Why We Fight movie poster.
Why We Fight movie poster.

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Why We Fight"

May 1, 2008


Shortly after the United States entered World War II, the U.S. government commissioned Frank Capra to create a series of films to convince American troops of the righteousness of the war. The name of the series was "Why We Fight" and director Eugene Jarecki has taken the same name for his documentary about the massive expansion of the U.S. arms industry and military establishment in the 60 years following WWII. Jarecki's view is that Americans today, unlike those viewing Capra's films in the 1940s, can give no certain answer to the question, "Why do we go to war, why do we fight?" And this, according to Jarecki, is because especially after the Iraq war, Americans have become deeply suspicious of their government's explanations for military intervention. They have come to suspect that such intervention is determined in no small part by the economic interests of what President Eisenhower called, in his 1961 farewell address to the nation, the "military-industrial complex."

Footage of Eisenhower's speech, in which he warns of the potential influence on U.S. policy of the vastly expanded arms industry and military, is shown throughout Why We Fight. Archival footage makes up a significant portion of the film: footage of soldiers and of weapons production during WWII; excerpts taken from propaganda films of the 1960s warning of the Communist threat; footage of U.S. military operations in Guatemala, Lebanon, Laos, and Congo; bloody scenes from Vietnam; and clips of speeches by Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton on the use of force.

There is ample contemporary footage as well: of congressmen making the case for military appropriations; of the principal actors in the Bush administration arguing for the necessity of intervening in Iraq; and of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. The film also profiles four Americans whose lives have been directly touched by the Iraq War. None of their stories contribute to a favorable impression of the military establishment or of the Bush administration's handling of the war.

Jarecki calls his film a "bipartisan inquiry into the workings of the military industrial complex and the rise of American empire" and indeed, there are interviews with a number of well-known Republicans (and Iraq War supporters), such as Bill Kristol and John McCain. Nevertheless, the bias is clear. After all, no one interviewed for the film argues against what is its main thesis—that the economic interests of the military-industrial complex have pushed, and will continue to push, the U.S. to intervene militarily abroad.

That said, Why We Fight presents compelling evidence in support of its case, outlining the vast sums that companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Halliburton stand to make from war and the close ties that exist between such companies and former and present government officials. The film challenges viewers to question whether the military-industrial complex has, in fact, succeeded in gaining the influence in government that Eisenhower feared.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. It should be noted that although Eisenhower warned against "the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex expansion," he also argued that this new and regrettable phenomenon was imperative for America's safety. Eisenhower was a Cold War proponent who believed that the rise of Communism had forced Americans to create a permanent arms industry. He saw this as beginning after the Korean War, which he spoke of in the same breath as WWII.

2. Do you agree with the film's premise that Eisenhower's fears have been realised, and that the needs of the "military-industrial complex" have been the principal drivers behind the numerous U.S. incursions since WWII? Is it true to say that all U.S. incursions sprang mainly from this source? Or were there other factors at work that are not adequately taken into account into the film?

3. A number of the experts interviewed for Why We Fight point out that the phrase "military-industrial complex" was, in Eisenhower's original draft of the 1961 farewell address, "military-industrial-congressional complex." The film makes the case that the U.S. Congress has made possible the influence of the military establishment and arms industry on U.S. foreign policy. Since the Congress is elected by U.S. citizens, what is their responsibility for enabling this influence?

4. Suppose the U.S. topples a foreign dictatorship by force and successfully helps to install a more democratic government; or suppose it intervenes militarily in a humanitarian crisis. Suppose, further, that the interests of the military-industrial complex play a major role in these actions. Does this show that the influence of the military-industrial complex on public policy may not always be a bad thing?

5. Why We Fight suggests that World War II was the last U.S. military operation for which there existed a good justification. Is there ever a good justification for war? What are the traditional definitions of a just war? Do they apply to any of the U.S. incursions since WWII and if so, which ones?

6. "What's the big fuss about preemption?" asks Richard Perle in the film. What is the difference between a preemptive war and a preventive war? Are either kinds of war justified?

7. According to Jarecki, "Since World War II, America has been on a path toward empire." Is this still true, or as many believe, are we once more becoming a multipolar world?

Carnegie Council Resources

The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War Andrew Bacevich, Boston University Bacevich argues that military force has increasingly become the preferred instrument of American foreign policy, a process that began not with 9/11, but with the end of the Cold War. (Public Affairs Talk, May 2005)

The New American Militarism: Conversation with Andrew Bacevich Andrew J. Bacevich, Boston University; Mary-Lea Cox, Carnegie Council "Family values," says Bacevich, used to apply to domestic politics; "but today this concept is aligned with a foreign policy agenda based on a belief in the efficacy of military power along with a revived sense of the American mission in the world." (Interview, May 2005)

Corporate Warriors: The Privatized Military and Iraq P.W. Singer, Brookings Institution P. W. Singer examines the Pentagon's policy of contracting private security and logistics firms for tasks ranging from combat to catering in the Iraq War. What are the ethical dilemmas and conflicting incentives of outsourcing a traditional state function to essentially mercenary groups? (Public Affairs Talk, December 2005)

Just War? Joel Rosenthal, Carnegie Council; Thomas Nichols, U.S. Naval War College; Jean Bethke Elshtain, University of Chicago The U.S. and other developed nations are moving into an era where preventive war is acceptable—even though to say so openly is still taboo, says Nichols. Elshtain lays out the history and principles of just war. "If force is resorted to," she insists, "it should be within the just war tradition." (Live Debate, June 2006)

Arguing About War Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study For the first time since his classic Just and Unjust Wars was published almost three decades ago, Professor Michael Walzer has again collected his most provocative arguments about contemporary military conflicts and the ethical issues they raise. (Public Affairs Talk, February 2006)

After Iraq: The Imperiled American Imperium Gregory A. Raymond, Boise State University Drawing parallels between today's situation in Iraq and the wars of ancient Greece and Persia, Raymond shows how a great power's hubris can lead to its nemesis. (Public Affairs Talk, May 2007) Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground Robert D. Kaplan, author, journalist With the rise of China and India, we should accept that we are moving once again towards a multipolar world. (Public Affairs Talk, September 2007)

Outside Links

Why We Fight Web Site

Military-Industrial Complex Speech, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 Full text of the speech

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