During the week that George W. Bush– with an assist from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker–began demanding another $100 billion or so for his Iraq War, Phil Donahue began presenting the real face of the conflict. The daytime television pioneer, who from the 1960s to the ’90s taught America how to discuss uncomfortable topics, was doing it again with a remarkable antiwar documentary, Body of War, which went into national distribution just as Petraeus was telling Congress to forget about the ever mounting human and economic toll and give the war more time.
Donahue was not just using his considerable prominence to pitch a project. The man was preaching. “We’ve all got to stop and say: every day, young men and women are being killed, their bodies are being torn apart in an insane war that started with spin–which is a nice word for ‘lies’–and that continues with spin. Why are we just standing here? Why are we allowing this massive blunder to continue?”
The Middle American Everyman, whose Phil Donahue Show premiered in 1967 with an appearance by the woman who knocked prayer out of the public schools, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, has never shied away from controversy. That penchant prevented him from following Ronald Reagan’s lead and entering politics–as suggested by supporters who urged him to seek a Senate seat from his native Ohio or his adopted Connecticut–and got his short-lived cable comeback tossed off MSNBC on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Donahue’s show was pulling better ratings than others on the network, but his questioning of the rush to war scared NBC executives, who circulated a memo expressing fears that this one hour of open-minded programming could become a “home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
“I thought I was offering the network something–a show with real debates, real ideas that Americans who wanted something more than cheerleading would tune into,” says Donahue, who notes that MSNBC has since remade itself as the skeptical cable network, with the questioning led by Keith Olbermann. “I think we’ve been proven right. Unfortunately, the network wasn’t willing to take a chance when it might have made a difference–before the war started.” The whole experience turned Donahue, who had always worried about whether TV was serving democracy, into an even more trenchant critic of consolidated and compromised media. But Donahue’s faith in the power and possibility of dissent is steady, especially with regard to a war that TV continues to cover with a caution bordering on the propagandistic.
There is nothing cautious about Body of War, which Donahue directed with a terrific independent filmmaker he sought out, Ellen Spiro. The talk-show host who broke every television taboo–showing a woman giving birth, discussing AIDS before almost anyone else, treating transvestites with respect and corporations with distrust–is now breaking the taboo that says Americans cannot stomach the reality of this war.
Over the haunting music of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who volunteered to aid the project, Body of War introduces 25-year-old Tomas Young, a patriotic kid from Kansas City who signed up to fight 9/11 terrorists because his President called him to duty. Young took a bullet in the spine during his first week in Iraq and returned paralyzed from the chest down [for more on Young, see Eugene Richards’s moving photo essay in these pages, “War Is Personal,” March 27, 2006]. “Heartbreaking” is not a powerful enough word for the story of this veteran Donahue met with his friend Ralph Nader at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Confronted with a war he passionately opposed but did not know how to stop, Donahue considered writing a book. But after attending the 2005 National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis, he decided to do what he’s done for decades on television: show America something it would not see elsewhere. With Spiro, Donahue tells “a story of a heartland kid who suddenly went from a social life of singles bars and courtship to a daily routine of catheters, puke pans and erectile dysfunction.” The film has won glowing reviews, one hailing it as “almost unbearably moving.” Finding a distributor proved so difficult that after almost a year they set up their own distribution plan for what is more than just a soldier’s story. Body of War is, at heart, a scathing indictment of the politicians who sent Tomas Young to fight and who keep sending others like him into the quagmire–and of complacent media that seem to be losing interest in a war their lax coverage made possible. The inspiration comes from Young, who rolls in his wheelchair at the front of antiwar demonstrations, and from Veterans for America president Bobby Muller, a paralyzed Vietnam vet who tells his young comrade, “If I don’t fight the system, I will die.”
That’s a fitting credo for Donahue. The man who mastered the system now fights it. He is a fiercer critic than ever of those who hold microphones but do not use them to “fight the system.” “They say there is ‘Iraq fatigue,’ that we can’t keep going over what’s wrong with this war. That’s what the suits like to think. It’s convenient. A sanitized war doesn’t stir things up,” says the 72-year-old champion of the free press. “But war is real, especially for veterans like Tomas. And if the American people see that reality, I believe they will force the politicians to end it.”