February 27, 2006
By BOB HERBERT
Early in the documentary film “Why We Fight,” Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City police officer whose son was killed in the World Trade Center attack, describes his personal feelings in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.
“Somebody had to pay for this,” he says. “Somebody had to pay for 9/11. … I wanna see their bodies stacked up for what they did. For taking my son.”
Lost in the agony of his grief, Mr. Sekzer wanted revenge. He wanted the government to go after the bad guys, and when the government said the bad guys were in Iraq, he didn’t argue.
For most of his life Mr. Sekzer was a patriot straight out of central casting. His view was always “If the bugle calls, you go.” When he was 21 he was a gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam. He didn’t question his country’s motives. He was more than willing to place his trust in the leadership of the nation he loved.
“Why We Fight,” a thoughtful, first-rate movie directed by Eugene Jarecki, is largely about how misplaced that trust has become. The central figure in the film is not Mr. Jarecki, but Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president who had been the supreme Allied commander in Europe in World War II, and who famously warned us at the end of his second term about the profound danger inherent in the rise of the military-industrial complex.
Ike warned us, but we didn’t listen. That’s the theme the movie explores.
Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to a national television and radio audience in January 1961. “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” he said. He recognized that this development was essential to the defense of the nation. But he warned that “we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.”
“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” he said. “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” It was as if this president, who understood war as well or better than any American who ever lived, were somehow able to peer into the future and see the tail of the military-industrial complex wagging the dog of American life, with inevitably disastrous consequences.
The endless billions to be reaped from the horrors of war are a perennial incentive to invest in the war machine and to keep those wars a-coming. “His words have unfortunately come true,” says Senator John McCain in the film. “He was worried that priorities are set by what benefits corporations as opposed to what benefits the country.”
The way you keep the wars coming is to keep the populace in a state of perpetual fear. That allows you to continue the insane feeding of the military-industrial complex at the expense of the rest of the nation’s needs. “Before long,” said Mr. Jarecki in an interview, “the military ends up so overempowered that the rest of your national life has been allowed to atrophy.”
In one of the great deceptive maneuvers in U.S. history, the military-industrial complex (with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as chairman and C.E.O., respectively) took its eye off the real enemy in Afghanistan and launched the pointless but far more remunerative war in Iraq.
If you want to get a chill, just consider the tragic chaos in present-day Iraq (seven G.I.’s were killed on the day I went to see “Why We Fight”) and then listen to Susan Eisenhower in the film recalling a quotation attributed to her grandfather: “God help this country when somebody sits at this desk who doesn’t know as much about the military as I do.”
The military-industrial complex has become so pervasive that it is now, as one of the figures in the movie notes, all but invisible. Its missions and priorities are poorly understood by most Americans, and frequently counter to their interests.
Near the end of the movie, Mr. Sekzer, the New York cop who lost his son on Sept. 11, describes his reaction to President Bush’s belated acknowledgment that “we’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved” in the Sept.11 attacks.
“What the hell did we go in there for?” Mr. Sekzer asks.
Unable to hide his bitterness, he says: “The government exploited my feelings of patriotism, of a deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son. But I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything.”