MOVIE REVIEW: Why we fight

It is a truism that knowledge is power. It is also true that ruling classes seek to hoard knowledge and use mass media to distribute propaganda. Not all propaganda though is disconnected from real knowledge.

During World War II, the Office of War Information made a series of propaganda documentaries, “Why We Fight,” for the armed forces under the overall direction of Frank Capra, a Hollywood director most famous for a contemporary political film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

While the “Why We Fight” films romanticized and sanitized American history (the film aimed at African Americans, “The Negro Soldier,” which the Army thought was too radical, didn’t even mention slavery) and society and demonized the Axis enemy (“Murder, Inc.”), they played a positive role in mobilizing millions to fight for freedom and tolerance against brutal enemies.

Eugene Jarecki chose the title “Why We Fight” for his new documentary examining the Bush administration war against Iraq. His history is literally the flip side, or dark side, of the original series. Although conservative apologists and progressive critics of the administration serve as commentators, the most powerful insights come from Pentagon analysts who simply tell the story of how they were turned into advertising men and women for the Bush administration war policy.

In the film, analysts make the point that after 9/11 world opinion was never more united in sympathy with the U.S. What the terrorists, who themselves were the product of the Reagan administration-supported war in Afghanistan, had accomplished was to unite most of the human race against them. As students of terrorism have noted since the early 20th century, terrorism is always the strategy of the weak, those who cannot fight a conventional or guerilla war.

Yet, after bungling the immediate response to the attacks, the administration then turned them into an excuse for what they had wanted to do from the beginning: massively increase military spending to finance a policy of unilateral military intervention and launch a war against Iraq, an isolated but strategically important country with huge oil resources.

Everyone in non-propaganda positions in the administration knew that Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, but no one could say that. Orders came down to analysts to develop “talking points” in support of administration policy. The film makes clear that the critical and analytical skills and the use of sources that would get a college student in a history or political science class a “D+,” if the instructor were charitable, were employed by the Bush administration to launch a major war.

I would take some issue with the film’s reversal of the old “Why We Fight” series celebration of American history and culture. There is another America, one that has always stood against the ruthless drive for self-aggrandizement at the expense of the whole world. This documentary helps to empower viewers those who remain committed to that America — a society which strives to achieve working-class democracy, social justice and peace.

For that reason the new “Why We Fight,” which is currently playing in movie theaters, deserves to be shown widely and used widely to educate Americans about the dangers of this administration, which people in the U.S and through the world increasingly see as resembling in its global policy the fascism that the original “Why We Fight” films fought against.


CONTRIBUTOR

Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.

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