TV

Body of War: The True Story of an Anti-War Hero

In making "people like Tomas" visible, Body of War makes its most effective argument: wars cost more than we can know.


Body of War

Airtime: Tuesday, 7pm ET
Cast: Tomas Young, Brie Townsend, Bobby Muller
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The True Story of an Anti-War Hero
Network: Sundance Channel
US release date: 2008-11-11
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With such a small percentage of the U.S. population bearing the vast majority of the burden of the war in Iraq, the sense of shared sacrifice has been lost. The social contract between service members and their government and society must be repaired. It is time for members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- to come together to make it clear to President Bush the folly of the surge.

-- Bobby Muller,

It would be hard to imagine a more fitting image for Veterans Day. "You go to a parade, you got to a demo," says Bobby Muller, "Standard routine: you put the gimps on the front. You gotta have the visual." He knows what he's talking about. Muller, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, has been in a wheelchair since April 1969, when a bullet severed his spinal cord in Vietnam. In Body of War: The True Story of an Anti-War Hero, Muller is talking to Tomas Young, an Army enlistee from Kansas City, Missouri, also in a wheelchair after he was shot in Iraq. Their meeting is poignant, enlightening, and a little rowdy, powered by Muller's terrific sense of humor and deep understanding of what it means to both love a nation and protest its policies.

Muller's appearance in this documentary, produced and directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, is galvanizing. Not only is he frank and funny, but he is also angry, practical-minded, and inspiring, a combination that's difficult to achieve and invaluable, especially for Young, just beginning to imagine a future shaped by pain, limits, and frustration. Muller embodies and articulates a way to manage that future. Not only does he wonder about Young's treatment (he spent just three months in the hospital after his injury in 2004, compared to a year for Muller, a difference that has to do with advancing technologies and treatments, but also has to do with money and the general lack of planning by the Bush administration), but he also invites Young to work with him, to channel his rage and grief through the current anti-war movement.

As the emotional focus of Body of War, Young surely provides a striking visual. Introduced as he pulls on his pants, Young tells a familiar story, concerning his decision to enlist. "When I made the phone call on September 13," he says, "It was because I saw the pictures of [George Bush] standing on top of the pile, saying we were gonna smoke these evildoers out that did this to us, and we were gonna find 'em in their caves." But, Young goes on, when he arrive din Iraq, "All I saw were women and children running away from gunfire, before I took a bullet myself." That was in 2004. The film follows his struggle with the consequences of his choices, using his example to make a broader point. As Young puts it, "If my life can teach people anything, it's do not make impetuous decisions, decisions on whether to invade a country or enlist ion the military or anything. Don't rush into the future." The film also, as Donahue writes, "mirrors the stories of thousands of young soldiers who, like Tomas Young, have sustained life-altering injuries in a war mission that was "unnecessary" as Tomas tells Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. This foreign policy decision was not only unnecessary, it was ill-considered and misguided from the start -- a mission that has never been -- and in Tomas' opinion -- never will be "accomplished."

Young's struggle is shared by his mother Cathy and his fiancée Brie, who not only care for him but also accompany him to demonstrations. Cathy is caught up in particular difficult dilemmas, as her middle son Nathan is also "in the service" and about to deploy to Iraq, and her husband Mike is, in her words, "very rightwing, a very conservative republican dittohead." Their disagreements over Cindy Sherman (during the film, her protest in Crawford is on TV) form a kind of introduction to Tomas' increasing sense of purpose: by the end of the film, he has joined Sherman, Martin Sheen, and other prominent anti-war activists in their efforts to bring the war to an end.

At the same time, Body of War focuses on how the war began, as it repeatedly cuts back to the Congressional debate over the 2002 Iraq war resolution. As senators and representatives make speeches about what's at stake, the film splices in clips from a, October 7 speech by President Bush, in which he "outlines" the threat posed by Iraq, with references to biological weapons, Saddam Hussein's links to terrorist groups, and efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Bush's words and administration "talking points" are repeated in both chambers. While Brie researches "bowel problems" on the internet, John McCain pronounces, "The longer we wait, the more dangerous [Saddam Hussein] becomes." While Young appears with Sheehan in Texas, trying to stay cool with ice because his body no longer regulates its own temperature, Senators Fred Thompson, Bill Frist, Hillary Clinton talk about the connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq. And as Brie and Tomas discusses the complications of achieving erections (with a pump or a "magic medicine" injection), Bush and a series of representatives intone the threat of the "mushroom cloud."

If the film is unsubtle, it is impassioned. Robert Byrd argues fervidly against the resolution, quoting Hermann Gˆring on how easy it is to bring "the people to the bidding of their leaders." Byrd reads, "All you have to do is tell them they're being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country." Byrd's outrage -- echoed by Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, and Barbara Boxer, among others -- was, of course, rejected by votes in both chambers favored Bush's "bidding."

Running parallel to all the pontificating, Tomas' complicated story is full of more affecting contradictions and difficulties. As he and Cathy watch Nathan leave for the Middle East, they put on supportive faces (though he acknowledges to Spiro's camera that he's worried, Tomas says, "I couldn't let him see that, because that was the time for him to see his mom cry and be scared"). After he's gone, Cathy shows how she checks icasualties.org every morning at work, noting official efforts to repress images of the war, including coffins coming home or other reminders of its psychic and physical tolls on veterans and their families. As Young watches the infamous White House Correspondents dinner where Bush showed the "comedic" slides of his search for WMDs in the Oval Office, his mother observes, "They're so insulated, they don't want to know about people like Tomas."

In making "people like Tomas" visible, Body of War makes its most effective argument. While the film shows that the decision to go to war five years ago was rash and unreasoned, its more pressing point has to do with the future. As he decides to put away a "machine-autographed certificate of appreciation from our president," Young underlines the different effects of displaying truths and untruths visible: "I don't need to come out here to my living room and see a flag and a Purple Heart," he says, "to know what situation I'm in."

8

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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