By Sarah Norris
The superb documentary “Body of War” records the life of an Iraq War veteran, Tomas Young, in the aftermath of his paralyzing injury. Directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, the film tracks Young’s journey as a 25-year-old who enlisted to defend his country and returned from Iraq a paraplegicand a very different kind of patriot. With original music by Eddie Vedder, the movie cuts between scenes from Young’s lifehe gets married, plays an active role in the Iraq Veterans Against the War, and sees hisyounger brother off to fight in Iraqwith footage from the October 2002 debates in the House and Senate, which led to the Iraq War resolution.
Last week we sat down with Donahue and Young, in town to promote the movie, which will run in New York for one week. They spoke about what brought them together, their ambitions for the film, and the direction they foresee for the country.
How did you [Donahue and Young] connect?
Donahue: I was on the Ralph Nader bus during the 2004 election and my wife, Marlo Thomas, was going to leave me, because she felt Nader ruined the chances of a Democratic win. I got off the bus, and after that, Nader said a veteran’s mother wanted to meet me. When I met Tomas, he was not communicative due to the gravity of his injury. I thought, “People should see this.” There’s been no bite in the media here. You can’t show pictures of soldiers’ coffins. This is not the nation my parents raised me to believe in. We’re the patriots. We believe in the bill of rights.
Why did you agree to do this?
Young: If I had known that my wanting to go to Afghanistan would be going after a made up enemy in Iraq, I would not have gone. I joined the military based on a knee-jerk reaction to September 11. I guess I’ve seen too many crime dramas where you go after the evidence.
I wanted people to see the ramificationsto see what an injured person goes through. My advice to people is to consider all your options about things that affect your life, and do not make these decisions too quickly.
How do you view your responsibility to the U.S. and vice versa?
Young: My responsibility isn’t to the U.S. but to my fellow military men and womento make sure they’re used properly to defend our country. All veteransfrom all engagementswe sacrificed life and limb for a country we believe in.
What are you thoughts on the end of your talk show five years ago and what effect did that conclusion have on your political activism?
Donahue: I can’t believe how naïve I was. I did not anticipate the anti-war hostility. Being against the war is not good for business. You could have a show and be against the war only if you were funny, like Don Imus or Bill Maher.
Don’t give one man the power to declare war. It’s unconstitutional. We haven’t declared war as mandated by the constitution since the early ’40s. The biggest browbeaters are the ones willing to suspend free speech, go through your bedroom furniture when you’re not home. These are the same people who would never think of sending their kids to war.
Do you draw a distinction between the personal and political?
Young: It’s tough because politics and the way things are run out of Washington affects a person’s daily lifethe average worker, or the young soldier who may be going off to Iraq. All those decisions are made by politicians.
What do you hope your film inspires viewers to do?
Young: I want there to be a series of discussions around dinner tables about ways to avoid military enlistment or waiting until after January 2009. Everyone thinks they may come home in a coffin. But think about having your mother insert a catheter or not being able to have sex. Whoever becomes president, if there’s going to be a further occupation, you can’t keep sending people. I oppose the idea of a draft, but you can’t drag this on without a draft. I want this movie to light a fire in people and serve as a counter-recruitment tool.
Donahue: The press took this nation by the ear and led it into the sewer. I watched the live debate in October 2002 and there was no real thinking. No one liked Saddam Hussein, but there are a lot of S.O.B.s in the world. We think this film will make these laptop bombers wake up and pay attention.
How did you know when you’d reached the end of this project?
Donahue: Our film has two elements: Tomas Young’s lifethe beginning of his comebackyou see this very close up. We also feature the debate. It’s woven throughout the film. When we met, there was no communicationhe was so loopy from the drugs. We wanted to do his truth. I saw a bumper sticker on his dining room table that said, ‘Draft Republicans,’ which was the first time I thought we might have a war hero turned anti-war. We deify the troops and the VA doesn’t even call them back. Our hypocrisies are led by the fact that we do not draft the rich. It shouldn’t even be a discussion that water-boarding is torture.
Has there been any change in your level of care since the movie was made?
Young: Recently my level of care increased significantly. I’m told that’s happening across the board, but not every vet has a documentary about wounds sustained in Iraq. But if they’re telling the truth, I should be hearing less and less about news crews having trouble getting access to veteran hospitals.
What are you working on now?
Young: I’ve compiled 30 tracksby Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Brendan Jones, Systems of a Down, and othersfor a CD called “Body of War,” and the proceeds benefit Iraq Veterans Against the War. We’re fighting a new war that we believe in: ending the war we don’t.
How do you foresee this war ending?
Young: Several members of Congress want to divide the country [Iraq] into thirds, by tribeKurds, Shiites, Sunnis. I’d like to see a major withdrawal of our troops, but some to stay and go after Al-Qaeda operatives. We have to provide security, and we have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting into Iraq.
Donahue: I agree.