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Inspired by Dwight Eisenhower's legendary farewell speech, when he coined the phrase "military-industrial complex," writer/director Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) looks at the rise of the American Empire and its ever-growing war machine. Commentary from John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol, Chalmers Johnson and Richard Perle examines 50 years of military adventures, asking how—and why—a nation of, by, and for the people has become the savings-and-loan for a system that depends on a state of constant war. Winner, Grand Jury Prize (Documentary), 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

 Why We Fight

After a recent screening of my new film Why We Fight, I was asked why I chose to go into film. I answered that “filmmaking was probably the only thing that kept me from a life of crime.” People laughed, but I was partly serious.

We’ve all heard artists asked why they do what they do. All too often the answers seem overly philosophical. There’s a tendency to ignore the personal factors that drive a person to choose a creative life’s work. In my case, there are surely personal factors that drove me to political filmmaking—wanting to prove something to my parents, being the youngest and never getting a chance to talk, growing up financially secure and feeling guilty for the struggles of others. Who knows?

I do know that I came to political filmmaking as a person more moved by people than by film. I like movies, but I’m not really a film “buff.” I’m best described as an idealist pained by human conditions that stem from corruption and abuse, and who wants to “do something” to fix the problem.

A lot of people feel this way, but the major problems of today seem far beyond our reach. The evidence is overwhelming. We now face significant threats in health, education, the economy, global conflict and, as we work our way through the alphabet of tropical storm names, the environment.

Political leaders of both parties appear either too unwitting or unwilling to take steps toward real change. Across the globe, people are concerned by the path America is taking, not just during these years of a radical administration in Washington, but looking back to previous administrations. People see America’s ideals of democracy and republicanism giving way to the more cutthroat aspirations of an empire. Here at home, corporatism has been unleashed to trample the vital checks and balances of our system. Our form of government of, by, and for the people seems instead to have become a plaything for the powerful—what Ambrose Bierce called “the conduct of public office for private gain.”

Why We Fight looks at what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”—an unholy alliance between the defense sector, the military, and those in government that Eisenhower feared could threaten the structure of our society. Today, the United States annually spends nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars on defense—more than on all other discretionary parts of the federal budget combined. And most people barely know about it, let alone have any say in it.

Eisenhower’s warning was limited to the defense sector, but it can really be applied to the entire American corporate-political state. With the enormous costs involved in campaign finance and the need for members of Congress to bring jobs to their districts, the most important constituents for any politician are not you and me, but those whose companies write big checks and create jobs. And it doesn’t matter what party is in power. One quick look at the past century’s wars shows Republicans don’t own the copyright on making war or serving special interests. Democrats and Republicans alike face obscene campaign costs and constituents who want results. This is where American industries gain “unwarranted influence.” The problem is systemic. And those in power are unlikely to fix it since, more often than not, they are part of it.

Things look pretty dark. And in the darkness it’s easy to get disillusioned and frustrated. It can make you want to holler. But also in the dark lies the prospect for change. I don’t mean “change” in some syrupy, inspirational-video kind of way. I mean what history has proven. Dark ages have historically preceded periods of enlightenment and progress. And while it’s dark, it’s hard to imagine it may ever get light again. But it is during dark times that people seek change. And sooner or later, good or bad, it comes—just never when you expect it. Chou En Lai, Foreign Minister under Mao’s China, was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution. “Too soon to tell,” he replied.

The phases of history are long and it can be hard to tell what part of the curve you’re on. The names and places change, but the strong have always exploited the weak. Tyranny, feudalism and global slavery—facts of life for centuries—did nonetheless give way to some latter day advances in democracy and human rights. In the 1960s, America faced its racist and sexist legacies. In the 1980s, homosexuality was brought out of the closet and accepted as a way of life for millions of Americans. So no matter what we now face, we are not the first.

Still, change never comes from above. It only comes when people demand it in a voice those in power cannot ignore. When a system is unjust, a just person must express dissent. However, when the system persecutes dissent (“you are either with us or against us”), that system makes peaceful dissent impossible. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “when government makes peaceful revolution impossible, it makes violent revolution inevitable.”

That’s where keeping me from a life of crime comes in. Making documentaries is a way for me to seek nonviolent change by shedding light on information that can empower those around me. If I didn’t have the movies, I honestly don’t know what I would do. But so long as I have them, I’m going to keep making my voice heard and add it to what I sense is a growing chorus of others seeking change. I hope you like Why We Fight, and most of all, if you find something in it that makes you want to holler, go ahead and holler.