Songs of Survival and Hope

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 and 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 grueling film-making 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.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on April 9th, 2008 at 2:24pm #

    i got some good news. the hell’s been around so long, it has cooled down sufficiently
    to suit every body. i got even better news but for rich people only. because of global warming, siberia and the poles are warmnig. in a few decades it will be just about perfecto. that’s why rich people of the world are or will be soon pointing missiles at russia. while siberia will be ok, much of the world may be a hothouse where even tomatos will evaporize let alone people. so, we will have yet another great migration.
    but remember the hell i had been talking about? we poor people have fianally a place of our own watching butiful women parading bare breasted with firm round teats that any man would swoon over by just looking at t hem let alone having free sexcare. did you know that the firsts europeans to ‘merica had free sexcare (because there were so many youg squaws) but not medicare. in canada? priests also had sexcare long before we got medicare. in US there is neither free sexcare nor mdicare. it seems that laidback ladies are chargng more that $1000 for one hour’s sex therapy. well , hourrah for them!

  2. a mom said on April 13th, 2008 at 7:36am #

    I plan to buy the CD. Too many men and women have died. And even more have been permanently damaged physically and psychologically.

    To this day, no one has given a justifiable reason for all this death and misery. Because there is no justification for this endless war in Iraq.
    There were no Iraqis on those planes on September 11th.
    Hussein was being contained within his own borders. In the early 90’s he was not allowed to fly planes within his own airspace except for the helicopter gunships he was allowed to use in early ’91 to kill Kurds in the north, he was also allowed to suppress the Shi’a rebellion in the south. He was under an economic embargo and the population had a resurgence of vaccine preventable diseases like polio diphtheria and measles. The oil for food program was a bust from the start. He was being secretly monitored. Children were dying in huge numbers each month because of the sanctions. He was forced to disarm and allow weapons inspections. His country was bombed repeatedly. More civilians suffered and died. All in all Iraq was no real threat to anyone, especially not America. And it’s civilian population continues to pay the highest cost for this and all previous wars against it.

    We have been mired in this occupation for 5 years now and Osama Bin Laden has yet to be found when HE claimed responsibility for September 11th. Of the 19 men who have been named as the attackers that day, 15 were Saudi, 2 were from the UAE, 1 from Egypt, and 1 from Lebanon. It would seem that Saudi Arabia would have been a more likely target than Iraq or Afghanistan.

    But what do I know. I’m just the mother of someone who is in harms way right now for reasons that change each season. I’m just an American citizen who can not believe what her nation has become in the last 7 years. And, of course, there is no way I could possibly understand the logic behind attacking an almost prostrate country while what appeared to be the obvious enemy has it’s nationals within our borders allowed to leave on flights when even American citizens couldn’t fly. And we continue to maintain relations with Saudi Arabia. A monarchy with the Qur’an as it’s constitution that is the 9th most authoritarian regime in the world.
    No, I can’t ever be expected to understand how we ended up in Iraq and Afghanistan on fruitless hunts for a ghost while our Constitution is disregarded and our way of life is permanently altered to suit the current administrations whim.
    We, the People’s wishes are “not important”. And the people that we elect to represent us get into office and decide that they will be guided not by what we have asked them to do and what they promised they would do if we elected them but by their own personal desires and beliefs. Elected officials who are more concerned about being re-elected and being “popular” than doing the JOB they were elected to do.

  3. hp said on April 13th, 2008 at 3:54pm #

    Well the Supreme Court ‘elected’ Bush the first time and Diebold ‘elected’ him the second time.
    I believe that.
    The first is on record and a historical fact.
    The second is not on record and therein lies the rub.