A small, dazed audience shuffles obediently into an austere backroom at the Ontario Science Centre to ask questions about Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag, the latest IMAX film. We've just been treated to the intense glimpse of aerial combat training on the giant screen, and apart from feeling a little nauseous, I can see the rest of the press is also flushed with the thrill of the ride.
The film documents the hyper-real pilot training program at Nellis Air Force Base just outside Las Vegas. Every year, thousands of crew members from various NATO and G8 countries stage million-dollar play fights over the empty desert.
Think Top Gun, only real. Through dogfights, computer graphics and some awkward, forced drama on the ground, we get to know our hero, Captain John "Otter" Stratton. He's at Red Flag to prove his worth and honour his grandfather, a decorated second world war pilot.
In the backroom, as our dizziness fades, handsome Stratton, wearing green fatigues, steps in and takes his seat with veteran IMAX director Stephen Low and a Canadian pilot, Captain David J. Pletz, who came to represent our own Air Force.
As it's done to everyone present, the rocketing film has my adrenaline pumping like jet fuel to an afterburner. But as the questions from the small crowd arise, I realize that no one here seems at all concerned that a film like this, initiated by the U.S. Air Force and paid for by Boeing, effectively works to win public approval for military spending and war.
I'm ashamed to say I don't have the heart to raise such problematic questions either. It seems taboo to ask them. Over the supplied buffet lunch, I try to present my concern to the friendly man sitting across from me, an events promoter. I lean in to quietly plead my case that Fighter Pilot promotes the idealized self-image of a massive and relentless economic machine prepared to spend obscene sums of money on military might and launch pre-emptive strikes against anyone who thwarts American interests or appears to pray in the wrong direction.
That basically ends our conversation. I think he just feels sorry for me. War sucks but is necessary; jet fighters are amazing, support the troops and go to war for Freedom Incorporated.
How do you evaluate, let alone reconcile, that dominant view with the critical one when there appears to be no rational discourse between them, no real debate? You might begin by examining what makes the dominant view so persistent.
Opening in Toronto tomorrow, for this very purpose, is Eugene Jarecki's documentary, Why We Fight. It takes its name from Frank Kapra's series on why America entered the second world war. Winner of the American documentary grand jury prize at Sundance and an official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, the doc kicks off by taking very seriously president Dwight Eisenhower's 1961 farewell speech to the American public, in which he warned against the "military-industrial complex."
On the phone from New York, Jarecki speaks rapidly, with steely confidence, about his convictions. He sees the current administration as ignoring the policy-makers with real military experience. "I think those people who advocated this war are idealists who have a blurry and naive notion of war."
Jarecki's film introduces us to a variety of people, from senators to Pentagon officials, neo-conservative think tank elites and ordinary American and Iraqi civilians touched by the war, in order to trace the current, pervasive culture of militarism.
From their collected testimonies and beliefs emerges the alarming picture of a self-perpetuating political, economic and martial system. Politicians, lobbyists and defense contractors are one and the same, maintaining the revolving door between various profitable private posts and public office.
Defence contractors ensure that parts of their products are made in every state, creating jobs and wealth that incline Congress to act in their favour. And as Ted Koppel explains in the film, the media can only get the necessary access to power by spinning the interests of the military-industrial complex.
Of course, a system like this doesn't confine itself within national borders. There may be more than you think to those soldiers-on-streetcorners Liberal campaign ads. Especially now, when our own brand of oil-funded neo-conservatives are holding sway, we ought to pay special attention to any undue influence by this same military-industrial monster. Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor, a retired brigadier general, was until recently a lobbyist for a barrage of defence contractors, branch plants of larger American counterparts including Raytheon Canada, BAE Systems and General Dynamics. How will O'Connor spend his $14 billion budget? On his former employers or their competitors?
PM Stephen Harper has promised to pass a bill banning MPs from taking plum jobs with lobby groups after they leave office, but the door is still wide open for lobbyists to take the oath of office. Sixty years of the military-industrial complex in North America has already proven that such oaths can't be kept.