Tomas Young wants American troops to realize that “supporting President Bush is a little like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.” Young, an activist in his 20s whose story is chronicled in Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue’s documentary Body of War, is a former soldier himself. He enlisted in the Army on Sept. 13, 2001, eager to take down terrorists. Unsurprisingly, the Missouri native was demoralized and confused when he discovered he’d be fighting Iraqis instead. He didn’t have to stay in Iraq for long, though—just days into his tour, Young was shot above his left collarbone, and the injury left him paralyzed from the chest down.
Now Young can’t regulate his body temperature, cough, or get an erection—that last issue a lesser but still frustrating concern considering he’s a newlywed. But his vocal cords still work, and he’s using them and all of his very limited energy to protest the occupation, whether on his own or through the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War. His wife, Brie, and mother, Cathy Smith, are often at Young’s side; meanwhile, his little brother gets deployed himself (and shows no hesitation about going), and his father, in Cathy’s words, unfathomably “thinks Bush is wonderful.”
Unlike most Iraq documentaries, Body of War doesn’t bombard you with statistics or parade talking heads to beat the dead-horse argument that the invasion is a tragedy fueled by bullshit. Its pull is more human. Here’s Young at a rally in Texas, being dressed in ice packs so the heat doesn’t kill him. Here’s Brie on the message boards of Crip College, a Web site created to educate the recently disabled, asking for advice on how Tomas might avoid a bowel accident on their wedding day. Young takes fistfuls of pills and is shown having his mother help him insert a catheter into his penis. This is what the aftermath of war often looks like, the film says—and Young is one of the luckier ones.
Still, Body of War isn’t nearly as apolitical as (and is generally more engaging than) the recent Fighting for Life, which also focused on soldier care and convalescence. Spiro and Donahue are clearly against the invasion, though the president—Young’s Colonel Sanders comment and the bird he flips at a military hospital’s giant framed photo of Bush notwithstanding—isn’t as significant a target of ire as the legislators who signed his permission slip. Framing Young’s story is the October 2002 congressional vote to authorize use of force against Iraq. Between snippets of speeches from senators and representatives both for and against, the Senate’s roll call is presented, a long list of ayes following eyebrow-raising names such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.
The approach is theatrical yet elegant and, more important, effective. Most infuriating are brief montages of pro-war congresspeople parroting a Bush speech full of untruths. Of the dissenting voices, the most floral and moving is Sen. Robert Byrd’s. The longtime West Virginia senator is shown giving an impassioned statement the day of the vote (starting with, “My hands tremble but my heart still throbs”) and also meets with Young at the film’s end, showing him the copy of the Constitution he always carries and reading off the names of the “Immortal 23,” which is how Byrd refers to the unsuccessful nay voters.
The soundtrack includes two original bleeding-heart tracks by Eddie Vedder, and a soft, sometimes nearly undetectable version of “Kumbaya” often plays during Young’s more trying moments. For all its inherent sadness, however, the documentary rarely feels manipulative, nor is it an 87-minute bummer, as Young talks about his situation with matter-of-factness and even humor. (“I might say ‘uh’ a lot and stammer a little,” he tells a Brooklyn church audience, “so forgive me for sounding a bit presidential.”) Body of War reminds us, heavy hand in check, that although it’s natural to honor those who have died for the invasion, it’s also crucial to consider the soldiers who lived.