An Interview with Michael Burns, director of the documentary film Preventive Warriors
By Albert J. Marceau for the Hartford Undercurrent
(Hartford Independent Media Center)
Preventive Warriors is the second documentary directed by Michael Burns, and has just been released. The subject of the film is the Bush Doctrine in general, and in particular, a largely ignored document entitled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, that was released to the American public by the Bush Administration in September 2002. Burns’ film explores the document itself and the Bush Administration’s fulfillment of it as practiced in the war in Iraq.
The film also includes interviews with American icons like Phil Donahue and Noam Chomsky, and lesser known but equally stimulating people: Rahul Mahajan, Anthony Arnove, Chalmers Johnson, Michael Klare, Maria Ryan, Cliff May, and several others. The four basic topics that are covered in the interviews are: the context of the National Security Strategy document, rogue states and terrorism, opposition to American foreign policy (both within and outside the US), and whether the suppression of terrorism by violent means does in fact achieve the peaceful goals that it is supposed to bring.
The Hartford IMC interviewed Burns via e-mail in May.
HIMC: The opening image of your film is of a debate, formally opened by British academic Sir Michael Howard. I know that you are a native of Connecticut currently studying in England, so how has your residence outside of the U.S. affected your documentary?
MB: Let me just quickly start by saying thanks Albert for doing this interview. I’m extremely proud of the Hartford IMC and the Undercurrent and think the work you’re doing couldn’t be more important.
The film begins with an excerpt of an October 2003 debate of the Philosophical Society of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The title of the event was “This House Resolves: American Foreign Policy Does More Harm Than Good.” And what we did was punctuate the film with portions of this exchange. We thought the debate was a good metaphor for the debate going on in the world at large. I think it’s been going on for some time, but events of the last three years especially have accelerated the process. People all across the globe are asking whether American actions, in the name of security and humanitarian intervention, are actually making the world safer, or whether they are just thinly veiled covers for solidifying unprecedented US power in the world.
I’m not sure exactly whether my residence outside the US affected the film, but I know it’s affected me as a person. When you step away from your country, no matter where you’re from, you can often see things that are hard to see when you’re in it. In science it’s called critical distance. Well, I’ve found the same thing happens when observing politics and culture. Being in the UK has given me an invaluable look at my home country, the country I love and I look forward to returning to, but a country increasingly seen as departing from its founding and professed ideals.
HIMC: The film of course addresses, among other things, the war in Iraq as an example of Bush’s preventive war strategy laid out in the 2002 National Security Strategy document. The film can be classified either as history or as current events, mostly because of the speed at which the war with Iraq has occurred. Are things in Iraq moving too quickly for your film to be relevant? In other words, have we moved beyond the Sept. 2002 Strategy?
MB: That’s a good question. You’re right, things are moving rapidly in the world, policies change and are adapted, and if one cares about the world, one should follow new developments closely. But the Bush Doctrine and the National Security Strategy of 2002 have not gone away. In fact, the NSS has not been officially updated. So it is the standing military strategy of the United States government as of today. As you know, the Strategy says that US policy from here on out will be to attack nations who pose a threat before they strike at us, rather than waiting until they strike or rather waiting until all possible evidence is gathered about their potential danger. Now, if anyone thinks that any future National Security Strategy document, under Bush or Kerry, will depart significantly from this idea at its core, I don’t think they understand the US position in the world today. The US enjoys such supremacy over the most critical components of power – economic, military, and cultural – in the world today, that whether the world likes it or not, the US has the ability to preventively attack other countries and will continue to have that power well into the future. So the issues codified in the 2002 National Security Strategy, while perhaps on the back-burner given the disaster in Iraq, are not going away.
HIMC: I like the opening song that has the line: “when we’re pushin’ up daisies, we all look the same....” What is the name of the band, and what is the song title? They sound like a cool band, but I haven’t heard of them in the States.
MB: The group is Chumbawamba. They’re more well known in England, but you might have heard one song of theirs called “Tubthumper” that was kind of a dance-club, top-40 hit in the States. I don’t think the song is that characteristic of the group or the issues they tend to raise in their music, which is unfortunate. They’re excellent and have been extremely supportive of me, a low budget filmmaker seeking to use their tune in my opening credits. The full last part of the first verse is: “When we’re pushin’ up daisies, we all look the same / In the name of the father maybe, but not in my name.” It’s a great song called “Jacob’s Ladder (Not in my Name).”
HIMC: I must admit, I lived in the US all my life, like to think of myself as politically aware of the Bush Doctrine and the latest news, yet I barely heard of The National Security Strategy before I saw your film. I can find it on the Internet, but I have yet to hear on the news of a Congressman to even mention the document. The question is: How important is the document to A) the Bush Doctrine, and B) to foreign policy for the US for the last ten or twenty years?
MB: Well, first off, it’s vitally important to recognize that important documents are released all the time with little fanfare and with virtually no attention paid to them. Historically, I think about NSC 68, perhaps the most significant document in shaping the Cold War world and yet, even after it’s been declassified decades later, remains unknown to all but historians and scholars. Moving to today, look at the hundreds of UN resolutions and UN funding proposals that have (or could have) real consequences. How often do we hear about them? Presidential Executive orders are in the same category. They are there, are extremely meaningful, and not too hard to find if you look, but few people know much about them. So the answer has to do with our media system, a system that dispenses infotainment, not information about things like the NSS and its forerunners or consequences. We can’t rely on the mainstream media to present these things, or of course analyze them.
HIMC: A theme in your documentary, stated by several interviewees, is that the US sees itself as a country of privilege, and above international law. Would you agree that the recent revelations about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of US soldiers is a direct consequence of such an assumption by the US?
MB: The Iraqi prisoner situation, as it’s starting to come out in the mainstream news, seems to have been known about at the highest levels of the Pentagon for some time now, despite Donald Rumsfeld’s recent testimony in Congress. I think the general sense in Washington is that, in a world utterly dominated by the United States, the rules are not binding. The rules are important, international law is important, because it’s useful to have a system that we can hold up to other countries, and of course enforce, when it’s in our national interests to do so. But when it comes down to it, international law will not stand in the way of defined goals for the US, and that’s just the reality of the situation.
HIMC: How will you promote the documentary? Will you enter it into film festivals in Europe and the U.S., and where?
MB: The film is currently released and we are talking with several distributors right now about getting it seen widely. We’ve entered it into several festivals abroad – the UK, Ireland, Philippines, Finland, France, other places – and several in the US. I think the one most nearby Hartford will be in New York. The website is the best place to look for screening information.
HIMC: Why did you make this film?
MB: I made this film because I feel a sense of responsibility as an American. Here we are, living in a place of enormous wealth, opportunity, beauty, and privilege, where along side of those things, and to preserve those things, our government engages in extremely dangerous behavior. Here, if you choose, you can ignore US foreign policy. Meanwhile around the world, US foreign, economic, and military policy is not something you can ignore. In fact, it’s determining the course of your life, your aspirations, and your potential. So, as an American, I have the opportunity to do something about that and try to make a small change in consciousness here that could possibly mean something for those struggling through life abroad. I, and of course your readers along with more and more people around the world, choose to not ignore what’s going on.
For more about the film go to: www.preventivewarriors.com
To read the National Security Strategy, go to: www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html