The Unquiet American
In the family of documentary filmmakers, Eugene Jarecki might figure as a younger sibling to Michael Moore: the sober, responsible little fellow who tails a riotous big brother. Moore plays to the camera; Jarecki keeps himself offscreen. Moore ridicules his political enemies; Jarecki respects them, letting the likes of Richard Perle and William Kristol make their best case for the Iraq War. When you watch Jarecki's Why We Fight, you find that opinions are identified as such, and dutifully balanced, and kept distinct from assertions of fact--a procedure that has often been prescribed for Moore and would probably hit him like a dose of lithium, smoothing him into respectability at the expense of smothering his oomph. Nobody would presume to medicate Jarecki--and yet, as sometimes happens with little brothers, he is in his quiet way the more unruly of the two.
His new film does little more than explain why we, the United States, fight in Iraq, and also why we have fought in general for the past sixty years. It expounds at length upon a canonical text--President Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he famously warned against "the military-industrial complex"--while piecing together a portrait of one ordinary citizen, Wilton Sekzer, whose son was among those murdered by the World Trade Center attackers. On top of that, Jarecki gives you glancing stories about other citizens (a strikingly hopeless young man who has just enlisted in the Army, a disillusioned woman now retired from an Air Force career); illustrated lectures about past US military actions; Inquiring Photographer interviews conducted in small American towns and in Iraq; professional accounts of the beginning of the Iraq War, as witnessed by the pilots who dropped the first bombs. All this and a little film history, too: Jarecki traces his title, Why We Fight, to the series of troop indoctrination films that Frank Capra directed during World War II for the Army Signal Corps.
How does all this disparate material fit together? Uneasily.
Jarecki starts with a small portion of the Eisenhower speech, elaborated with a montage of archival footage and some soundtrack music in the Philip Glass vein. Moviegoers who have seen Errol Morris's The Fog of War will undergo a moment of déjà vu--though not so prolonged a moment as readers of The Nation will experience later, when Jarecki sets out to demonstrate that a military-industrial complex exists today, and that Dick Cheney and a company called Halliburton have something to do with it. I suppose this information will be fresh to many Americans, and I admire the precise, light touch with which Jarecki gives them the news. But except for a few brief scenes of a weapons trade show, where a pitchman for Kellogg Brown & Root performs card tricks before an audience of procurement officers, these sections of Why We Fight are devoid of memorable moments. All that sticks in the mind are phrases (bring home the bacon, revolving door) and an impression of Eisenhower's probity.
Surrounding this presentation, and sometimes intercut with it, are Jarecki's other items: lessons from talking heads (hello, Gore Vidal!), perfunctory chats with Middle Americans (who might have had ideas about why we're in Iraq but didn't share many of them), a visit to a bomb factory, more World War II footage, assembled according to an order that remains mysterious to me, even after a second viewing. Michael Moore, for all his jokey eclecticism, would have made you understand, and feel, each change of topic. Jarecki, though a far more expository filmmaker, has jumped around as if out of control. He can't find a line through this vast and bloody subject--until, remarkably, he does, in the last fifteen minutes or so.
That's when Lieut. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired Pentagon analyst, stops functioning in the film as an expert witness and becomes a character, living out her estrangement from the forces she once served. You see that she has had to abandon something dear to her. So has William Solomon, the young Army volunteer, who is shown putting a few mementos into storage and moving out of his now-empty childhood apartment. As the film reaches its conclusion, the import of these characters' stories converges with that of Wilton Sekzer, whose loss is the most profound of all.
A Vietnam veteran and retired New York City cop, Sekzer wholeheartedly supported the war against Iraq, finding in it some small relief for his rage and grief over the death of his son. Then he heard George Bush deny, on television, that his Administration had ever linked Saddam Hussein to the World Trade Center attack. With that, all the rage and grief seem to have struck Sekzer again at full force, joined by a new sense of betrayal.
Why do we fight? "Because we're hurt, and our leaders lie," Sekzer might say. To which Kwiatkowski could add: "Because it's useful to the people in power, who don't give a damn who gets killed." And Solomon might chime in: "Because we've got nothing better to do, and the Army's hiring."
Not one answer, but three unruly, devastating truths.