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Theater of War

"Why We Fight" chastens the gee-whiz enthusiasm offered by network news, but as an alternative, it's a flop.

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Given that focus, it is telling that the film doesn't have a single bad word to say about Saddam Hussein. This omission is one of many indications of writer and director Jarecki's steadfast concentration on America's incentives for sending troops into battle half a world away: a thirst for oil and the voracious appetite of armament manufacturers. This bracingly corrosive vision certainly has its place as an antidote to mindless, gee-whiz enthusiasm served up by the networks and their "embedded" correspondents in the first weeks of the war. And anyone who walks into the theater with an open mind and a belief that Iraq is an instance of shining American nobility will feel duly chastened. But as history "Why We Fight" is a flop, and after it has delivered a few conspiratorial chills à la Oliver Stone, it settles into a tedious, browbeating mode that mars the whole experience.

"Why We Fight" is at its best not when a well-heeled journalist is informing us, for example, that capitalism is eternally at war with democracy, but when a nobly pugnacious New York policeman and Vietnam veteran tells how he personally was swept up into a geopolitical disaster when his son died at the World Trade Center. At first, all he wanted was revenge, and he welcomed the Iraq invasion, only to reverse his position when, utterly shocked, he learned that the attacks that took his son's life were not ordered by Saddam Hussein. It's impossible not to sympathize with him, but his passion and confusion get drowned out by the expert pronouncements for which this film serves chiefly as a forum.

The other strong point of "Why We Fight" is its presentation — severely truncated, to be sure — of the Defense Department's history of Byzantine entanglement with industry. Its centerpiece is Eisenhower's famous swan song as president, his warning against the dire implications for democracy of a growing "military-industrial complex." But even here the medium's insistence on simplification presents itself. Instead of analyzing that president's words, the film promotes him as a hero, the kind of cleareyed leader who, by implication, would never have gotten us into such a pointless fix as the occupation of Iraq.

One can be wholly against the war in Iraq and still be impatient with the dogged partisanship offered in "Why We Fight." You might think that any comprehensive explanation of so vast and so human an undertaking as war would give a nod to such factors as folly, ignorance and misguided idealism. You won't find any of that here. In a way, by portraying the people in the Pentagon and the White House as ruthless wizards who have perfectly succeeded in achieving their nefarious ends, the film may well pay them far too high a compliment. And by constantly putting the worst possible construction on America's motives, it makes itself into the mirror image of the appalling, chauvinistic propaganda it seeks to unmask. (PG-13) 98 min. ** S

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