You can’t stop watching. Not only because “Why We Fight” is war history in greater depth than anything you’ve ever seen. But also because its honesty recalls a bygone era. 

In the only – and almost certainly the last – U.S. government-produced film series of its type, Frank Capra’s masterpiece is, on one level, a comprehensive explanation of World War II. Yet it’s also a cinematic memorial of a time before the American self-image was fractured by postmodernism. 

Covering long stretches of history in tremendous detail,“Why We Fight” is a roughly seven-hour lesson in the trends and events leading up to the war, and blow-by-blow recounting of the movements and battles comprising the war’s early years. 

Produced to explain the war to U.S. service members, it is told with the aid of extraordinary footage both from allied photographers and film captured from the enemy, and Disney Studios animations of battlefield and geopolitical movements.

The Nazi conquests of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France are described in full, along with the Battles of Britain, Russia and China.

But just as significantly, “Why We Fight” is a reminder of who we were – and in some ways how far we’ve fallen. 

Click here to get your copy of “Why We Fight,” one of the most important historical documentaries ever produced.

“Why We Fight” recalls the last period in U.S. history When the government, media and average citizens shared a worldview.

The 1940s was a time when an official U.S. government film could acknowledge the fecklessness of the body politic of a foreign nation: 

Stating that the populations of the Axis power countries had become “part of a human herd.” Their lawmaking bodies: a “collection of stooges.”

And observing the people of the conquered nations “had compromised and tragically failed to unite with the other democracies.” Enemy sympathizers at home were labeled plainly as “treacherous” and “political termites.”

Those who spread enemy propaganda were blamed for a “softening up process” from within, “fifth columns” both in Europe and “right in Madison Square Garden, USA.”

Here’s a thought exercise to help put “Why We Fight” in perspective:
Imagine, today, if the Pentagon hired Steven Spielberg to create a film series illustrating the Islamic threat to the West: from the Middle Ages through the 1900s, September 11 and the Ft. Hood massacre, detailing their historical and present-day atrocities fueled by a toxic ideology, with unvarnished negative visual depictions of the Muslim extremists bordering on caricature, and stern warnings about and actual footage of Islamists here and in Europe suspected of being “fifth column” sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaida and Hezbollah.

Such as, video of a CAIR conference, accompanied by ominous orchestral tones.

Then, imagine these Pentagon-produced films shown not only to military recruits but also broadcast throughout the nation, repeatedly, so that over a third of the populace will have seen them at least once.

How strange it would be! To live in a world where our enemies are identified by name and it’s considered acceptable in popular discourse to err on the side of insult when speaking of those who are trying to kill us.

That type of world, a thoroughly sane world, is precisely what you see represented in “Why We Fight.”

This “series of seven information films,” was produced under the auspices of the U.S. Army Signal Corp “Morale Services Division” between 1942-1944.

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and institution of the draft, the Army was concerned with providing training and motivational materials for millions of new servicemen. 

Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall recruited Frank Capra – one of the premier Hollywood directors of the time – who pulled together a host of film industry luminaries including actors, composers, writers and technicians. Capra also had the use of the MGM, Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox facilities, and he had the immense talent and resources of Walt Disney studios to create memorable graphics including animated battlefield segments.

Significant portions of the series were aimed not as much at whipping up enthusiasm among the soldiers but rather making the case for war to skeptical yet thoughtful draftees who were likely still imbued with the U.S. predisposition toward isolationism which prevailed throughout this country only a couple years earlier. As the film notes, many Americans were little inclined to risk their own well-being over foreign disputes or “some mud huts” far abroad.

Indeed, Capra’s renowned affinity for the “common man” in his films of that era shines through the narrative from beginning to end.

Appealing to the fighting man’s sense of “home,” he employs a montage of American history and culture to illustrate for the soldier who “we” are and what “we” are fighting for.

Putting the world events into perspective, the narrator explains that “in 1933, while most of you were entering high school, we read about a funny little man in Germany called ‘Hitler.'”

The Spanish Civil War began “in 1936, while you were riding around in jalopies.”

To show how American society was shifting away from neutrality, Gallup poll results from 1937-1941 depict the gradual shift from isolationism to support for Britain.

Interestingly, referring to the foibles and self-correcting tendencies of free people, Prohibition is twice mentioned as a “mistake.”

The many tactical sequences in “Why We Fight” are in themselves reason to watch the entire series. 

A typical example is the coverage of the Battle of Britain: It begins with an officer in front of a large display screen, where animated Disney graphics illustrate the movement of troops, ships and aircraft: 

The officer narrates as the animation follows his pointer:

  • “See for yourselves how simple the whole operation was to be: Look!
  • German plan for invasion of England: Phase 1
  • Knock out the Royal Air Force and its bases
  • Get control of the air and the sea lanes across the Channel
  • Follow the “blitz” plan that had wiped out Poland, the Low Countries and France
  • Destroy communication and transport lines
  • Above all, get control of the air
  • Phase 2, pulverize the coastline with dive bombers
  • Drop parachute troops to take over the air fields and establish beachheads
  • Phase 3, actual invasion ….”

and so on, detailing the entire German plan. 

But “the men of the RAF hadn’t read the Nazi plan …” and we learn in detail how the effectiveness of the British pilots in their Spitfires forced a change in Nazi tactics.

Much of this portion of the series is devoted to building support for our British allies. 

The horrible experience of the Nazi bombing is shown being met with aplomb by the Brits, both military and civilian, going on with their day to day lives. Bringing in the milk off the doorstep and fixing breakfast after the night’s bombings, an elderly lady remarks, “It will take a lot more than this to get me out of my home.”

Watching the generous coverage of life during the attacks, featuring both the people and the symbols of our common culture – by the end a viewer can’t help but want to join in the refrain “There’ll aways be an England!”

Certainly, such a response was needed from our newly drafted soldiers at the time. 

Capra’s artfulness is evident in a variety of ways. 

Viewers will come away from “Why We Fight” with a fuller understanding of European and Asian history. We see a chronological comparison of China’s 4,000 years of civilization alongside corresponding events in the West. 

The “strange bedfellows” aspect of our relationship with the Soviets is juggled skillfully, and some might say amusingly (and the DVD distributors include some warnings on these types of incongruities – probably unnecessary for most viewers): We are introduced to the USSR with images of farmers, folk dancers, balalaikas and puppies, along with faces of every ethnicity.

Throughout the series, terrible battlefield sequences are interspersed with parallel, often beautifully rendered images from the civilian world: images of threatened populations imbued with pathos. 

There are hundreds of pointed facts and memorable items such as: 

  • In China, the greatest mass migration ever recorded, and the remarkable feat of building the Burma Road.
  • The spectacular Maginot line fumble and Germany’s Ardennes forest breakthrough “into a dismayed and flatfooted France.”
  • “The world marveled at this man’s efficiency” – juxtaposing images of Hitler and another public antihero of the time, John Dillinger.
  • “A non-agression pact with Hitler was like a kiss of death.”

The sheer amount of actual war footage gathered into this one collection does in itself constitute a singular archival achievement for which war historians must be grateful.

Yes, “Why We Fight” is propaganda. In part it’s a response to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triump of the Will” – and Capra brilliantly incorporates scenes from the latter in split-screen contrasts between them and us. But it’s also extremely educational because it aims at making its case to an intelligent, well-informed viewer. It’s mostly truth, leavened with hyperbole – rather than the other way around. 

Capra might be seen as having had to walk a fine line because of the widespread bias for non-interventionism in the U.S., as well as making the film under government asuspices. But he did not mince words in referring to stark realities such as fifth columns at home and perfidious leaders abroad. It was a fine line trod with heavy boots, and would be unimaginable today bearing the imprimatur of the Departments of Defense or State.

“Why We Fight” is not to be missed, by students of history, film aficionados, or anyone who wants to understand what America once was and who the American people were, barely two generations past.f