POLITICS JUNE 28, 2004
A mainstream liberal consensus on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 has emerged quickly. It goes something like this: Moore's a nutty conspiracy theorist, and parts of the movie--in which he suggests, among other things, that we invaded Afghanistan not because of 9/11 but because we wanted to build a natural gas pipeline--showcase Moore at his least responsible.
But he's also a talented polemicist and filmmaker; and as a result, the second half of the movie--in which he uses the story of Lila Lipscomb, a grieving military mother, to examine why it is only the poor and working class who sacrifice in times of war--is both profound and smart. In The New York Times, A.O. Scott called the interviews with Lipscomb the "most moving sections" of the film. If the folks with whom I saw the movie provide any indication, audiences across the country will leave the theater so moved by Lipscomb's story that they will forgive Fahrenheit 9/11 its often-incoherent points and poorly supported accusations. That, I suspect, is exactly what Moore wanted: to wrap assertions that can only be described as odd--such as his insistence that the military is failing to adequately patrol miles of deserted Oregonian coast--in the heart-breaking story of a mother's loss and the legitimate observation that America's system of military service asks too much of the poor and too little of elites.
There's a central--and dishonest--trick to what Moore is doing here: He's conflating two questions that have very little to do with each other. The question of whether a war is just (Moore's thesis is that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not) has no logical connection to the question of whether it is fought by a justly selected military. Vietnam was not an unjust war because elites received draft deferments; it was an unjust war in which the burdens of military service happened to be spread unfairly. Every war the United States has fought since Vietnam has been fought by an unjustly distributed military. But not every war has been unjust. The distribution of sacrifice in a democracy is a moral problem all its own.
Moore's argumentative strategy, however, rests on tricking audiences into believing otherwise. Having laid out his mostly unconvincing cases against the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and having presented compelling scenes of Lipscomb grieving, military recruiters preying on the ignorance of teenagers, and congressmen fleeing questions about their children's military service, he pulls an intellectual sleight of hand that goes by so quickly--and indeed, that sounds so logical--that many viewers won't realize they've been tricked. In a voiceover, he says (and I'm paraphrasing pretty roughly here): I've always been amazed that in America the poor and working class do most of the fighting. That is their gift to us. And all they ask in return is that we don't send them to war unless we absolutely have to.
The logical connection between the two thoughts here is patently absurd. (Is Moore implying that it's okay for the poor and working class to do most of the fighting as long as they are only sent to fight in necessary wars? Would it be okay to fight unnecessary wars if the military burden were properly balanced?) But it's also central to Moore's argument. He needs to be able to place his movie's best point--the brazen immorality of Lipscomb having to grieve her son while elites make no similar sacrifice--in the service of his larger argument, which is that Bush's wars have been unjust. So he eloquently conflates them, pumps up his soundtrack, and hopes viewers don't bother to think about what he's actually done.
How do we know Moore only wants to use his point about who sacrifices in war as a distraction from his real agenda of indulging conspiracy theories about Bush's foreign policy? Because a serious examination of that issue would have required something very different from what Moore delivers. He could have taken his camera and knocked on the doors of Ivy League presidents who ban ROTC from their campuses, helping to perpetuate the notion that military service is not for our country's young elites. He could have seriously considered the arguments for a draft. The problem of the military's socioeconomic imbalance, when considered thoughtfully, isn't really a partisan issue. But that's exactly how Moore treats it, because embarrassing (presumably liberal) academics or considering proposals with non-ideological appeal just isn't how Moore does business. His approach to the issue makes clear that he is using it rather than examining it. Surely Moore will concede that whether America's wars are just or unjust--indeed whether we fight wars at all--we do need people to serve in our military, and we do need to find them somewhere. The logical extension of elite schools shutting their doors to military recruiters is that those same recruiters end up scouring the malls of Flint, Michigan. If Moore really cares about the socioeconomic imbalance of the U.S. military, you wouldn't know it from this movie.
Which is too bad, because the question of who serves in the American military is an important one, and we ought to be having a national debate about it. But far from provoking such a debate, Fahrenheit 9/11 will stymie it. That's because Moore essentially argues that the way to redress our military's socioeconomic imbalance--the way to stop the Lila Lipscombs of America from bearing an unfair percentage of the burden of our country's defense--is not to fight unjust wars. This makes no sense, but it is also a deeply attractive message to Moore's target audience of true believers, because it neatly waves away the guilt of elites who do not want their children to serve in the military. It tells them that the difficult moral question of how we determine who serves in the military--a question that should make any parent or young person who really thinks about it deeply uncomfortable--need not be grappled with, as long as we only wage just wars. Just as young viewers of Fahrenheit 9/11 (like me) may be beginning to wonder why it is that the life of Lipscomb's son was worth less than their own, Moore invites us to short-circuit this troubling, important line of reasoning with a glib piece of illogic: No unnecessary wars; no need to spread the sacrifice of military service. It's as if he forgets that people also die, and mothers also grieve, in necessary wars.
There seems to be a growing sentiment among liberals that Moore is a bad guy, but dammit, he's our bad guy. I disagree. Liberalism is as badly served by liberal intellectual dishonesty as it is by conservative intellectual dishonesty. Besides, Lila Lipscomb and the young men being funneled directly from Flint malls to Iraq deserve better. That is, they deserve to be more than distractions from the intellectual mess that precedes them in this movie. Moore ends Fahrenheit 9/11 by predicting that American voters will not be fooled into voting again for George W. Bush. I hope he's right. But I also hope they won't be fooled by the bad logic at the center of his film.
Richard Just is editor of TNR Online.