The recent fuss over the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on the phone conversations of suspected terrorists is only the latest of many indications that the media are still in love with the idea of Watergate and of themselves as fearless scourges of the powerful and unearthers of scandal at their expense. The movies are even more dazzled by this mythology. But where journalists have to retain at least some sense of the unreality of their Woodward-and-Bernstein fantasies in order to function in the real world, in Hollywood, as I may have mentioned before, it’s always 1974. Just look at Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, a documentary about — if you can believe it — that hardy perennial of left-wing propaganda and paranoia, the Military-Industrial Complex.
Ah, that takes me back! Once again I seem to smell the heady blend of marijuana, tear gas and self-righteousness of my youth. Those under 50 may not know that “Military-Industrial Complex” is an expression coined by President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address of 1961 to express his sense that relations between Pentagon procurement officers and defense contractors were too cozy — to the detriment not of the workers and peasants of the world but of the American taxpayer. But within a few years, the term took on a life of its own and became a favorite bugbear of the most radical elements in the anti-Vietnam war movement. For them it served as an emblem of their paranoid sense of the vastness and potency of the evil war-making engine which they opposed and whose existence seemed to have been confirmed by a Republican president. Thus, the U.S. war-machine took on a mysterious agency of its own, to the point where it was thought to dream up unnecessary and immoral wars only to justify its own existence.
The idea was politically naive, to say the least, suitable only for college kids newly radicalized by the anti-war movement and in search of a grand theory to explain to themselves the unique wickedness of American foreign policy during the Vietnam era. Yet, miraculously, it seems to have been resurrected in Mr. Jarecki’s film, which cheekily takes its title from a series of Frank Capra documentaries made for the troops during World War II. Capra, of course, was acting as a propagandist on behalf of the allied war effort. Mr. Jarecki is acting as a propagandist for, well, the other side — which, as you may have noticed, is not Nazi nor even Communist anymore but Islamic jihadist. But if we have learned anything over the last 40 years it is that the “peace movement” is permanently and unalterably against America’s wars, no matter who the enemy. So all the cliches of ’60s leftist agitprop can be trotted out again as if they had never been heard before — as if nothing had changed and the good old MIC could be assumed to be responsible every time Americans went to war.
You will have gathered that I don’t agree. But even if I did agree and were looking at the movie just as a movie, I would have said that the problem with Why We Fight is that it offers too many answers to the implied question of its title. For besides the Military Industrial Complex, we are offered oil, “economic colonialism” — one of Mr. Jarecki’s talking heads, Charles Lewis, explains this in all seriousness as “imposing” free markets on people in other countries — “imperial” ambitions or (Chalmers Johnson) an “imperial presidency,” Think Tanks, and “capitalism” (Lewis again), though the most radical scions of the left would say, I suppose, that capitalism is just the Military Industrial Complex writ large. The same goes for “powerful corporate interests.” Finally, Mr. Jarecki offers us the opinion of that notable geopolitical thinker, Dan Rather, that we have in today’s America “a miniature version of what you have in totalitarian states.”
Sure you do, Dan — in the same way that a policeman arresting a criminal is a miniature version of what you have in totalitarian states. “Totalitarian” by definition means big, as is implied by the presence of the word “total” in it. A little version of big is a contradiction in terms — literally nonsense. But Dan’s nonsense is hardly noticeable among the rest, and all these different explanations for the same thing only serve to reinforce the general effect of paranoia generated by intellectuals trying to find complicated proprietary theories to explain quite simple things. To most people, that is, there’s not a lot of room for ratiocination between the two propositions: (1) we are hit and (2) we hit back. But intellectuals can prove their title as such by finding the theory which identifies the “real” truth or truths which lie between them but which cannot be seen by lesser intellects unaided by them, the intellectuals.
Theory is also essential as cover for shocking and scandalous statements that could never be believed without it, such as Charles Lewis’s contention here that we, meaning the United States, “are an incredibly militant and militaristic nation.” Without the theory to lend it some plausibility, this proposition is obviously, ludicrously untrue and an illustration of the only true thing that Gore Vidal says in the picture — perhaps that Gore Vidal has ever said — namely that we as a nation have a contempt for history. Those who don’t may think of the Spartans, the Romans, the Prussians, the Napoleonic French, the Nazis, Fascists, Communists — even the European colonial empires of the 19th century. If we’re “incredibly militaristic” what were they?
In fact, we are the least militaristic great power that the world has ever known, and the question that this film raises, albeit inadvertently, is this: Is it possible for us to retain our position as a great world power and remain as unmilitaristic as we are? Perhaps the answer lies in how many American movie-goers are willing to believe the nostalgic fantasies on offer in Mr. Jarecki’s movie.