MOVIE DATE by Ben McGrath
Issue of 2006-03-27 Posted 2006-03-20
The cadets in Major Jason Dempsey’s Social Sciences 490A, Advanced Study in Defense Policy and Civil-Military Relations, at West Point, began the semester by reading Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” a seminal piece of right-wing militaristic science fiction. In February, they studied Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address—the speech that warned against a coming “military-industrial complex.” Then they read the popular antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” and, one morning recently, they watched Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary, “Why We Fight,” which opens with the Eisenhower speech, and is highly critical of the decision to invade Iraq.
“One cadet, she asked me if I’m trying to make them all conscientious objectors,” Dempsey joked on the day of the screening. For the occasion, he had invited Jarecki to appear before the class.
Jarecki leaped at Dempsey’s offer. “It probably doesn’t strike most people how much deep thinking goes on among the military,” he said, sitting in the back seat of a Town Car, on the drive up from Manhattan. “Blaming the military for Iraq is blaming the messenger and the victim.” Jarecki was wearing rumpled khakis and a blue blazer, with an “Ike” pin affixed to his lapel. “I go in here with a tremendous amount of good feeling,” he said. “Though I might come out of here on a stretcher today, you never know.”
First, there was the matter of gaining admittance. Between two checkpoints, at the campus border, Jarecki’s driver managed to position himself in the lane reserved for trucks: a harmless mistake, or so it seemed, until he lowered his window and asked for directions to Lincoln Hall (otherwise known as the Combating Terrorism Center).
“First of all, you’re in the wrong lane,” a large uniformed guard shouted, before demanding ID, ordering the driver out of the car, and searching the trunk.
“You see that?” Jarecki said. “Eisenhower wouldn’t have liked that. That’s a centurion on edge. You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky not to like that. That’s like what you have at Dairy Queen when someone’s rude to you at the counter, and you realize the manager’s rude to the staff. It filters down from the top, from Washington. That’s what makes a trigger-happy soldier.”
Inside Lincoln Hall, the atmosphere was considerably more cordial. Dempsey handed Jarecki a syllabus, and they began talking about Eisenhower. Jarecki then spotted the so-called iPod Ghraib poster on a wall above Dempsey’s desk—an image of the famous hooded torture victim listening to headphones—and asked, “Why do you have that?”
“To make cadets think,” Dempsey said. “It’s a conversation piece.”
In the classroom, about forty cadets—mostly “firsties,” or seniors—took their seats. The opening credits rolled, and one cadet whispered something about “The Fog of War” to a friend. “McNamara was an awesome dude,” the friend replied.
Reactions to the film were mixed, from a couple of dozing heads, to an exclamation of “Nice!” at the sight of the first exploding bomb, and macho banter (“I hate the Air Force”). At one point, Vice-President Cheney was shown telling Tim Russert, “I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.”
“You did your homework on that one, Dick,” a cadet said.
Questions, when it was over, were polite. “Sir, I mean to ask you: What do you hope to accomplish in this film? What is your desired end state?”
“I’d like to restore the prospect of a reflective and reasoned dialogue,” Jarecki said.
The inevitable comparison to “Fahrenheit 9/11” was broached, and Jarecki, diplomatically, complimented Michael Moore’s box-office success, while lamenting the public’s appetite for oversimplified issues. “I’m like ginger ale,” he said. “I’m not for everybody.”
“I like ginger ale,” the questioner said.
In private, various cadets discussed the film with the director. (Jarecki: “Did you like it?” Cadet: “Sir, I’m basically indifferent.”) A female firstie, who figured she’d soon be headed for Iraq, lingered, discussing the cinematic tastes of her classmates. “They mostly like older war movies, like ‘Platoon,’ ” she said.
Colonel Michael Meese, an economics professor who is the head of the Social Sciences Department and the son of former Attorney General Edwin Meese, told Jarecki afterward that he’d polled his cadets after Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N., and immediately prior to the invasion, in March of 2003. “Each section voted nine to eight in favor,” he said. “My next question: ‘If ordered to go, would you go?’ It was seventeen to zero. That’s exactly what we want. Critical thinking is not insubordination.” Meese’s dissertation, “Examining Downsizing in the United States Army,” rested on a nearby table, bound in leather.