Friday, January 4, 2008

Why We Fight

I recently watched Eugene Jarecki's feature Why We Fight on DVD (trailer here), a documentary that attempts to trace the reasons for America's engagement in armed conflict, and the associated rise of the military industrial complex (a term popularized by no less than President Eisenhower). The basic premise of the film is that there are a lot of personal reasons for supporting or engaging in war, ranging from noble goals like "spreading freedom," to vengeance, to providing life with purpose, that there are a lot of national reasons that a country might go to war, including those above, as well as political interest. The film also asserts that there is a set of commercial and political interests (again, call it the military-industrial complex) that will drive a nation to war, by focusing the personal and national mood of the country into compliance with, if not active support of, a war agenda.

While Why We Fight traces American militarism in the last sixty years, the film's focus and the deepest resonance lies in our current war in Iraq. While I don't know that the film successfully answers the question "Why We Fight?" (the three common answers seem to be "I'm Not Really Sure" from individuals, political bromides like "For Freedom" from politicians and individuals, and "because the political and commercial interests which require war for their own self-preservation seized an opportunity for war and manipulated political and public opinion to allow for that war to be made" representing the film-maker's opinion), the three questions continually surrounding (and never discussed in simple terms) the Iraq war are raised in the film. How did we get in to this war in the first place? Why are we fighting the war? How do we know when we've won the war? (i.e., How do we know when we've accomplished what we expect to accomplish in this war?)

While the film doesn't lay these questions to rest (and I hope that the details surrounding the first question are re-examined with the election of a Democratic president, and the second and third firmly resolved by the actions of the new administration), it does a good job of surfacing them, and providing some historical context. In fact, the revelation of the entire documentary may be President Eisenhower's farewell address, which I had not previously read and will excerpt in parts:
Eisenhower addresses how to promote and maintain American ideals in an increasingly militarized and turbulent world. The rhetoric from fifty years ago sounds not so far removed from today (when we hear it coming from the more articulate and less jingoistic of our politicians:)

We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts, America is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches, and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties. A huge increase in newer elements of our defenses; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research -- these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.
But Eisenhower proceeds to warn against, in surprisingly explicit terms, the influence of the military industrial complex. It's amazing how, from Washington to Teddy Roosevelt, to Eisenhower, there are a legacy of prescient speeches reflecting on American power, and how fundamentally our current leadership and their intellectual influencers, have chosen to ignore:
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 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 alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Now 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.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

The entire address can be found here. I would also highly recommend reading Christopher Hedges' War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning for anyone interested in this topic, particularly in trying to understand our impetus to war, in general (i.e., not as closely focused on the current mess we've made in Iraq).

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