By Alexander Billet
What is the human cost of war? Ask Tomas Young. In 2004 an Iraqi insurgent's bullet ripped through his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. His physical and emotional struggle as both a veteran and anti-war activist is the subject of the new Phil Donahue/Ellen Spiro produced documentary Body of War. This film is significant, given that the voices and experiences of soldiers, a quickly growing section of the anti-war majority, is routinely ignored by the mainstream media--as evidenced by the blackout on the recent Winter Soldier hearings.
For similar reasons, the soundtrack of the film has garnered a great amount of attention in the music press. Young himself selected the songs that would tell his story. The result is a two-disc set entitled Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran. Young recently wrote about why he took the time to compile these songs on journalist Bill Moyers' blog: "[M]usic like the songs I chose for the Body of War CD compilation inspired a particular emotion in me that made me want to act towards the goals of ending the war and bringing light to the need for better veterans’ health care. These things are bigger than all of us and need to be paid attention to, so I can only hope that music of any kind helps and inspires you as much as it has helped me."
He had plenty of help along the way, from Donahue and Spiro through what was often a gruelling filmmaking process, but also from those in the music community itself. While filming the project, word got around to none other than Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a musician who has never been shy in his own opposition to the war. Vedder requested to meet Young, and was inspired afterwards to write what has ended up being the keystone of the soundtrack.
The song, "No More", is noticeably stark. Vedder's familiar voice is accompanied by little else than acoustic guitar and the background vocals of Ben Harper, who performed this song live with Vedder at this past summer's Lollapalooza festival. Though it is obviously a song written in opposition to the present war in Iraq, its passion and simplicity are reminiscent of the late sixties, those iconic years that belonged to protest-singing folk heroes like Dylan, Phil Oakes, Joni Mitchell.
Originally, "No More" was meant to stand on its own in the film, and the producers had no intention of releasing a full soundtrack. But Young is a big music fan. "Eddie asked if there was anything he could do for me," he told Rolling Stone "[i]t dawned on me that there was the possibility of making an album with songs that inspired me to keep going through the anti-war movement." Before long, Young was getting in touch with all manner of artists, some of whom had been heroes of his, to contribute to the soundtrack. Almost instantly there was a great amount of enthusiasm among artists to contribute. Many offered their work free of charge. "Rage Against the Machine wanted to contribute, and so did Roger Waters. If you're an anti-war activist--or a music fan--how do you turn that down?" Young asks.
The connection drawn between old and new in Vedder's "No More" is an important one. While there is a direct tip-of-the-hat to the protest music of yesteryear (John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" is present, as is Neil Young, though one of his more recent tracks), the bulk of the two discs is very much made up of artists familiar to today's youth. Given that Tomas Young is himself only twenty-seven, this is hardly surprising. Many music journalists and activists have wondered over the past five years where the protest music is for today's generation. With this album it would seem these folks have their answer.
Young was in no short supply for artists able to articulate his own righteous outrage against the war machine. Indeed, that outrage is peppered throughout the discs. There's the maniacal anger of System of a Down's "B.Y.O.B." when they ask why presidents "always send the poor" to die, the confrontational boom of Public Enemy's "Son of a Bush," the folky sarcasm of Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God." Those who came up in the mosh-pit will be pleased to hear the anti-empire rant of Bad Religion's "Let Them Eat War," as well as the Bouncing Souls' "Letter From Iraq" (a song notable for its lyrics, which were penned by anti-war vet Garrett Reppenhagen). Hip-hop heads can hear contributions from Lupe Fiasco and Dilated Peoples, as well as Talib Kweli's collaboration with radical scholar Cornel West: "Bushonomics." And of course, no protest record would be complete without Rage Against the Machine's "Guerilla Radio."
The emotional depth of this album goes well beyond anger, though. Bruce Springsteen's contribution, the introspective "Devils and Dust," is told from the point of view of a soldier trying to hold onto his humanity in a world of utter inhumanity:
"I've got my finger on the trigger
And tonight faith just ain't enough
When I look inside my heart
There's just devils and dust"
At the same time, it would be patently false to call this a collection of "downer" songs. Given that these are songs that inspired an Iraq war veteran, Young treats the listener to a good helping of uplift. Though Michael Franti's "Light Up Ya Lighter" delivers some hard truth, its reggae-infused bounce delivers the kind of hope Franti thrives on. The simple indie-folk of the Moldy Peaches' Kimya Dawson does the same.
Young has called these songs his "personal soundtrack of survival." "They keep me going every day to continue in this struggle... They remind me that there are things bigger than myself." If that's true, then this soundtrack can serve the same purpose for the rest of us. Tomas Young has seen and experienced the unmentioned cost of war the way few in this country have. This film, and its soundtrack are testaments to how powerful troops' voices can be when they speak out against war. To highlight that, the proceeds from Songs That Inspired are going to Iraq Veterans Against the War. As we cross the grisly threshold of 4,000 troops killed, and as opposition to the war reaches an all-time high, the voices of these men and women become more important every day.