Search View Archive
Express In Conversation

The Nature of the System/It’s the System Not the Man: Eugene Jarecki with Williams Cole

Eugene Jarecki’s new film Why We Fight won the 2005 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It premieres on January 20 in New York and LA and rolls out nationally soon after. It’s a well-honed argument that traces the origins and development of what President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell speech warned about as the “military industrial complex.” Weaved with effective personal stories, Why We Fight diagnoses and analyzes the larger systemic issues that lead to American warfare. The Rail’s Williams Cole recently spoke to Jarecki about the film.

Williams Cole (Rail): Talk about the astounding Presidential address that seemed to inspire the film.

Eugene Jarecki: This project really began with my discovery of the farewell address of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 that warned against the influence of the “military industrial complex.” He was a 5-star General in World War II turned President, a man who had experienced battle first hand who ended up in the White House at a time just when the real military-industrial lessons of that war were becoming clear to U.S. policy-makers. Suddenly America had the power and to some extent the moral authority to assume a sort of global leadership position and Eisenhower was a remarkable messenger who began to find that there were costs to that. When Eisenhower becomes president in 1953 he finds himself in the position of sensing enormous pressure from the newly burgeoning defense sector. There was an arms race with the Soviets, and Eisenhower was badgered by his critics throughout his presidency of being too soft on Soviets. And I think he grew to feel that if someone like himself, with so much battlefield experience and with so much wisdom about military issues, could not stop the forces of corporatism from driving policy, then who could? So it was his very warning against the “military industrial complex” that catalyzed me to want to make the film because the real question was: so Eisenhower made the warning in 1961 and here we are 40-odd some years later and where do we stand? Has his warning become a sort of tragic prophesy for the unfolding of the extraordinary military budget that we currently see, the awkward sense that we all feel that something too profitable is going on among those who supply the war with munitions and other services. So, at a time of war it’s very important to look back and try to understand the present in light of the past.

Rail: I’ve always been familiar with the speech but have always seen it as a sleeper of sorts. Why wasn’t it ever really recognized as the trenchant warning that it was?

Jarecki: Well, it was inconvenient to recognize it. He said it in his speech, that the very structure of our society, of the democratic state, the “rule of the people” was threatened if there was an aggregation of too much power in any one center. And the power he saw in the defense-industrial-military sector—and he included congress in that—is what he saw as the risk of the time. No one in Washington wants to hear that speech because in essence it’s an exposure of the anatomy of the business of Washington. So it doesn’t matter if Dwight Eisenhower is a Republican, a Democrat, a General or an average citizen. It’s just not a welcome critique by those for whom the status quo is servicing.

Rail: And that includes the Democrats, of course.

Jarecki: Oh, wildly so. One of the big myths in America is that Republicans own the copyright on war. You saw that in the lead up to the Iraq war. The failure of the Democrats to stop that war is consistent with the Democrats position on war over the last half-Century. If you list the wars of the 20th Century I can tell you that certainly half are run by Democrats—World War II, Democrats; Vietnam, Democrat.

Rail: I mean, look at Democrats like Joseph Lieberman—

Jarecki: Yes, but there’s no reason to single out Lieberman. It’s important to look systemically. The nature of the American system is that there’s no impermeable wall built between capitalism and democracy, so democracy is essentially something that can be bought and paid for. The atrophying of our democratic life in America is of course related to the burgeoning power of a corporate-political alliance, that each world needs the other, the corporations need policies from politicians that are corporate-friendly amid competitive times and the politicians need money to separate themselves from the competition for office. So, that is a perverting element and I think Eisenhower saw that in the defense sector of his time. Eisenhower’s warning applies to both parties, it applies to all of us, because we’re all caught in a matrix driven by money, away from principles. It’s simple. What’s not simple is how to solve it because we are not living in a time where there are vibrant new ideas put in the mainstream from systemic inward-looking tough love. The Jefferson-Madison tradition of asking oneself “is this the way we should govern?”—that tradition is not driving.

Rail: How would you characterize the current administration in an historical perspective then?

Jarecki: I don’t look at the Bush administration quite as anomalously as many people do. Many people find it politically expedient and helpful to single out George Bush’s administration as a wild departure from a previously pacifist tradition of US foreign policy. You need only look at the number of wars, overt and covert, that the United States has been involved in over the last century to understand that George Bush is consistent with the past if perhaps a shrill extension of it. I think what is unique about George Bush—and those of us who are concerned about the direction of America will owe him a debt of gratitude—is that pushed the fast forward button on the direction we were already heading in. So he brought us far more quickly to Falluja, to Abu Ghraib, to the streets of New Orleans, to the general vision of an unsustainable world driven only by a political-corporate greed model which has no longer view as it relates for resource depletion or global democracy. George Bush showed the danger of a world driven by short-term thinking and an excessive trust that public good will arise from the private sector. Madison said, “If men were good there would be no need for government” and we have known from early on that the social contract with a centralized government of any kind at all was to arbitrate and try to protect among other things, the weak from the strong. So I think Americans have been fast-forwarded by George Bush in a way into a glaring vision, into the abyss, in a way.

Rail: So, this glaring vision is affecting previous supporters of the war like Congressman Murtha and much of the American public. Do you have any comments on any kind of solution in Iraq?

Jarecki: Well, now we’re in a perverse dialogue. For anyone who was against the war, dealing with the question to begin with of what to do now when we’re in conflict is perverse in a way. There’s always the question of the right and responsible thing to do but how do you find a right and responsible end to a story that has a wrong and irresponsible start. There isn’t a simple answer. The problem is—and this is I suppose why I made Why We Fight —this is not the first war where we’re now finding ourselves scratching our head not only wondering how to get out but wondering how we got here in the first place. I do think more and more Americans are asking themselves that and I don’t want them to ask themselves that and have the answer be what a bad and complex administration Bush is. This is a tendency of US foreign policy. We are so focused on being first in the world, on imposing our will and making sure it’s inviolable by others and by imposing our own national interest overseas and elsewhere that we are doing so at the cost of the very fabric of our lives, not only in a spiritual sense but an economic sense. We are building viaducts in Iraq while people in New Orleans are drowning. That is a chief study in what Eisenhower would call “imbalance in and among national programs.” He was deeply afraid, and I take my cue from him, in a wrong allocation of resources; in an allocation of resources driven by fear and by an exaggerated view of the role of national security. There’s a great line from Shakespeare that says, “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”

Rail: As Emerson said, “empire is nothing but egotism.” What about empire?

Jarecki: Why We Fight is about the costs and perils that arise from this country’s shift from its republican origins to what appears to be an imperial future. As we made that shift Eisenhower warned us of the dangers we face. The very idea of America is that it broke off from an empire to form a republic. It’s tragic. It’s like a child growing up in an abusive household, breaking off and going his or her own way and then finding their way back to the abuse itself later in life. It’s the worst kind of tragic unlearning of the lesson that should have been learned. We see in the fall of the Roman Empire, the fall of the British Empire, these are not just historical facts, these are the idea of extraordinarily audacious social experiments driven by the powerful at the expense of the weak which came crashing down under their own weight. And we have that here now. We have the beginnings of a collapsing system. We don’t have what a system needs to sustain itself in a healthy way going forward. The problem is that once you take that kind of moral authority that partly, and justifiably to some degree derived from WWII, it can be a dangerous thing. It’s like having a friend who’s just as self-righteous, who thinks their shit doesn’t stink and so anything they do is right. And with that comes the death of internal criticism, the death of the very thing that this republic was founded on.

Rail: Isn’t that what does characterize the Bush administration more than others, according to Richard Clarke, Paul O’Neill among others, that lack of internal criticism, that incredible ego?

Jarecki: Yes, the audacity. I think there’s a lot of ego there, emboldened by 9/11. But if you’re a policymaker in Washington already inclined toward warfare, throwing Saddam into that hopper after 9/11 is a pretty natural step, especially if you put two and two together and say that control over Iraq at a time of Chinese ascension, oil depletion and instability in Saudi Arabia—those three factors—this is a very good time to control oil field number two. In that sense, the fourteen permanent bases now constructed in Iraq make sense. The problem is that the costs of that establishment, the costs of that power move are very significant both in terms of our global relationships and our inner health. In order to get there this administration had to deceive the public and trample on the very democracy they are proposing to export.What you see with the audacity of the Bush administration is a certain thing that does come with power; the more power that this administration gathered, the more it almost became a kind of sport to do things on the sly. Certain people we interviewed for the film are committed public servants who care deeply for what they’re doing and others, you can tell, are insecure people who want to hold a secret no one else has—they delight in that privileged role. That’s not healthy for a democracy if you have public figures that relish keeping from the public information that is at the heart of decision-making about their lives. Then, you have a democratic problem.

Rail: So, what do you think of the timing of this film, in terms of the way things have been developing? How do you hope the film will inform America?

Jarecki: I hope the film will do exactly what I hoped in making it. Sony is premiering the film on the same day as the State of the Union address in January and I guess I’m hoping what it will do is take the focus off George Bush and onto a much larger, deeper picture about American life. George Bush was not born overnight, he’s the product of more than 50 or 60 years of policy shifting, the way you boil a frog in warm water, shifting in small, slow steps from our republican origins of open government to something far more closed where a smaller and smaller and more elite group are running the business of this country and running it in a direction that does not appear to be sustainable. So if George Bush is simply a shrill extension of what has come before—and I’d like to have him seen like that—we can get back to the business of thinking inwardly about where we’re headed as a country. Because the distraction of being focused on one administration or another and a particular war they put us in to that we then ask ourselves “how did we get here?” is just that, a distraction. The deeper issue is how we stop this from happening in the future.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 05-JAN 06

All Issues