The Illogic of Michael Moore

Richard Just takes on a central tenet of Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 9-11’ in a subscriber-only piece in The New Republic.*

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.

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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.

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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.

A fair point.

For a variety of reasons that I’ve outlined before, I oppose a draft. It is, however, a natural consequence of an all-volunteer force that the children of the very wealthy will be grossly underrepresented. (So, too, the children of the very poor, if it’s a force that resists recruiting those without high school diplomas or those with low standardized test scores.) But that will be the case regardless of whether a war is “just.” Or the party affiliation of the commander-in-chief.

*Last week, TNR inaugurated a program where they email synopses of daily updates of their site to bloggers and, presumably as a reward for not adding it to their spam list, give a free “pass-through link” for one or more stories a day that can be used on the blog. It’s an interesting idea, although not as good as making the entire issue available online and supporting itself through advertising or enhanced features such as archive access.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.