Body of War, A Documentary

Four years in the making, Body of War mixes the personal with the political by assigning some overdue accountability to those who voted for this war while putting a personal face on those who eventually would suffer for that vote. Divided into two major intertwining threads, the more personal string of events follow Tomas Young, a 25-year-old veteran from Kansas City, Missouri who was paralyzed less than a week into his Iraq tour. Young had signed up on September 13, 2001, to go get Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but destiny had other plans. 

The other primary thread reminds us who voted in favor of and, more importantly, who voted against the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces against Iraq (H.J. Res 114)—which essentially gave President Bush the authority to declare war, thus sending young men like Tomas, and his brother, Nathan, off to a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. 

Laced with songs by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Body of War is an anti-Iraq war film that argues that it is time to bring the troops home. I interviewed Phil Donahue earlier this year to get his thoughts on his documentary.  

ESTHER: I understand Tomas Young was the first injured solider you met? 

DONAHUE: Yes. This is a sanitized war. Our purpose is to try and lift the curtain on thousands of homes in this country where the same drama was being played out. If you send a nation to war you ought to be able to show the sacrifices being made. We don’t see this. It’s all being hidden. Less than 5 percent of the American population is sacrificing for this war. There are thousands of injuries like Tomas’s. He can’t walk. He can’t cough. It just goes on and on. So I called Ellen [Spiro] and I said, "We should show this, show the pain." 

In fact, the vast majority does not know these young men and women.

The president said we couldn’t take pictures of the coffins and the press capitulated. 

What were your greater political intentions with this documentary? 

We want to stop this war. We hope this film will put wind to the backs of the millions of people who’ve already been out there trying to do that. We have a very effective spokesperson. Tomas is a warrior turned anti-warrior. He’s insightful. He’s empathetic with other people who fought in the war and lost people there. When he speaks, you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s informed. 

How effective are films in changing popular opinion? 

What good does it do? If you ask that question too often, you kind of get into a cynicism that says, "It doesn’t matter what I do. What good does it do? Therefore I will do nothing." I’ve seen so many people over the years on my show who didn’t give up. Who kept on even while understanding how helpless they were. Iraq documentaries are playing to empty seats. If it were easy, we’d be bored. 

The film also highlights the war drumming during the fall of 2002 when Congress considered the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces against Iraq. Here we are six years later and the primary reasons for the invasion have been discredited. Why are we still in Iraq? 

A lot of people in Washington trying to save face. We are saying this is a massive blunder for which no other people should die. No young man’s life is worth an old man’s face. We aren’t sure what will happen if we get out, but we know what will happen if we stay. More Americans and Iraqis will die. Will we be doing the same thing a year from now?

Young and IVAW members at the Capitol

Two of the primary candidates voted for Resolution 114. Will they change course if elected? 

Well, everybody gets it now. Suddenly you can be an anti-war person on television. But it took too long to get here. It’s very important to understand the environment in which Congress voted for this war. Every major metropolitan newspaper in this country supported this war. All the "Shout Shows" supported this war. The United States Congress supported this war. President Bush thought he was going to have a merry little war. 

Since Ralph Nader brought you together with Tomas why doesn’t he appear in the documentary? 

For the same reason I don’t appear: it’s not necessary. Would you want soundbites? 

I don’t see Nader giving soundbites. I meant from the perspective that Tomas wanted to meet Nader as one guy looking out for him. 

We wanted the film not to be tedious, a lecture, a rant. We don’t think it is. The film is only 87 minutes long. Lean and mean about one story, about one family. Without the congressional stuff it’s, "Oh lad, poor lad, how sad." Tomas and I didn’t want that. This is a non-nuanced anti-Iraq war film. The film shines a light on the superficial, bumper sticker debate Congress held in October 2002 where the president used the politics of fear: "the longer we wait the more dangerous he becomes." Everybody was saying, "Go." Most of the biggest bomb-throwers would never think of sending their own kids. The legacy of this war will rattle around this nation for the rest of this century. 

You said this is a "non-nuanced anti-Iraq war film." What efforts did you take to get some of the hawks and chicken hawks that drummed up the war? 

We have one in the film, Tomas’s stepfather. But we’re not saying this is a balanced film. This film has a calculated, thoughtful, well-considered message. The people you see in the film—Tomas, his mother, the young men who carried him up the steps of the Capitol, Senator Robert Byrd—believe this war is immoral, unconstitutional, unaffordable and unwinnable. That’s the truth our film shows. 

I would say it is a counter-argument to the arguments for war. 

We don’t think a film has to have both sides. We think there’s plenty of the other side all over the "Shout Shows." If a movie says the world is round, I don’t think it has the responsibility to find somebody to say it’s flat. The movie is telling Tomas’s story. 

How did Eddie Vedder get involved in the project? 

I met Eddie in 2000 on the Nader campaign bus. Over a year ago I ran into him by accident. I told him I was doing an anti-Iraq War documentary and he said, "Do you want a song?" He came to my place in New York, watched a two-hour plus version of our film, flew home, and called Tomas. In four days I had the signature song for our film for free. That was another lucky break.

Getting back to Nader. You have been a staunch supporter of his for years. How do you see him now in 2008 as a political figure still trying to fight the good fight? 

We have a very weird situation. People who believe Ralph is right on all the issues are begging him not to run. Ralph’s problem is the nation’s problem. We have too much invested in the two-party system. It’s too hard to challenge it. The roadblocks challenging incumbents are significant. As long as there are only two parties, you’re never going to get money out of campaigns. Corporations shower both. You have the parties controlling the debates. 

Whenever they bring that up, nobody seems to notice this is a nation of 300 million people and to have 2 parties is downright anachronistic. 

Right. It’s not a constitutional convention here. It’s something that’s evolved. It’s hurting us. They’re both corporately managed parties. Imagine US Air and Budweiser sponsoring the debates. The people who decide on the debates are the Republican and Democrat Party chair. Imagine how much they want Nader involved. This is the greatest usurpation of the peoples’ power ever—for corporations to take over the debates. If you cannot get in the debates, you will not be taken seriously as a candidate, and corporations and both parties make the decision over who gets on the debates. 


John Esther is a film and cultural critic based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Progressive, Just Out, Viet2 Magazine, Contrast, Cineaste, and Clamor.