Phil Donahue, Fighting The Fight Against An Unending Fight In Iraq

Phil Donahue with Iraq U.S. war veteran soldier Tomas Young at the American Film Institute Film Festival last November in Los Angeles, California, at the premiere of their documentary "Body Of War".  (Photo: Frances Holland)

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 21, 2008

During this conversation Phil Donahue will frequently mention that the American public needs to see the horrors of war and the scars that the country's military families have to bear.  The American mainstream media has not shown such images of war or the American flag-draped coffins that the less fortunate soldiers have waiting for them.  On this past Friday morning Mr. Donahue is on the telephone from Washington, D.C., from where would go on and fly to San Francisco to attend several Q&A sessions in the Bay Area city as well as in nearby Berkeley on Saturday following afternoon showings of his film "Body Of War", which he and Ellen Spiro co-directed and co-produced.  The documentary, about Tomas Young, a 20-something American who from Kansas City returned home paralyzed while serving in the military in Iraq, opened in both cities over the weekend and is currently playing in New York, Boston, Seattle and elsewhere. 

Mr. Donahue, the former veteran television talk-show host may have a shock of white hair, but his passion, fervor and outrage against an unauthorized war has neither slowed or grayed.

"Body Of War" is a moving and powerful chronicle of Mr. Young's arduous daily routines as a paraplegic, his mother Cathy Smith's pain and anguish, her second son Nathan's eagerness to go to Iraq despite the irreversible condition of his older brother Tomas, and the examination of the men and women of the U.S. Congress who sent many American men (like Tomas) and women into battle in Iraq (Mr. Young volunteered to go to Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda there in the wake of the devastating events of September 11, 2001, but was instead sent to Iraq.)  The documentary was fomented by a meeting of Mr. Donahue with Tomas Young at Walter Reed Army Medical Center more than three years ago.  Or as the long-time journalist and proclaimed grandfather of television talk said more succinctly: "He didn't meet me there because he was so medicated."  Paralyzed from the chest down, Mr. Young had returned from Iraq, without the ability to move his joints or limbs.  He cannot cough and his temperature and blood pressure fluctuate in wild extremes, many times within a matter of seconds.  Mr. Young, like more than a few returning U.S. soldiers, is now an anti-war leader and advocate, putting himself through a grueling schedule, traveling the country to speak to people about his experiences.

"The closer you get to this," said Mr. Donahue, "the more it just blows you back."

In his 41 years as a television talk show host Phil Donahue has covered many of America's most cutting edge events and current affairs stories, bringing a town hall meeting into millions of Americans' living rooms each weekday afternoon prior to drive time before Oprah Winfrey was even close to becoming a household name.  Mr. Donahue enjoyed the highest television ratings for many years for his talk show for a number of years, but now wishes that the television ratings for news of Iraq war casualties of American soldiers would go through the roof.  "You know, I think we have a very sanitized war here, Omar.  People do not see this pain.  The American people have no idea how horrendous is the struggle for thousands of families whose loved ones have come back with very grievous wounds that not only alter the lives of the victims but turn the lives of the family upside down.  And what you see in our film 'Body Of War' is a story that's playing itself out in thousands of homes in this country -- many thousands.  And they're hidden.  They're unseen."  Mr. Donahue speaks these words and others in reference to the ongoing conflict in Iraq with a directness and resolute anger.  He has seen this nightmare reality movie before with Vietnam -- about which he did shows early in his television career.  And he is no less angry about the current war than he was the war which took more than 58,000 American lives and the lives of between one million and two million Vietnamese civilians. 

At 72, Mr. Donahue is an elder statesman of the American news media, yet he politely and courteously rejects being ranked with the likes of famed newscaster Walter Cronkite and top investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, though he said he was "honored to be friends" with both. 

Last week, during a special pre-release screening of "Body Of War" he decried the American mainstream press, all but calling the very institution for which he once worked a lapdog, collectively sitting back on its heels, he said, refusing to cover the physical and emotional costs of the war, with the returning coffins as an initial symbol.  During this conversation he avoided taking on some of his former colleagues (he was asked who in today's cadre of U.S. mainstream journalists were on par with distinguished journalists like Mr. Cronkite and Mr. Hersh), but did address the question indirectly.  "Dissent is very, very difficult in the land of free speech.  That's the irony here.  It was hugely difficult to oppose this war, especially in October 2002, which was the month the resolution was passed," Mr. Donahue said.  "Our mood was very dark.  America was angry.  Millions of people wanted to bomb something.  And for me and a lot of other people -- I should say I was not alone, you know -- to stand up and say, 'wait a sec' -- you took a lot of abuse.  You didn't love America.  You weren't patriotic.  You didn't respect the troops.  'They' had God and you didn't.  I mean, the marginalization of the progressive or -- "

Here, Mr. Donahue interrupts himself, invoking something he has repeatedly invoked, before, during and since his tenure as a television news personality: "And liberal by the way, is the political idea that dare not speak its name in this country.  That's how effective has been the right-wing drumbeat against dissent and those who want to exercise the right that's been won for them by the way, by thousands and thousands of young Americans who fought the past wars to protect it.  You know . . . if we're not gonna use it, stop wasting their blood!  And by the way, there's a lot of pretense here too: the people beating the biggest drumbeat of this war are people who would never think of sending their own children to fight it." 

Mr. Donahue spent three years making "Body Of War" with Ellen Spiro, whom he met over the phone initially after being told of her documentary filmmaking background through a mutual friend of both.  In various television venues he has self-deprecatingly referred to himself as difficult to work with, stating that Ms. Spiro had an ordeal because of him when it came to "Body Of War".  All kidding aside though, Mr. Donahue has admitted that the film had its ups and downs, but did not get into any of it during this telephone conversation.  The film was screened for the National Press Club recently, and Mr. Donahue revealed that C-SPAN cable television host and interviewer Brian Lamb said that when he saw the president perform a mock search for weapons of mass destruction by looking under his desk in the Oval Office "it made him wince."  Other than Mr. Lamb, "nobody embraced us," Mr. Donahue said.

For those who aren't familiar with the numbers of this more than five-year conflict: to date (as of the date of this story) more than 4,037 American men and women have been killed in Iraq, and more than 1.2 million Iraqi civilians.  In October 2002 the U.S. Congress, in a joint resolution (H.J. 114) to authorize the use of U.S. military force in Iraq, voted affirmatively.  The Senate voted 77 to 23.  The  House voted 296 to 133.  "Body Of War" continually refers to these numbers.  "A lot of politicians don't want to vote on a war (in an election year; the vote on October 10 and 11 of 2002 came three weeks before some of the very politicians voting were up for re-election), said Mr. Donahue at one point.  "'You may be wrong.  It's a third-rail issue.  And by the way, you better be tough!'  So if a president wants to go to war, he's likely to get permission to do it!  Not constitutional authority.  Just permission." 

Turning to the role of West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, the Democrat who many years ago had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan (he decades ago regretted and renounced his participation), Mr. Donahue repeated his words from the floor of the Senate during the vote, words which the politician utters in the film.  "'Let your voice be heard!  Let this leadership know that you don't want this resolution rammed through Congress before the election!  The life of your son may depend on it!  The life of your daughter may depend on it!'  He's an oracle.  He's prescient.  He's anticipating what actually happened.  And he was almost totally ignored."

Mr. Donahue spoke about after effects of the devastation of the events of September 11, 2001 and what the Bush Administration has done (or not done) to make Americans safer at home.  "And by the way, putting people in cages for two, three, five years!?!!??!  With no phone calls, no Red Cross?  Privacy rights?  Rummaging around in your e-mail?"  Sounding almost exasperated, Mr. Donahue added: "You know, this is not the America that my parents taught me to swear allegiance to."  For those who think that Mr. Donahue does not love his country, just spend five minutes talking to him and you will be disabused of that notion.  "And we have such a fabulous document here in the United States Constitution.  We have so much to share with the rest of the world.  And while we have an administration claiming to spread democracy, they're turning their back on the best one of all -- the one here at home!  This is the irony that I just can't -- the more we get into this young man's story for our film 'Body Of War', the more respect we have for the framers.  They were right.  You know, when people say to us, 'we don't love America', we should say, 'we love it more than you do -- we believe in the Bill Of Rights.'  Seriously I believe if you put the Bill Of Rights to a vote there are people in this administration who would vote "no"!  Certainly on the First and the Fourth Amendment issue," Mr. Donahue said.

"And the framers warned us about this," said Mr. Donahue, speaking about some of the breakdowns of the Congress and the increased surveillance of the American public via the Internet and through wiretapping and the sole authority of an executive in the White House to declare war, which under the U.S. Constitution is Congress's sole right to do.  "Don't give one man the power to declare war!  It's too much of a temptation.  Our film makes that point."

Asked whether the American public shares a complicity with the Bush Administration in bringing about the war in Iraq since many of the politicians they voted for decided to say yes to the joint resolution of 2002, Mr. Donahue said that "the answer lies not in the stars but in ourselves."  He continued, "we will never ever feel safe in this country, or be safe, until we the people have the courage to elect leaders that will reach out rather than lash out.  We have no respect for diplomacy in this country.  We're spending over 500 billion dollars a year on war . . . and that doesn't include the Iraq war!  The Iraq war (spending) is a supplemental.  That's an extra 125 billion.  You know you're getting up to 625 billion dollars a year.  That's two billion dollars a day.  Do the math.  Two billion dollars a day for things that go, 'boom!'" 

In speaking of the U.S. constitution, long intended to protect the people from what Mr. Donahue called "the tyranny of the majority", the veteran talk show host added, "By the way, you can't force an American to believe anything.  You can't force an American to believe in the Constitution -- which gives us a right not to believe in anything.  That's how secure we are.  That's the nation that our framers wanted us to have.  And we have turned our back on it.

"Shame on us."

"Body Of War" is now playing in a number of U.S. cities, including New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, and will be opening in additional cities over the next few weeks.  The film is produced and directed by Mr. Donahue and Ellen Spiro.

Related: A Courageous Mother's Pain

"Body Of War" Popcorn Reel film review

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