A US soldier in Iraq, March 22, 2003. (AP Photo/John Moore)
Phil Donahue introduced me to the story of Iraq War vet Tomas Young a number of years ago, when Phil and Ellen Spiro were finishing what remains the most powerful of all documentaries on the war of whim into which George Bush and Dick Cheney led the United States a decade ago—and the consequences of that war.
That 2007 documentary, Body of War, followed the physical and emotional struggles of Young, a veteran paralyzed by a bullet wound to the spine, and juxtaposed them with the Congressional debate on whether to authorize President Bush to invade Iraq.
The most dramatic moment in the film comes when Young meets West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who argued so passionately against going to war—during the authorization debate, and in the final weeks before Bush ordered the invasion that would cost thousands of American lives, as many as a milloin Iraqi lives and trillions of dollars. In the film, the two men, one so old and one so young, read the names of the twenty-three senators who opposed authorizing Bush’s war. Then Byrd tells the young soldier, who was wounded just days after arriving in Iraq, that he wished that he could have done something more, anything more, to avert the war.
Byrd is now gone.
And Young’s story is coming to a close.
“Tomas Young has been fighting for the last nine years, fighting his government, fighting the Veterans Administration and fighting his own deteriorating body,” notes his local paper, The Kansas City Star. “But soon the struggle will be over. The Kansas City man who was paralyzed from the chest down by a sniper’s bullet during the Iraq war is now in hospice care and preparing to die.”
Young is not going quietly, however.
He has written a remarkable last letter, addressed to former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney, which first appeared on the TruthDig website.
“I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power,” Young explains. “I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans—my fellow veterans—whose future you stole.“
Young tells a part of his own story, but he makes a universal point—not just about war, but presidential, and vice-presidential, accountability:
I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level—moral, strategic, military and economic—Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.
Young’s letter closes on a moral note that goes beyond politics, and is vital for Americas to consider as we mark the tenth anniversary of the wrongheaded war that George Bush and Dick Cheney led us into.
“I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul,” he writes. “My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.“
Eugene Richards devoted a four-page photo-and-word spread in the March 27, 2006, issue of The Nation to telling the story of Tomas Young. Read Richards' moving essay here.
Will Bush and Cheney be prosecuted for their crimes? As former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman writes, time is running short.