escaped from the Nazis and had a distrust of centralized power. From that I took a lesson about totalitarianism, about the role of the state. From that came a deep distrust of the mechanism of power and vigilance of keeping those forces in check. And in Dwight Eisenhower I found a kindred spirit."
Jarecki walks a self-described "bipartisan" pathway ("I do not come with a party agenda") to interview major figures, interviews he weaves into "Why We Fight" around historic footage.
Senator John McCain (Rep.-Ariz.): "Where the debate and controversy begin is, how far does the U.S. go and when does it go from a force of good to a force of imperialism?"
Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard: "People complain about American arrogance and power, but the great threat of the future . . . is American weaknesses and American withdrawal."
Writer Gore Vidal: "We live in the United States of Amnesia. Everything is a blank. We have no history."
And, as if to emphasize that Americans remain divided and confused about Iraq, Jarecki interviews numerous people in the streeteach with a conflicting reason for why we went to war. Oil, power, greed, ideals, control, revenge. Even "I dont know."
But of all those interviewed, ranging from a Vietnamese woman who makes thermobaric bunker busting bombs to the pilot of a Black Sheep stealth fighter craft that dropped one of the first bombs on Baghdad to a 23-year-old recruit who has just joined the U.S. Army, the most fascinating viewpoint is that of Wilton Sekzer, an ex-New York City cop and helicopter machine-gunner from the Vietnam era.
Sekzer tells how he lost his son in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. He believed it was right for America to go to war to avenge his son, he had heard the government claim that Saddam Hussein had been partly responsible for the attack on the U.S., and he had even arranged to have his sons name etched on the shellcasing of a bomb that was eventually dropped east of Baghdad.
Suddenly, the government had recanted about Husseins involvement. And suddenly, Sekzer got angry. And began to question everything that had happened, including his own reactions. What he had once taken for granted, he now no longer accepted. His faith in America had collapsed as suddenly as the Twin Towers.
It is one example, Jarecki points out, of how we can change the way we view ourselves and the world we live in. And if we can do that, we can perhaps change Americas future.
"Its a mistake," said Jarecki, "to look at the Bush Administration as an exception of foreign policy. Clinton engaged in it, so did Reagan. In fact, our countrys been engaged in a countless number of wars, overt and covert. Proxy wars and secret support. These are expressions of a policy the public knows little or nothing about. But it is accurate to look at President Bush as a shrill extension of what has been going on. Bush has revealed to us the significant dangers of imperialism and the arrogance at its center. We might think it was a safe place before him but it wasnt. Republicans dont own the copyright on war. A majority of wars have been run by Democrats."
Unfortunately, he continued, "America over time has become dominated by the [political] party game, in which each party spends disproportionate amounts of time raising funds. In some ways the parties have become eerily similar, with the goal of each to keep their base intact by playing to cultural differences rather than similarities. But I have faith in the American people, who are on the receiving end of the government. I think they are tiring of the party game.
"However the two parties may have walked into war and made the decision collectively, the result has been damaging to America and to the world."
Jarecki first made an impression on the film world with his directing talents in 2001 with "The Opponent," a low-budget, well-crafted boxing drama with "Baywatch" beauty Erika Eleniak turning pro slugger under trainer James Colby. Released by Lions Gate, the film jabbed at many of the sensitive areas that Clint Eastwood would similarly shadow box through three years later in "Million Dollar Baby."
In 2002, Jarecki decided to showcase his documentary style by directing "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," based on a book by Christopher Hitchens. Book and film accused Kissinger of war criminal behavior, and posed doubts about American foreign policy. It was a foreshadowing of things to come in "Why We Fight."
Before taking on the Kissinger project, Jarecki recalled what his father had taught him. "You see," he explained, "Kissinger also escaped Germany like my father and took away a similar lesson about the awesomeness and awfulness of power. And so I wonder: Later, perhaps, did Kissinger gravitate to that power? But instead of refusing and rejecting it as my father had, did Kissinger identify with it?"
Jareckis brother Andrew is also a film maker, the director of the documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003), a study of the life of accused pedophile Arnold Friedman, and the profound effect on Friedmans own family.
"Andrew and I are close," admitted Eugene. "I jokingly think we grew up in such an eclectic household that it taught us that truth can indeed be more interesting than fiction. Though our subject matter may differ, were deeply committed to unearthing hidden truth, particularly when that truth challenges our prejudices." He added: "I am by nature someone who roots for the underdog, yells at umpires, cares about justice. I take it personally when I find injustice."
An ironic footnote: "Why We Fight" was financed for around $1 million by TV networks in Canada (CBC) and England (BBC), and a French-German station in Strasbourgall reflecting countries whose citizens have been at odds since 9/11 with American foreign policy.
If "Why We Fight," which Sony is releasing Feb. 10 on 200 screens across America, becomes as popular as Michael Moores "Fahrenheit 9/11," would Jarecki look forward to becoming an icon for the nations political forces?
His answer came without hesitation: "The day I decide to join a party, thats the day Id forfeit the confidence thats been vested in me. I dont wear a red, blue or green hat. I wear an American and global hat. Im trying to promote a real dialogue about our role in the world to which we are so central."
Whatever else might be said about Michael Moore, "whether you like or dont like the way he [does things], hes made it hip for young people to think and talk about politics," Jarecki said. "And that has sent a message to distributors that people young and old now want to see politics covered in the movies."
©2006 by John Stanley. This column first posted Jan. 30, 2006.
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