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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Why We Fight

In history class, we learned about George Washington's Farewell Address, his I'm-out-of-here warning about "entangling alliances" that could pull the newborn nation into Europe's age-old conflicts. But when it comes to presidential sign-offs, an old campaign slogan comes to mind: I Like Ike. Dwight Eisenhower is primarily remembered for playing golf while the country slept through the '50s, but when passing the baton to John Kennedy he brought up something called the military-industrial complex, which sounded like a phrase minted by the Rand Corporation. In Eisenhower's opinion, the Pentagon and certain government contractors had a vested interest in America remaining on a war footing, whether there was a threat of war or not. We were becoming a military state, warned this Republican five-star general.

Nearly 50 years and several wars later, with 52% of the federal budget devoted to military spending, 7% devoted to education and 6% devoted to health care, we may well have arrived. That appears to be the argument of Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight, anyway. Taking up where Ike left off, Jarecki has put together a history lesson that doubles as a damning indictment of our plowshares-into-swords orientation. The Bush Doctrine, whereby we take care of problems before they become problems, comes in for its share of criticism (although Jarecki includes rejoinders from various high-level Bush team members). But the documentary, which is named for the series of propaganda films that Frank Capra made during World War II, is much more far-ranging than that. Unlike Fahrenheit 9/11, it would rather make an argument than start one.

The argument itself is rather complex, perhaps better suited to a magazine piece or a book. But then we wouldn't get to experience the collage-barrage that Jarecki has assembled from archival footage, the film and video clips passing before our eyes like memory traces. Unfortunately, to ease his argument along, Jarecki has also zeroed in on various private citizens Ã?' most memorably, Wilton Sekzer, a retired New York City cop and Vietnam vet who lost a son in the Twin Towers. Desperate for revenge, Sekzer had his son's name inscribed on a missile headed for Baghdad, then felt utterly betrayed when President Bush admitted there weren't any WMDs in Iraq after all. The story is a moving one, but you have to wonder whether Jarecki needed to go for both our hearts and our minds. Aren't our minds enough?

Regardless, my favorite line of the whole movie comes from John McCain. "The United States is the greatest force for good in the world," says the once-and-future presidential candidate. Emphasis on the word "force."

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