From “Why We Fight” to Fighting Their “We”: Zeiger’s “Sir, No Sir” Meets Jarecki’s Why We Fight

In these tumultuous times, as the political ground shifts under our feet -– as the Iraq war’s popularity plunges, casualty counts mount, and reports of military dissatisfaction and outright resistance trickle out through the alternative media –- recent war and anti-war documentary films have an important role to play. Such films as Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, David Zeiger’s Sir, No Sir, as well as The Ground Truth may serve a number of movement purposes: popularizing and provoking anti-war sentiments in new places, facilitating organizational community outreach, stimulating discussion within the movement about key issues, and inspiring committed activists and new movement participants to devote time and energy to oppose the war and work for social transformation. Even as we use these films, however, it is useful for us to reflect critically upon them. Such reflection may provide us with insight into the limitations of our current -– at times all-too-“American” -– anti-war movement, whose development into a long range anti-imperialist movement guided by a radical systemic analysis is far from certain.

I

Winner of critical accolades galore and a number of awards including the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for 2005, Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight has been popping up all over the place. In particular, the film has been taken up by a number of liberal anti-war groups such as MoveOn.org, True Majority, and others, as a draw for neighborhood fundraisers across the country. It is not difficult to see why; Why We Fight offers an often insightful analysis of its titular question, tracking down the ubiquitous influence of the “military-industrial-complex” (M-I-C), but in a form that many self-identified moderates and conservatives might actually embrace, a form that leaves open the backdoor for “proper leadership” to right the ship that corporate corruption has rocked. While informing viewers about such things as the neoconservatives’ establishment of the Office of Special Plans to produce war propaganda, the overwhelmingly civilian nature of Iraqi casualties during the opening days of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and much more, Why We Fight’s narrative frame seems carefully selected to reach out “across the aisle” to the most patriotic of Americans. As Victor Wallis has recently noted,1 “Relative to any Left critique of US policy, Why We Fight bends over backwards to accommodate prevailing assumptions. With [former General and President Dwight D.] Eisenhower as its hero and with a patriotic retired cop as its narrative protagonist, what more could a film do to cross the lines and initiate dialogue in unexpected places?” Even the film’s critique of the mass media’s capitulation to US executive authority after 9-11 is presented not by the likes of Noam Chomsky or Edward Herman, but by mainstream media ex-news anchor Dan Rather, who, nevertheless, likens the sycophancy dominant in network television to the behavior of the media under totalitarian regimes (!).

Indeed, one must agree with Wallis when he writes of how even though Why We Fight generally seems more concerned “about government integrity and corruption,” and “the venal interests of arms dealers and of legislators… than… geo-strategic considerations or structural imperatives” these limitations are, in many respects, “offset by the film’s positive potential for reaching new audiences with a dissident perspective.” There is no doubt that the film’s patriotic packaging opens the opportunity to engage new circles of American moderates and conservatives. The film aptly frames the growingly unpopular Iraq war through a review of US war-mongering since WWII, confronting viewers with crucial questions about the social, economic, and political forces underlying –- and underwriting –- US foreign policy. Reviewing how a long line of Democratic and Republican presidents alike have routinely manipulated public opinion to support wars, “police actions,” and “intervention” abroad, Jarecki underscores how the current Bush administration’s use of lies and bogus intelligence to manufacture consent for the Iraq war is less the exception than the rule in such matters.

At the heart (and the start) of Why We Fight is the ghost of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose televised Jan. 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation left Americans with a call to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” As Ike exhorted, “We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” To such a dramatic opening, Why We Fight adds plenty of other talking-heads, ranging from Eisenhower’s Brigadier General son, to neoconservatives Richard Perle and William Kristol of the Project for the New American Century, to Senator John McCain (to whom we shall return below), to Office of Special Plans insider-turned-activist Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, to perennial left-liberal critics of American Empire: Chalmers Johnson, Gore Vidal, and Charles Lewis (of the Center for Public Integrity).

Just as importantly, the film lets us in on the touching personal stories of two New Yorkers whose lives are in the process of being painfully shaped by events and forces beyond their control, even their recognition. The first, Wilton Sekzer, whose tale more than any other holds Why We Fight together, is a patriotic, retired New York City police officer and proud Vietnam veteran, whose son Jason died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Wilton Sekzer, who witnessed the attacks live from a New York subway car, pangs for violent retribution; as he puts it, he wants “to see their bodies stacked up.” He proceeds by email to persuade the Marines to “honor” the death of his son by getting his name painted on a bomb that would be dropped on Iraq during the invasion in March 2003: “In Loving Memory of Jason Sekzer.” Months later, however, after hearing Bush admit on television that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with the Al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, Sekzer’s falsely quenched desire for revenge turns to fresh outrage, and finally, renewed, potentially radical, questioning. “The government exploited my feelings of patriotism,” he recognizes, “[my] deep desire for revenge for what happened to my son. I was so insane with wanting to get even, I was willing to believe anything.” Confronted with the fact that his Commander-in-Chief Bush is “a liar,” Sekzer ends the film wondering if there may be “something wrong with the entire system.” (Having used excerpts from Wilton Sekzer’s testimony in my undergraduate classes, I can testify to its power to move even the most gung-ho of New York patriots to begin reflecting on their support for post-911 US policies.)

Opposite Wilton Sekzer, Jarecki presents us with William Solomon, a 23-year old on the verge of enlisting in the Army, not out of feelings of patriotism or even a need for revenge, but strictly for financial reasons. The recent death of his mother has left Solomon burdened with debt, “unable to take care of himself.” Thanks to the film’s editing, it is just as Sekzer appears finally to be waking up about the manipulations and injustice of the current US invasion and occupation, that young William is going to sleep, signing himself up for what eventually –- after the film’s release –- became an 18-month tour in Iraq as a helicopter mechanic. As Solomon nervously thanks his local military recruiter for helping him to “retire real nice,” one cannot but wonder how long it will be until this new recruit, like Sekzer, has his own epiphany about the stories he has been told. Together the paired transformations confront the viewer with a snapshot of the political instability of our current conjuncture, in which many traditionally conservative and patriotic folks “from the old school” (as Sekzer describes himself) are coming to some degree of consciousness about the lies and manipulations of their government, while many in the younger generation, although lacking their elders’ inbred patriotic idealism, are pushed nonetheless by socio-economic forces to join the war machine, whose justice they seem to lack the space or opportunity to question.

Yet at the same time that Why We Fight presents a poignant and thoughtful resource for anti-war, anti-militarist, and even outright anti-empire outreach, the film in important ways remains a symptomatic work, uncritically reproducing pervasive and seductive fantasies frequently found on today’s American “Left.” A simple question may help us to pursue this line of critique: Who is the “we” implied in the title?

For starters, the “we” of Why We Fight appears to be white. This extends not only to Wilton and William, but to every single talking-head “expert” in the film, and further to every single one of the folks interviewed during the film’s opening sequences, when Jarecki present what is ostensibly a cross-section of “America” with the question from its title: “Why do we fight?” Out of over a dozen people, there is not a single Latino, Black, Asian, or Arab American perspective included in the snapshot of “America.” It is almost as though along with the televised farewell of Ike, Jarecki has also dug up the lily-white suburbs from 1950s television. Is this who “we” look like, in 2007 (or even, for that matter, in 1961)?

The point here is not to essentialize race by suggesting that non-white people in the US are anti-imperialist by nature or even by virtue of any singular social position, but rather to emphasize the ways in which Jarecki’s representation of “we/us” in the US is from the start an exclusive, selective category. Thus even while using this opening sequence to draw out the disagreement and outright incoherence within the polity as to the reasons behind “why ‘we’ fight” –- unlike the putatively “morally certain” days of WWII for which this film (and its title) often seems rather nostalgic -– the film constructs a point of identification –- a “We” –- that is structured to prevent the emergence of articulate political division and social antagonism. The film’s subtext is thus that although “We” may not be united in a rationale or understanding of worldwide US military intervention, “We” are nonetheless at root united, in our white, suburban, Forest Gump-ish political naïveté -– just as we were united back in “the good ole days.” It is difficult to imagine that had Jarecki cast his interview net wider, beyond the borders of white suburbia, he would not have caught more than a few folks with a less naïve view of why the United States has been invading and occupying Southwest Asia. Moreover, is it not clear that the film’s portrayal of a (whitewashed) “We” simultaneously implies a “Them” against which “We” are defined?

At the very least, the obverse of this white-washing of “America” is that the film shies away from interrogating the pervasive racism within the US –- and its military -– as a possible explanation for why so many people in this country fight or see the need for someone else to. Indeed, such endemic racism, in particular in its anti-Arab and anti-Muslim forms, has been vividly detailed and dramatized in such recent documentaries as The Ground Truth, where Iraq veterans testify about the way they were trained and indoctrinated to hate and dehumanize the so-called “Hajis.” Similarly, The Ground Truth confronts us with the scandalous spectacle –- recalling similar scenes in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 –- of white US military recruiters seducing primarily poor and working-class Latinos into imagining themselves, and even their children, as machine-gun-toting killer-heroes. (Sir No Sir, similarly highlights the role of virulent “all-American” racism during the Vietnam War. For instance, in one key scene, a black soldier who later would become an anti-war activist, recalls the politically transformative moment in boot camp when it finally dawned on him that the term “gook” which he had been ordered to repeat over and over by his commanding officers “was the same thing as a ‘nigger’.” Along similar lines, Sir No Sir relays the testimony of several GIs about their experiences being trained to skin Vietnamese like rabbits, a clear exercise in racial dehumanization.)

Similarly, even Wilton Sekzer’s personal desire for revenge –- which the film asks us to see as a kind of heart-breaking “innocence” -– is only truly intelligible when we keep in mind the then (and regrettably, in some places, still) common American racist belief that Arab or Muslim= terrorist and thus Iraqis =Al Queda, or Saddam=Bin Laden. Despite the spectacle of the propaganda machine, it is difficult to imagine that the Bush administration’s lies about Iraqi terror ties and WMDs would have persuaded so many Americans to go along with an invasion of Iraq (or even of Afghanistan) had a deeply infused Orientalizing racism not greased the wheels for them.2

Granted, towards its conclusion the film, in what strikes deeply as its most damning and clarifying moment, does confront us with the angry accounts of a couple of Iraqis, one of whom recalls first welcoming the US toppling of Saddam. Especially moving are the film’s closing minutes, which feature a brief encounter with a Baghdad doctor, and the head of the local morgue. Here Jarecki does an excellent job debunking the myths about the “precision” of new-age US weaponry. Indeed, the bloated, piled corpses of dozens of Iraqi men, women, and children, killed by US bombs, pack a punch that even the most studied anti-war argument cannot approach. In a painfully ironic moment, “they” indeed have been quite literally “stacked” up, as Sekzer had once wished. The local mortician walks us through his log-book, reading off the civilian identities and occupations of those killed by recent American bombs. Indeed here in fetid flesh stands revealed the “They” that seems always to be effectively produced by the imperial white American “We,” from Wounded Knee to Vietnam to Iraq.

But why must such viewpoints of those who know American imperialism from the smart end of the big stick be confined to the margins of our view?

More problematic, and equally symptomatic of Why We Fight’s limited left-vision is the film’s discussion of the Vietnam War, a war whose 2-4 million Vietnamese deaths would seem to provide us with a clear case not only of the government “misleading us” into war, but of the catastrophic and genocidal consequences of such policies. Yet after recalling that the Gulf of Tonkin incident that justified the US escalation in Southeast Asia was a lie, Jarecki gives us Sekzer exclaiming that “There was no need to lie,” implying that even without the ‘Incident’ he would have been willing to carry out orders in Vietnam. Here as elsewhere the film avoids examining the fundamentally racist and anticommunist ideologies, as well as imperialist objectives, at work in the culture and under-girding popular consent to US foreign policy, in Vietnam as in Iraq.

In fact the film further confuses the case of Vietnam, ironically echoing the idea that the US was “defending freedom” in that long campaign of bombardment and butchery. The one and only Vietnamese person we hear from -– and the ONLY non-white person interviewed outside of Iraq (from more than twenty “talking-heads”!) –- is a South Vietnamese refugee, who for unspecified reasons was forced to leave Saigon for the US after the end of the war. She now works in an American arms manufacturing plant, from where she openly proclaims her adopted patriotism and her gratitude for those who sacrificed their lives so that she could live “in freedom.” (Her position both in Vietnam and in the “defense industry” situates her as “one of us,” not “one of them.”)

While the irony of a Vietnamese war refugee now working in a weapons factory is obviously in keeping with Jarecki’s chosen theme, the implication of the film’s take on Vietnam seems to be that if the government hadn’t lied about Tonkin, or perhaps if it hadn’t pulled out of Vietnam at all, then things could have been handled better, with more “integrity.” The problem seems to be that the US abandoned its allies in Vietnam, or made promises that it couldn’t keep – not, for instance, that its “commitment” to the landed gentry and comprador capitalists of the puppet state of South Vietnam was from the beginning part of a counter-revolutionary, neo-colonial war of domination.

It might be argued that in discussing a film that talks at times openly of the conflict between “democracy and capitalism” and of global US “economic colonialism,” and the United States as the “New Rome,” it is uncharitable to harp on such lapses, absences, or matters of emphasis. Perhaps I might agree, if it weren’t for the fact that the aforementioned ideological fuzziness manifests itself in problematically “positive” ways, ways that offer the viewer patently false solutions to the problem with the “system” it details.

Consider for a moment the film’s selected tag-line: “It is nowhere written that the American Empire goes on forever,” a line that is further echoed by Jarecki’s main Iraqi interviewee who predicts that “America” will “fall” for it is “not a great nation.” Do not such moments suggest the way in which this film, despite its anti-empire rhetoric, works to bring forth a desire to let the American Empire go on forever, a desire for (white?) Americans to “come together” like in the days of old? Perhaps then what “We” need is a new Eisenhower, indeed, a 21st-century George Washington to return us to republican innocence?

Enter: John McCain.

Perhaps the most popular Republican US Senator today and now a Presidential candidate, with an 80% positive rating last time I checked, McCain emerges from the film appearing as a sympathetic, concerned Leader, a figure somewhat in the line of Ike. After all, isn’t McCain too an aging man of military experience, hostile to the “special interests,” with a talent for populist, anti-lobbyist, even vaguely anti-corporate rhetoric?

“It looks bad” he tells Jarecki regarding the collusion of the M-I-C and Congress.

Meanwhile of course McCain remains a man who voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who has continued voting funds for the extended military occupations throughout, and has been among the most publicly visible advocates both for confronting Iran, as well as for dramatically increasing the number of US troops in Iraq. A regular darling of the Sunday morning talk shows, as well as of the liberal-independent youth news-spoof programs such as John Stewart’s Daily Show, McCain seldom fails to accompany his slick reformer’s smile with sober -– “but seriously” –- fear-mongering about the dire threats facing the US not just in Iran and North Korea, but in Venezuela to boot.

This wolf in sheep’s clothing comes out for the most part sounding like a serious and sincere reformer of “the system.” To Jarecki’s question of what should be done about the M-I-C, McCain earnestly says there should be a “full investigation” into the undue influence of weapons designers and manufacturers on Pentagon policy and on Congressional legislation. At the same time, McCain argues for a “positive policing” role for the US, one that doesn’t go so far as to “appear to be imperialism.” But for McCain of course, imperialism remains a problem of appearances, a public relations problem at heart. In effect, the “problem” that such a “full investigation” would be designed to address is not the domination of US policy by corporate militarism, but the public’s perception of their government as corrupted by “special interests.” The call is to restore our faith in government; to reunite “us” –- so that we can better deal with “them.”

Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, to whom Jarecki –- much to his credit –- gives the film’s final word, leaves us with a poignant and pithy injunction: the war and empire-building continues, she says, because “Not enough people are standing up, and saying no.” Yet with the exception of this stirring (negative, but implied) call to action, Why We Fight more often provides a working through of “sincere” American ignorance and bellicosity, as well as military professionalism. This approach leaves the viewer with a sense of both the potential for conservative patriots to turn against the war-makers, and the frightening force of the Military Industrial Complex that we are up against. Yet by virtue of that same “insider American” focus, outright resistance to the war becomes almost spectral, marginalized; and it is not only the M-I-C but by the film’s own “We” that is responsible.

II

In my view, we need a different “We.” Thankfully, in the recent and equally critically acclaimed documentary Sir, No Sir, directed by David Zeiger, (himself not an American it is worth noting), we get a rare glimpse of what such an alternative “we” might look like. The results are not only informative, but inspiring, provocative, potentially revolutionary.

In this Sir No Sir is markedly different from most recent war/anti-war films, which tend to emphasize the inescapability of objective forces –- the power and plan of “the system” -– and hence to leave the reader with the heavy feeling one takes out of a two-hour Noam Chomsky speech, weighed down by indubitably profound insight. To adapt Antonio Gramsci’s phrase, contemporary anti-war documentaries have tended to inspire “pessimism of the intellect” much more so than “optimism of the will.”

Sir No Sir breaks with this trend -– without for the most part conversely succumbing to a naïvely romantic or voluntaristic view of social change. In a sense the film shatters the “We” at the heart of Why We Fight, not only by focusing upon the perspective of radical, multi-racial American anti-war activists who have come to clear terms –- and to blows -– with the fundamentally exploitative and racist nature of the US imperial military, but by locating those critical and dissenting perspectives within the US military itself. The GI anti-war movement surveyed in the film gives the lie to (still!) prevailing notion of what “supporting the troops” means. It becomes clear that those truly supportive of the soldiers who were being asked -– or forced -– to kill and die in Vietnam were not those who condoned or apologized for the war effort, nor those who merely lobbied for government policies that would bring the troops home and out of harm’s way. Most of all, these troops’ true supporters were those who supported their right to refuse, their right to act, to be more than just soldiers, indeed, to stop “being soldiers” altogether. The youth and innocence on the faces of hundreds of enlisted men as Rita Martinson performs her angelic ballad of war-refusal “We Love You Soldier Boy,” at a GI concert makes poignantly clear the movement culture’s potential to draw out emotions that these boys are not “supposed” to have. Yet most often, indeed Sir No Sir shows us how the most inspiring “support” came from people who were soldiers themselves, with civilians and artists, such as Jane Fonda and Martinson, playing secondary roles.

Yet at the same time as it lets us contemplate the potential “innocence” of rebel “soldier boys,” Sir No Sir quickly dispatches the idea of innocent or benevolent imperialism for which Why We Fight at times seems to long. This point is made most remarkably by a military doctor and dermatologist who recalls early in the film his refusal to train Green Berets to administer medicine in Vietnam after he makes the connection between the “band aid” bribery that military medicine was to offer Vietnamese patients to “win hearts and minds” even while the US was continuing to “bomb the hell out of the countryside.” The “helping hand” of empire here stands starkly revealed as the cover and distraction from the true action of the tyrant’s sword.

In keeping with Lt. Col. Kwiatowski’s final statement above, Sir No Sir suggests that the GI anti-war movement first emerged through a series of isolated individual ethical acts, often acts of sheer refusal (as Zeiger’s title suggests). It begins with “People standing up and saying no,” often without the slightest first-hand knowledge of or commitment to a broader anti-war movement, with only their conscience to guide them, only the spontaneous solidarity of their fellow soldiers flashing them peace signs to comfort them. From there Zeiger takes us through the eclectic growth of the movement –- from informal “rap sessions” and secret handshakes, to underground newspapers and GI coffee houses, to picket lines, anti-war demonstrations, and the Winter Soldier hearings, to mass refusals, “Armed Farces Day” marches, brig and barracks riots, and outright “fragging” of officers. All of it is relayed through a combination of archival film footage and thoughtful, at times nostalgic personal reflections from former participants. These stories of epiphany and activism are moving, full of courage and youthful excess, but also of uncertainty, doubt, and harsh, even sadistic, military repression.

This repression, of course, proves most brutal, and in several cases deadly, when directed against the many black soldier rebellions detailed in the film. Indeed, several of the film’s most memorable speakers are people of color, many of whom suffered beatings, torture, and legal prosecution for their war-resistance. We get a sense however for how such dissent could be maintained in the face of repression, through original footage, as well as veterans’ recollections –- and nostalgic reenactments! -– of the elaborate secret handshakes of black soldiers greeting one another. Such gestures and codes impress upon us the camaraderie and creativity of the GI movement, whose glue and basis was not altogether new-found, but rather drawn from inherited elements of the black freedom and black power movements within the United States.

Just as strikingly, the film’s interviewees include a number of individuals, from long-standing military families, or who, like one Puerto Rican West Point graduate, signed up for the military not just with professional ambitions, but even at times with an eagerness to participate in the war-effort. The film tracks the emergence of a series of these soldiers from conformity to rebellion, to organized collective subversion. The diverse array of tactics of the movement is stunning. (Indeed, among its many virtues, the film provides today’s anti-war organizers with a wealth of ideas for agitation, education, and organization.)

If there is a limitation in Sir No Sir, it may be the film’s reluctance (perhaps for reasons of time) to systematically examine the GI movement in relationship to other movements, antiwar organizations, and politically self-conscious tendencies, or to attend to the movement’s own political contradictions and limitations. Similarly, perhaps it is to help put to rest accusations about the role of “outside communist agitators” that Zeiger strictly emphasizes the plurality, spontaneity, independence, and grassroots nature of the GI movement. The panoply of politicization becomes almost intoxicating -– there were so many different groups, so many underground publications, so many irreverent political cartoons, etc. Indeed, Zeiger’s largely celebratory focus on the individual acts of courage and principle which helped start a movement tends to keep us asking certain questions. There were so many groups and underground journals that one wonders: what happened to all of them? This question the film does not take up, though it spends some time at the end with scholar Jerry Lembke’s study, The Spitting Image, which explores how the anti-war movement has been slandered as anti-soldier in American popular consciousness. Nor does the film much reflect on the ways in which the US military has adapted to outflank and avoid GI resistance like that of the Vietnam era. Why and how did the powerful GI anti-war movement end in tatters? Was it the end of the draft? The increasing US emphasis on technology, air power, proxy forces (in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq, as well as in Central and South America, and beyond.)? The increased control over media and images of war, and the suffering it causes? (Perhaps the extended features in the new DVD re-release will take up some of these questions.)

Nonetheless, whatever its limitations, getting Sir No Sir, into the hands of actual active duty military personnel seems to me nothing short of a revolutionary act. (An activist campaign might begin immediately with the list of soldiers signed on to the recent “Appeal for Redress,” a development whose reference to the language of the American Declaration of Independence promises more action to come, once their appeal falls on deaf tyrants’ ears.)

Upon final reflection, it seems almost impossible to think these two films -– Why We Fight and Sir, No Sir -– together, and not only because the “We” of the latter involves a multi-racial movement of veteran anti-warriors and revolutionary minded activists, a collectivity that must seem positively foreign to Why We Fight’s Fifties’ American heartland. One is in a sense left hanging between the two films; between optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect. After the emergence of the GI anti-war movement, after 500,000-plus acts of soldier rebellion in the 1960s and 70s, after hundreds of dissenting GI magazines and newsletters, how could we be where we are today in 2007? While Sir No Sir does not provide us with a satisfactory answer to this question, it at least suggests that to find the emerging new movement –- the new “we,” one inclusive of 21st-century anti-war soldiers and veterans -– we may need to look beyond the old-fashioned “American” frames to which many of “us” have too long grown accustomed.

Notes

1. Film review of Why We Fight, in New Political Science, vol. 28, no. 4 (December 2006).

2. For an effective, short documentary film examining the media’s racist and xenophobic representations of Arabs and Muslims, see the Media Education Foundation’s Reel Bad Arabs, featuring Jack Shaheen.

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