Abilene A documentary film honored at the Sundance Film Festival suggests Dwight Eisenhower's farewell warning 45 years ago about the dangers of a "military-industrial complex" was prophetic.
Eugene Jarecki's "Why We Fight" opens this week, and he hopes it leads to national reflection on how the United States failed to heed Eisenhower's warning of Jan. 17, 1961, to become essentially a global empire on the verge of doom. Jarecki consulted with members of Eisenhower's family and with his presidential library in Abilene.
Jarecki, director of "The Trials of Henry Kissinger," examines the U.S. war machine and events leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The film is to be screened Wednesday at West Point, where Eisenhower was trained as an Army officer, and Thursday at Columbia University, where he was president before winning the White House in 1952.
The PG-13 film, winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance festival, shares a title with a series of Frank Capra propaganda films made during World War II. It opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles, then nationally Feb. 10.
Through the stories of senators, policymakers and the father of a man killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Jarecki argues that the nation is guided by an arms industry dependent on constant war with ever-changing enemies.
While the backdrop is the Iraqi war, Jarecki says the film could have focused on other U.S. decisions to fight in places like Kosovo, Panama, Vietnam or the first Gulf War.
"The subject doesn't get any real thought. No one ever steps back and looks at our position toward war," Jarecki said. "If we don't muster the time and look deeply at why we fight, our democracy is in peril and our society is in peril."
Ike's military background
The film opens in black and white with Eisenhower addressing the nation from the Oval Office, warning the public to be wary of policies and infrastructure pushing the nation toward fighting far-flung wars in the name of democracy or protecting national interests.
Daniel Holt, director of the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, said the president's remarks in 1961 have their roots in his days as an officer in the War Policies Commission. Eisenhower helped develop a strategy for rapid mobilization of national industry in war, as the United States pondered its role after World War I.
"This isn't new. Eisenhower was writing this in the 1930s," Holt said. "I don't know what he would say today."
Holt said that when Eisenhower was a young Army major he noted the importance of balancing the military's need to mobilize rapidly with citizens' needs. He wanted the nation to know before a conflict begins how to procure weapons without building large stockpiles.
"He was a true professional soldier," Holt said. "They carry out policy; they don't create the policy. This is indicative of what he said."
In 1943-45, Eisenhower commanded the Allied forces in Europe that defeated Nazi Germany.
As his eight-year presidency ended, he said: "Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment."
He also spoke of combatting poverty, disease and other, emerging forces threatening to cause global conflict.
"Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration," he said.
Yet Eisenhower recognized he left office in a world his predecessors never envisioned, to be dominated for the next 30 years by the Cold War.
"We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions," Eisenhower said. "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
Robust debate needed
Jarecki's film shows the growth of military industries, trade shows touting the latest weapons and congressional admiration for using such might in the name of preserving freedom.
The film director said U.S. citizens aren't informed enough for a robust debate about the proper balance between military preparedness and domestic needs.
As the nation's focus has changed, the film contends, so has animosity toward the United States.
For example, it suggests the Islamic world resents far-reaching U.S. policies geared at opening markets for multinational corporations, leading to "blowback," or retaliation, culminating in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Jarecki argues the U.S. has created an empire with hundreds of permanent military installations to preserve economic and strategic interests. Like Eisenhower, the film expresses worries that technological advances are propelled not by the common good, but a need to make weapons that are increasingly adaptive and lethal.
"Ike's genius is more than just about bombs. A country that is uneducated is undefended," Jarecki said. "If your national spirit is broken, what good are you?"