The recent U.S. involvement in Iraq has become one of the biggest subjects for documentaries in the past few years, and it's hard not to feel weary of watching the variety of movies on this topic, no matter how varied and original they might be. Phil Donahue has contributed to the genre with Body of War, a documentary he co-directed with Austin filmmaker Ellen Spiro (Troop 1500). The movie focuses on the effect that the U.S. conflict in Iraq has had on a single soldier.
Body of War combines two threads of narrative. The first thread follows Tomas Young, who enlisted in the U.S. Army on Sept. 13, 2001 as a reaction to the events of Sept. 11. He ends up being deployed to Iraq, and after only a few days in combat is injured -- a spinal injury. He's paralyzed below the chest and is confined to a wheelchair. Tomas, his bride-to-be and his mom all have to get used to dealing with his range of physical problems as a result of this injury: not only can't he walk, but he's on an ever-changing variety of medications, he can't control his body temperature, he vomits frequently, and experiences sexual difficulties. Meanwhile, his experiences have made him passionately anti-war, and he visits Cindy Sheehan's compound in Crawford, Texas, travels to the offices of several politicians, and speaks out frequently in public. The other narrative thread in Body of War takes place in October 2002 -- the Senate roll-call vote for the resolution to authorize the President to use military force against Iraq. At first, aspects of this plot device are interesting -- cleverly cut footage shows senator after senator parroting the White House talking points on why the U.S. needed to invade Iraq. However, as the film progresses, we ultimately go through a roll call of every single senator who voted for this bill, with a repetitive roll-call graphic that becomes tiresome.
The continuing sequences of senatorial speeches and the roll-call format turn Body of War into a strident anti-war propaganda film. This is the filmmakers' intent, but I wish they'd stuck with simply presenting Tomas's narrative. His story could stand alone as an example of the effects of war -- any war -- that we don't consider. When we think of soldiers, we might think of possible death, but we don't often see a veteran in a wheelchair, unable to cough or sustain an erection, in a constant battle with the government about the medical treatment he needs to receive.
The two threads of the story do unite at the end of the film to excellent effect, in a scene with Tomas and U.S. Senator Robert Byrd. The roll-call moment in that scene is far more poignant, and hit me much harder, than the previous political sequences. I understand the filmmakers' desire to send a clear and uncompromising message about the needlessness of the war that affected Tomas and his family so greatly -- but would he be hurting any less if the war had been fully justified? The wider view seems far more effective: this tragedy is the price we pay for combat, and we can't forget this, or forget our veterans and how we treat them. Tomas's story is a moving one that anyone can appreciate, no matter what their views on the current situation in Iraq. If you're in support of the war, see Body of War and go for popcorn during the political scenes, but pay attention to Tomas.