Why We Fight - A film by Eugene Jarecki
This film features an unlikely hero in President Eisenhower. Jarecki starts with the 1961 farewell address in which the Military-Industrial Complex is first described and comes back to it periodically throughout. It is a noteworthy speech that has helped many of us understand how the self interest of defense contractors and the needs of a large standing army end up driving our foreign policy towards military responses over and over again.
Eisenhower was, of course, a career military man, who led the most powerful army in the history of the world to victory in World War II. He felt that war was absolutely necessary to defeat the Nazis. His statement opposing the military Industrial complex was insightful but was delivered as he gave up power and had no effect on policy. Reportedly he was frustrated by the inability of even the President of the United States to stop the trend towards the militarization of our society.
Looking at our history since WWII, we see a vast increase in American Military Power and a concomitant rise of the military contractor. The contractor was needed to supply a large standing army. The army was needed because we weren’t really at peace but engaged in an armed standoff with the Soviet Union, the Cold War. Now, a Cold War has a lot in common with a hot one. There is an almost unquestioning acceptance of the assumption that the enemy wants to annihilate us. Naturally, in those circumstances no expense is too great so we can be sure that we are the strongest one on the block. We have to be, so we can deter an attack and prevail if it comes to open hostility.
With a large permanent military establishment, the role of the military contractor also changes. Where war production had been organized to respond to a crisis, now it is a way of life. Whole companies now exist entirely for the purpose of supplying the military. So, instead of having a motivation of helping the country through a crisis, they are motivated by profit, which is simply how capitalism works.
War profiteering used to be a dirty word. Harry Truman made his reputation in the Senate investigating companies that made undue profits at the expense of the war effort in WWII. Whether they were overcharging or producing defective products, people were outraged. The right to make a reasonable profit was not questioned, but the idea that somebody would take advantage of a national crisis for their own benefit was seen as almost treasonable. Of course, profiteering is hardly new. It has reared its head over and over again and has been denounced whenever it is uncovered. However, now there seems to be a lot less concern that defense contractors are unduly profiting at the public expense.
The problem is that in order to increase profits, companies have learned to influence the decision makers, not just in the Pentagon, but also in Congress, to spend more on “defense”. New weapons systems may or may not serve a real military purpose but they serve a very profitable purpose for the companies. They are also very useful for our Representatives in Congress, who can campaign back home by bringing jobs into the district. The film cites the B1 bomber, which has components made it every state of the union. That gives it a whole lot of political clout. Defense is the best pork there is. Defense contractors are also big contributors to political campaigns. This makes politicians less likely to challenge these companies and more likely to buy off on expensive new weapons systems.
In a time of war, and we have been on a continual war footing ever since WWII, no expense is too great for the defense of our country. If budget cuts have to be made, other programs suffer, not defense. If they can’t find anything else to cut, no matter, we’ll go into debt. US military spending is at an all time high and dwarfs that of any other country. In fact, we outspend the rest of the world combined. At the same time, our debt ceiling has just been raised to a mind boggling $9 trillion, approximately $30,000 per person. That would put a family of 4 on the hook for $120,000. But not to worry, we will only pay the interest on that. The burden of paying off the principal will fall on our children and grandchildren.
With such an emphasis on the military, there has also developed a willingness to use military force to try out all these new weapons systems we paid so much for. The same forces that lead us to keep building them also impel us to use them, at least partly to justify the expense of building them. This isn’t the primary reason we go to war but since policy makers have already committed themselves to the notion that new weapons systems equals national defense, it is a contributing factor. The Gulf War was touted as an opportunity to battle test a whole new generation of weapons. Much was made of so called “smart” bombs with pinpoint accuracy, although civilian casualties were not reduced nearly to the extent that was initially reported. Depleted uranium shells proved very effective in penetrating armored vehicles, although the long term toxicity to both Iraqis and our own military has not been officially acknowledged.
We fight overtly and covertly to maintain our position as a superpower and to support our “national interest”, however that is defined. To a large extent that is spelled O-I-L. In Iran, the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government in 1953 that wanted a greater share of Iranian oil profits, and greater control over Iranian oil resources, to stay in Iran, rather than simply benefit western oil companies. The brutally repressive government of the Shah was so hated that radical fundamentalists were able to use that anger to seize control of the government in 1979. Now the US was so worried that Iran had become a hostile oil power that they supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq and even encouraged him to go to war against Iran. When he used chemical weapons the US administration looked the other way. In 2003 these weapons would be used as a pretext for invading Iraq, even though they had been destroyed a decade earlier.
Since the end of the Iranian war, Hussein had consolidated his power and was distancing himself from the US as part of his attempt to become more of a leader of all the Arab people, not just Iraq. Another part was his support of Palestinian rights and a greater opposition to Israel. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, there was a fear that it could threaten Saudi Arabia as well. The end of the Cold War was increasing pressure to reduce US military spending. Military hawks were looking for an opportunity to overcome the so called “Vietnam Syndrome”, or the aversion of the American public to go to war following the disastrous Vietnam war. All of these forces came together in the Gulf War and continue to shape US military policy today.
These policies are not the property of one political party or the other. Over the past 60 years both Democrats and Republicans have presided over the rise of the Military Industrial Complex and have profited from it. One could easily expect that a film that lays out the tremendously powerful forces that lead us to an ever more militarized society would be demoralizing to the peace movement. But in the conversation after the film in the packed theater where I saw it, people seemed grateful to see somebody talking about these issues openly and were inspired to renew their commitment to change.