Tonight Kris and I watched Why We Fight, the 2005 documentary about the United States military-industrial complex. The filmmakers ask: Why is the United States fighting in Iraq? More generally, they wonder why this country seems obsessed with a policy of Imperialism, a policy promoted by every President in the last forty years (except perhaps Carter).

Why We Fight uses as a touchstone the Farewell Address of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a speech made in 1961. Here’s an mp3 of the entire thing, and here’s the relevant excerpt:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

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 now 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 more than the net income of all United States corporations.

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.

[The second half of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address cautions against the rise of Federally-funded scientific research. He was wary of this marriage, too.]

Why We Fight explores the consequences of having ignored Eisenhower’s warning. Our nation is now controlled by the military-industrial complex. The budget is dominated by military spending. The government is beholden to the companies that manufacture armaments. There is a vast and complex web of spending and mutual support that perpetuates a need for more fighting, the use of more weapons.

This may sound like some sort of conspiracy theory, but it’s not. It is simply a statement of facts. It’s our interpretation of these facts that gives them value. For you, this military-industrial complex may be a much-needed safety net. But for me, as a pacifist, as a thinking person who opposes our invasion of Iraq, as a citizen disgusted by the enormity of the military budget (especially at the expense of other programs), I find the military-industrial complex abhorrent.

I was especially pleased that the one of the commentators in the film provided some brief historical context for the 9/11 attacks, context that seems sorely lacking in nearly every discussion of the event. (For more on this, read How did we get here?, a compilation of the research I made in the days following 9/11.)

Here’s the trailer for Why We Fight:

Why We Fight is an interesting film — one that will go unwatched by most Americans — but it is not wholly successful. Its many subjects do not seem unified. The film never seems to make a point, to arrive at a conclusion.

If you’re interested in a sobering evening of reflection about war, I recommend watching Why We Fight with the recent The Fog of War, in which former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara discusses the nature of modern war. The Fog of War is a great film (my review).

4 Replies to “Why We Fight”

  1. Dave says:

    I agree with you on the Fog of War being a great film, and one which our current leadership could benefit from significantly. I also agree that the military-industrial complex plays a significant role in political decisions and partially explains why we’re where we’re at.

    I disagree, however, on a couple of things. First, I don’t believe the the MIC is driving things as much as the above post suggests. Rather, I suspect that there has been (especially recently) a very nice dovetailing between the MIC and the neo-conservative sense that the United States needs to preserve US hegemony through the exercise of raw force. The MIC just happens to be a convenient tool for accomplishing this- in other words, some clever people saw a market and exploited it.

    Second, although I tend to differ from my fellow Libertarians on this, I don’t believe that the US should be a pacifistic entity. We clearly have national interests that should be protected and sometimes that means we should exercise force, even in other countries. On the other hand, this should be something that is done extremely reluctantly, only as a last resort and with clear goals in mind. The military is good for a limited number of things- killing people, destroying things and seizing land. It will never be an instrument for winning hearts and minds- that’s what we have Coca Cola for.

    Third, one reason why the MIC has been allowed to flourish is the concern about repeating history. Specifically, in WWI and WWII we were generally speaking woefully underprepared for the role that we needed to undertake. As a result it took us longer to “spool up” and become productive, have prepared troops and weapons, etc. Having a MIC is designed to shorten that “spool up” time, especially since we’ve apparently decided that it’s our role to be the world’s policeman. But in an era in which we have jet planes capable of reaching any point on earth in a matter of hours (and therefore anyone can reach us in that time as well), I think it makes sense to have a standing army and a MIC that’s prepared to support that force, if only for truly defensive purposes.

  2. Nikchick says:

    I saw this with my friend Ray (same friend who went to see Fog of War with me). I’m not sure there is one point or one conclusion to be reached by these films but that’s okay with me. Even merely focusing attention on the situation is a step forward out of ignorance and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned.

    Dave writes: Rather, I suspect that there has been (especially recently) a very nice dovetailing between the MIC and the neo-conservative sense that the United States needs to preserve US hegemony through the exercise of raw force.

    I agree. America is in the middle of several brewing storms that are increasingly merging forces (sometimes entirely accidental, imho). Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy lays out the ways in which the oil dependence, radical Christianity, and staggering debt (governmental and individual) are three such combined forces that pull us along. The MIC plays into that as well and while it may not be a singular controlling force, it’s certainly a massive and influential one.

  3. Dave says:

    Just to follow up on Nicole’s statement, one thing that is continually underestimated by most individual liberals (but not conservatives) is the power of the corporation. The corporation, whether it’s for selling guns or selling butter, has a tremendous advantage over the average individual because it represents a huge concentration of capital that is geared toward one result- increasing that capital. Many individuals acting in concert, contributing in concert, and expecting certain things in concert produces better results than an individual acting alone. Nor, frankly, does a corporation care how it gets to the end result, only that it does get to that end. It is the ultimate example of the ends justify the means. When any one entity can marshall that many resources ($$) to direct at a specific goal then it becomes a very influential entity indeed.

    The additional leverage that the MIC has is the government itself. Specifically, most MIC companies are not selling weapons to individuals (much as I’d like to have a destroyer it isn’t in the cards), but rather to governments. That being the case there’s really not much competition in the sense that there’s a large number of systems and a large number of potential suppliers or buyers. Most of those companies have gradually merged together over the last 25 years so that at best you’re really talking one or two domestic companies in the first place. Only one or two companies can afford to produce weapons systems. Only one or two gov’ts can afford to buy them.

    At the same time, however, the government can’t afford to let the company wither on the vine for lack of business because it needs the company there eventually, or, in the alternative, doesn’t want it producing products for a competing nation. So essentially the government has to keep the MIC companies busy in order to keep them healthy and on our side. We’re held hostage by the very thing we created to better serve us.

  4. Josh says:

    So essentially the government has to keep the MIC companies busy in order to keep them healthy and on our side. We’re held hostage by the very thing we created to better serve us.



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