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The Bodies of War


In March, paralyzed Iraq veteran Tomas Young received national attention for a “Last Letter” he wrote to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, calling out their “insane vision” and demanding that they “beg for forgiveness” from both the Americans and the Iraqis devastated by their senseless war. Young announced at that time that he would soon begin refusing medical treatment and nourishment, which meant he’d die in a few weeks.

But on May 19 Young announced that he’d decided he wanted to live longer. He made this decision after a powerful concert by Tom Morello’s Nightwatchman in Young’s hometown, Kansas City, and pre-show discussions with Morello. (The announcement that Young had chosen life has not made headlines, so far.) He specifically credited the support he’s received as a main factor in making it worthwhile to stick it out longer.

The Nightwatchman performance accompanied a screening of Body of War, a powerful documentary about Tomas Young’s struggle. Young came home a paraplegic after being wounded only five days after he arrived in Iraq in 2004, then became a quadriplegic in 2008 after suffering a further pulmonary embolism and brain injury. Five years of suffering led him to hospice care, but never deterred him from fighting against the U.S. wars in the Middle East and western Asia. However, Young still remained too ill to attend the event, billed as “A Tribute to Tomas Young.” He and his wife Claudia Cuellar did appear in a five-minute filmed update centered on an interview with Phil Donahue, one of the producers of Body of War. Later in the evening, Young and Cuellar were beamed in via Skype.

Tom Morello played host and musical headliner for the evening. It featured openers Ike Reilly (from Morello’s hometown of Libertyville, Illinois), wielding some hard-rocking acoustic guitar, and Jacob George (a three-tour Afghanistan vet from the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas), playing what Morello called “heavy metal banjo” and leading the audience in anti-war call and response. Donahue was in attendance, and Morello credited him with pulling the event together.

After the openers and the films, Morello began his own version of the evening’s fight for life, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar. He had the crowd cheering and singing along from the start. During “Flesh Shapes the Day,” Morello’s foot-stomping intensity shook all his harmonicas and their racks off the stage. Carl Restivo, from Morello’s band the Freedom Fighters, joined him to play Ben Harper’s role on “Save the Hammer for the Man” and lend second vocals when Morello broke out his “Arm the Homeless” electric and performed “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” After calling the song a tribute to all those unsung fighters striving for justice every day, Morello’s famous guitar solo–which swung through scratching and harmonic riffing to Hendrix-like teeth picking–seemed more clearly than ever a history of rock and rap as a voice for those fighters.

All of the musicians came together for a gleefully uncensored sing-a-long of “This Land Is Your Land.” Then, as if to illustrate the point that this house is your house, everyone was invited down to the stage for “World Wide Rebel Songs” and a very emotional reading of Morello’s “Until the End.”

After the set, the audience asked questions of a smiling Tomas and Claudia. Young’s mother, Cathy Smith, was in the house thanked Morello directly for inspiring her son to keep fighting a while longer. Young didn’t disagree and thanked everyone who supported him, but added, “I want to spend more time with Claudia.”

The promise of a new chapter in Young’s life closed out the evening, but what everyone there promised each other was new life to fight the battles waiting outside in the morning. With Morello passing a hat for Paralyzed Veterans of America and Young promoting the Wounded Warriors Project and calling for the release of Bradley Manning (imprisoned in Kuwait for three years now because he leaked video that shows a military helicopter murdering two dozen people, including two journalists), the evening closed as some cross between a tent revival and, albeit in just a little theater in the heartland, an all-time great anti-war rally.

Danny Alexander writes for  Living in Stereo and Rock & Rap Confidential, where this column originally appeared. He can be reached at:

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