Documentary Film Review: Why We Fight

Why We Fight (Eugene Jarecki, 2005) is a documentary which questions from an Amerikan perspective the motives and intent of the US’s recent invasions and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the film, war mainly serves to strengthen the power of and enrich the ‘military-industrial complex,’ a term coined by former US president Dwight. D Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell address. According to the film, the military-industrial complex is a conglomeration between Amerikan private armaments manufacturers, contractors and high levels of the US government. Implied to a minor degree, but never with any clarity or comprehensiveness, Amerikans themselves are also deeply invested in war.

Throughout much of the film, Why We Fight follows around a father who is still grieving four years after his son’s death in New York on 9-11-2001. The death of a son is always impactful and anger is an understandable reaction. In Why We Fight, much of the narrative is spun around the father’s anger shifting from those perceived responsible for the attacks [i.e., generalized Muslim terrorists] to those in high political offices [the Bush administration at the time] who manipulated such initial anger into support for war. The father’s later sentiment becomes far more noble. Himself knowing the pain of losing a son, he would not wish it on other seemingly innocent people no matter how divided they are by geography, culture or class.

As the film briefly mentions, the attacks that occurred on 9-11-2001 were in large part a response to earlier US aggression both in the Muslim-dominated Middle East, but also around the Third World as a whole. As other commentators have noted, the question that should be asked is not “Why did this happen?,” but “Why didn’t this happen sooner or more frequently?”

Beyond this Why We Fight gives an extremely narrow perspective on its main topic and even in this regard the complete picture is not revealed. This is due primarily to the fact that it was made for an Amerikan audience and comes from their own perspective. Thus, the fact that the United States was founded on expansionist land theft, slavery and genocide (all necessarily accomplished through violence) and an acknowledgement of its continuing legacy is omitted. This reality is often too harsh for Amerikans, even those who’ve come to nominally oppose specific imperialist wars.

Rather than expose Amerikans to the fact that they’ve always been a nation of invaders, Why We Fight goes out of its way to appeal to them on the basis of patriotism: i.e., the authoritative voice of a former leader from a time when Amerika was somehow better. Through continually relying on ‘progressive’ voices of Amerika’s past and present (and occasionally throwing in an emotional soundbite from an Iraqi for window-dressing), Why We Fight upholds, not shatters, the myth of Amerikan moral and general supremacy.

For this, Why We Fight never states plainly the cause of US aggression: because it is necessary to maintain a system under which the vast majority of Amerikans (not just those working in the bomb factories or the public mercenaries which make up the US military) are benefactors, both historic and current.

If not starting from the fact that every square inch of the United States was invaded and occupied, through which Amerikans acquired their unusually large land-base and ‘natural’ mineral wealth, we could start with the fact that the vast majority of Amerikans are part of the world’s riches 15% and virtually every Amerikan is part of the world’s richest 20%; or that the US makes up roughly 5% of the world yet uses 20-25% of its energy resources. Violence and war, if nothing else, is the bare mechanism to maintain such disparity on a relatively finite globe.

When examined under this light, all the manipulations of Amerikans by the Amerikan ruling class is merely keeping them in lockstep with the shared goal of maintaining US-led imperialism.

As far as actually explaining why Amerikans fight, this film actually does a poor job. It certainly doesn’t explain why under Obama (who many fans of this somewhat dated documentary likely voted for), Amerika has escalated its fighting in Afghanistan, or why the US has recently fought in Somalia, Yemen and Libya but not Darfur in 1999 or Bahrain in 2011. It doesn’t explain why Amerikans don’t oppose, in the light of additional facts, the US promoting militarism around the globe through ‘military aid,’ training and armaments sales.

Why We Fight has its uses. In some narrow cases it may effectively sow dissension amongst Amerikans regarding their various conquests. Yet, even if this is the case and as demonstrated by the ‘Anti-Imperialist League’ of 1898 or more recently the so-called anti-war movement, such self-interested dissension rarely results in tangible gains for Third World people subject to imperialist violence, invasions or exploitation. Likewise, films like Why We Fight, which are ultimately mired in Amerikan patriotism and First World chauvinism, can never answer such a question with necessary clarity. The answer to such a question precedes primarily appealing to the abusers themselves.

Amerikans fight because is sustains an imperialist system through which the whole the country is uplifted: from politicians, to the executives and workers at Boeing, to Coca Cola and Kraft Foods, to share holders, to Joe Amerika, and even those nationally oppressed inside the US. As the US overextends itself militarily and politically, this may become less of the case. Yet with its long history of violently enriching themselves at the expense of exploited people, we can hardly expect Amerikans to stop fighting anytime soon.

- Nick Brown