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Body of War

A young man's defiance of war and torture



On March 21, the PBS show "Bill Moyers Journal" focused on the new documentary film Body of War. The film, co-directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, is a portrait of Tomas Young, an Iraq veteran who was shot and paralyzed for life within one week of arrival in Baghdad in 2004. He was 24 at the time.

The film has a clear political message, of course. Donahue, the legendary talk-show host, was fired by MSNBC in 2003 supposedly because of poor viewership. A leaked memo later verified the suspected actual cause – his antiwar views, which have since been adopted by the majority of Americans.

In interviews, Donahue has avoided boasting "I told you so." But the film certainly explains his own experience. Body of War depicts the mendacity of the Bush administration but it also recalls the stunning abdication of responsibility and willful complicity of the same media that silenced Donahue.

As we enter yet another election cycle, we are seeing the sheep of the corporate media once again obsessing over trivialities, like flag lapel pins and cleavage. Meanwhile, they grant John McCain a pass despite his embarrassing ignorance about the actual dynamics of the war he champions.

The film is about Tomas Young's emergence from the haze of morphine and his transformation into an anti-war activist. I haven't seen the film – it's not in general release yet – but I am most fascinated by the way Donahue and Spiro have anchored their story, literally, in Young's body, as the title suggests.

Young, described by Donahue as "paralyzed from the nipples down," has no control of his bodily functions and is in apparently constant pain. One clip shows him and his mother making jokes while she replaces his urinary catheter. Another clip shows him stopping several times during a speech to recover equilibrium. His grace is heartrending.

Donahue points to what he calls the film's most poignant moment. Young is sitting behind a rope in his wheelchair at an anti-war rally at which he's going to speak. On the other side of the rope are members of Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of survivors of soldiers who have died in Iraq.

As Young chats with them, people stretch across the rope to touch him. They caress his face, hold his hand, rub his shoulder. It's as if they're touching their own dead family members. They're also apprehending, in his body, the horror of our current reality.

I was immediately stricken by the way the scene is the exact antithesis of torture and war, which seek to maim or kill. As Elaine Scarry argued in her 1985 book about torture and war, The Body in Pain, the experience of either completely reorders one's world. Torture and war injury are political acts whereby one's autonomy is erased by subjugation of the body to the will of the person holding power. Unlike Young, most people who have undergone such horrific ordeals become silent, since the disappearance of their autonomy required yielding their power in the first place.

It's mind-boggling to realize that in addition to the 4,000 who have been killed, more than 20,000 American men and women have been injured in Iraq. In the same way the media have been cowed into not photographing the coffins of soldiers, they have generally failed to report the painful lives of the gravely injured and their families.

It's not surprising that, as the power of those who sent Young to Iraq wanes, we learn, via a memo written by former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, that those same people indisputably authorized torture in violation of international law. But, because the conduct of war and torture requires the abdication of power by the general population, as well as by soldiers, most people long remained silent even if they disapproved. This, the acquisition of power that enables further diminishment of individuals' freedom, is the real point of the Iraq war. It's no accident that the people who torture and conduct a "pre-emptive" war also seek to weaken our basic rights.

Young, by making his wounded body public, disrupts that process. In the very act of coming to accept his wounding, he recaptures his autonomy and defies the powers that sent him on an immoral errand. Compare that with John McCain, who was tortured by the North Vietnamese yet, despite claiming opposition to all torture, ended up enabling it with a weakened bill that allows the president to authorize it. Meanwhile, he would subject the entire nation to more of the endless torture of a war whose only function is the ruin of democracy.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to

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