Phil Donahue Goes to War

Hilary Hesse

With visions of tracking down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, 22-year-old Tomas Young of Kansas City, Missouri, enlisted in the army on September 13, 2001. The attacks had kindled in him, as in many, a fierce patriotism and newfound sense of purpose. But he never made it to Afghanistan. After completing basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, Young was shipped to Iraq, where he was shot through the spinal cord a mere five days into his tour. He is now paralyzed from the waist down.

As the soldier was undergoing rehabilitation in Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, TV talk show legend Phil Donahue took a tour of the facility, with the intention of making a documentary about the war in Iraq. And so they met. Deeply moved by Young’s ordeal, Donahue teamed up with director Ellen Spiro to tell his heartbreaking (although by that point tragically common) story in a film titled “Body of War.”

The physical body in question is obviously Young’s, with the documentary emphasizing the daily struggles that accompany life in a wheel chair. These can range from difficulty getting dressed to nerve pain, depression, and urinary tract infections. The title also refers to Young’s intellectual body, which matures in the form of a growing political awareness; as the movie progresses, the vet evolves into an outspoken antiwar activist. We also see that one of the hardest blows was dealt to his emotional body; Young was briefly married upon returning home but abandoned soon after by his overwhelmed wife.

The other body is Congress. Alternating between scenes of a devastated Young and those involving the hurried decisions of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, the film is an unapologetic narrative of cause and effect, indicting all but the 23 congressmen who stood in opposition to the war. In the opinion of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, “Body of War” would have been more effective had it featured only a broken Young. And yet, juxtaposing images elites making political calculations with scenes of a maimed vet guarantees that we connect certain dots and leaves us feeling queasy about the disconnect between our policymakers and ourselves.      


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