This Is My Body, This Is My Blood
Muscled lower among voter concerns by flailing finances, the Iraq War is up there in documentaries and reality-based fiction films, none of which has brought the conflict home so wrenchingly as Body of War. Branching in two directions from that battlefield, to the United States Congress and to a grievously wounded young veteran, it yet parallels them in opposition to the war and at the close physically brings them together on Capitol Hill in a shared “some mobility problems.”
Effectively backed by Eddie Vedder’s lyrics and acoustic guitar -- with additional name performers on songs selected by that disabled vet, the double CD appears now, to benefit Iraq Veterans Against the War -- the project grew from a meeting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with Ralph Nader, invited by the patient’s mother and long an opponent of our current involvement. TV’s talk show Phil Donahue accompanied his former presidential candidate friend and subsequently visited the young man and his family in Kansas City suburb Liberty, to propose a book and then, instead, a film. As director and executive producer, he contacted accomplished documentarian Ellen Spiro, who agreed to co-direct and –produce as well as be the cinematographer.
It can scarcely be accident that the film comes out during primary campaigns, for its political wing takes flight back to October 2002, when both legislative Houses voted overwhelmingly to abrogate their constitutionally reserved prerogative of Article I, Section 8, “To declare War,” in favor of the executive branch, which soon committed the first U.S. fighting men and women to Iraq.
Immediately after 9/11 thirteen months earlier, twenty-two-year-old Tomas Young had enlisted to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Following basic training among woods and grass that would prove useless, he was deployed to east Baghdad’s Sadr City, where he never got to fire a single round but observed women and kids cowed and killed. Nearly a year after “Mission Accomplished” and five days into this first assignment, he was shot from above by a sniper who recognized “ducks in a barrel” in the unarmored uncovered vehicle. Unconsciousness was a mercy, for he was paralyzed in one arm and totally from the chest down.
Throughout the eighty-seven minutes, Donahue and Spiro intersperse that 2002 debate which produced the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces against Iraq, H.J. Res 114, later digitally implicating against the Rotunda Dome names, states, parties, totals and voiced Ayes outnumbering Nays by more than two to one. Embarrassing themselves, elected national legislators including Clinton, Kerry and McCain parrot verbatim White House phrasing of preemption in “smoking gun,” “the form of a mushroom cloud,” “Hitler and Stalin” (of Saddam Hussein), “easier than Afghanistan,” an arsenal of WMD in hardware and Ebola, anthrax, VX, sarin and mustard gas.
Against the stampede stands Robert Byrd, longest serving senator in history. Recently widowed, walking with two canes, hands trembling, he pleads not to rush to judgment, not to override James Madison’s wisdom in the Law of the Land, not to send our young to die in a country that neither attacked nor threatened us.
The aged West Virginian’s reedy voice, and those of the others of his “Immortal 23,” is swamped. And Tom Young, the main thread, cannot even get federally sponsored care or caring to match, he says with dark humor, the advice dispensed for body piercing or tattoos.
The young man’s courage and commitment shine in his frankness about his condition and in the freedom given the camera vis-à-vis the most intimate of his bodily impairments. His purpose is to protest the manner of American involvement in this particular war in which middle brother Nathan is now on a second convoy security tour of duty, but even more to argue for universal draft conscription so that onerous burdens fall evenly instead of onto the five percent, mostly minorities and the poor, who are caught by recruitment propaganda.
Along the way, by no means subordinate, are candid discussions and graphic footage of Tom’s physical and emotional limitations that few would even imagine. This even as the film follows him and brave Middle American mother Cathy Smith and his new bride Brie Townsend (they have since separated) as, he in a Boston Red Sox cap, he honeymoons among Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war group near the Bush ranch -- her son was also ambushed on 4/4/04. He participates in tearful, cheered and jeered Gold Star Mother marches; he gets to know other like-minded vets from Iraq and Nam, speaks at gatherings and schools and Presbyterian churches in Brooklyn, is told by a crippled veterans’ rights lobbyist that he’s been “short-tripped”; and, contrasted to the media applauding the President’s jokes at a gala, he quietly meets Senator Byrd, the two supporting one another in mind as well as body and weaving together the film’s two threads.
Sean Penn has likened Body of War to Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July -- Tom Young’s favorite is Cruse’s earlier, gung-ho Top Gun, and he respects conservative pro-Bush stepfather Mike -- but Brando’s début in Zinnemann’s The Men aka Battle Stripe should also be noted. Supporters of the now-unpopular war will disagree with the politics of Body of War, but none can fail to be moved and saddened by its picture behind the doors that hide forgotten ignored heroes.
(Released by The Film Sales Company; not rated by MPAA.)