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Why We Fight is a dense, informative documentary that explores why America is at war in Iraq, and why we’ve been at war every decade since Eisenhower left office.

Why We Fight

Most of the subjects interviewed are a little more knowledgeable than your average American
Most of the subjects interviewed are a little more knowledgeable than your average American

Director Eugene Jarecki does the obvious by asking everyday Americans why we fight. “Freedom” is an easy response that many people give. But Jarecki shows us that there’s something more to the answer than that, and even persons-on-the-street will give you a more thoughtful answer if you give them time.

Thankfully, most of the subjects interviewed in Why We Fight are a little more knowledgeable than your average American. Chalmers Johnson, formerly of the CIA and author of several books on foreign policy comes across as the most informed and informative of the bunch. Thinkers like Richard Perle and William Kristol of the Project for a New American Century add their weight and balance to the documentary. A former Pentagon employee, the secretary of the air force, Senator John McCain, and a host of others add their point of view to the question of why America fights.

Running the length of the film are the words of President Eisenhower, whom Jarecki says was prescient in warning America about a “military-industrial complex” that could easily grow too big for Democracy. (One of the more interesting extra features on the DVD reveals that Ike had originally written “military-industrial-congressional complex.”)

Balancing the wonkiness of political thinkers are some “human interest” stories. The best is that of a former NYC police sergeant, Wilton Sekzer, who lost a son in the September 11 attacks. Sekzer was a strong supporter of the Bush administration for years, and he believed that the war in Iraq was a just retaliation for September 11. When Bush was finally forced to admit, in 2003, that Iraq had nothing to do with September 11, Sekzer woke up to reality. His sense of betrayal by the president is as strong a statement against the war as any on film.

DVD Extras

The DVD has just about the right amount of extra features. Most of them add to the experience of the movie without simply eating your spare time.

“Extra Scenes” is made from finished clips that didn’t make the final cut. Surprisingly, these are informative, interesting, and worth watching. One of the best, as I mentioned above, explains that in Ike’s first draft, he had written “military-industrial-congressional complex.” Ike didn’t want to upset politicians, although he’d have done us all a favor if he had. Another favorite extra scene is “The Dangerous Illusion,” which goes into more detail about how dumb our smart weapons are. This segment makes the point that our (wrong) belief that they are actually “smart” makes us more likely to attack targets where we are more likely to kill civilians.

Another excellent batch of features is “Talking about Why We Fight.” I interviewed Jarecki this spring and found him to be one of the more interesting and thoughtful interviews I’ve conducted. Watching these extra features, which include an audience Q&A and appearances on The Daily Show and Charlie Rose, is a reminder of just how interested and engaged in his subject Jarecki is.

The Weaker Extras

“The Characters” is one of the weaker extra features, although if you wanted to know (a little) more about who the talking heads are and what their credentials are, this is a good starting point.

The weakest extra feature is the audio commentary with Jarecki and Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, not because they aren’t good speakers, but simply because an audio commentary is the wrong medium for the message. The images on the screen don’t stand alone, nor do they need an explanation from the director. It would have been less distracting to include their conversation without video at all. It’s too bad that DVDs are so locked into the idea of an audio commentary that studios including them even when they don’t make sense.

The menu for the extra features is very well designed. When you are done watching one extra feature, the next one is highlighted. This good design is offset by one of the worst ideas I’ve seen implemented on a DVD. A copyright warning appears after every single extra feature. Even when one extra feature is broken in to smaller pieces, each of those smaller pieces gets the same copyright statement. Even if the piece is a minute or two long, it ends with the same copyright statement. I found you can either fast-forward, skip, or press the menu button on your remote, but if you delve very deeply into the extras, you will come to loathe Sony for wasting your time so redundantly.

Picture and Sound

Having seen this movie both at the theater and on video, I prefer the theatrical presentation. Yes, Why We Fight DVD was shot on video, but on home video, the footage just looks like video. The transfer to film lent visual gravity to an already weighty movie. Nevertheless, the overall DVD presentation is very good. In particular, the somber, minimalist music sets the perfect tone for the seriousness of the subject matter.

How To Use this DVD

Buy this DVD rather than renting it (or rent it for a couple of nights). Watch the movie first if you haven’t already seen it. Then, return to the DVD on another night (you’ll only need an hour) and watch the extra scenes, one by one, and then watch the “Talking about Why We Fight” scenes.

If you liked any of the people in the film, look them up on The Characters and just watch their segment. Skip the audio commentary unless you really haven’t had enough.