Phil Donahue Gave Me Writer’s Block

Originally Published by NJ Peace Blog:
March 5, 2010

I walked into the NJ Peace Action annual dinner, a notebook in my hand, my head full of activism. I wanted to talk about the things I’ve noticed in America. “I’m a trained cultural theorist,” I boasted to my own mind. “I have important analyses to offer.”

It’s true; I do, as do some of the people I met there. The discussion at my table was lively. We talked about the US culture of war. We shared video clips on our camcorders and our iPhones. We ate our salmon, or chicken, or ratatouille. We listened to folk music. I felt righteous. I felt like I knew what was up. I’m no fool, I thought. I’m one of the good people.

Then Phil Donahue spoke. His tone was easy. He was self-deprecating and humble. He took himself to task for taking so long to speak out, while he praised the bravery of others—the activists who’ve been struggling since Vietnam, or earlier.

That couple over there is in their 90s, someone told me. They’ve been activists all their lives.

It was a lesson in perspective. Donahue was a man against whom I’ve measured my own activism. When he spoke out against the Iraq War on MSNBC, my friends and I cheered him on. “Yeah. Tell those Hawks what’s up, Phil!” When he slapped down Bill O’Reilly, I stood up in my living room and applauded. “Loud doesn’t mean right, Billy.” I quote that line often.

Yet here he was, feeling late to the struggle, expressing true remorse, and sharing the story of his difficult road to activism. I felt my own inaction and my own political silence sharply. It was painful and inspiring.

After this dinner, I told myself, I’m going to type my fingers raw. I’m going to howl against the Iraq War. I was already typing notes on my iPhone.

Then the film clips started. Donahue’s new documentary, Body of War, is the story of Tomas Young, a disabled Iraq War veteran paralyzed from the nipples down. The film documents his struggles with impotence, pain, humiliation, and ultimately divorce—all the direct result of a bullet to the spine delivered just one week after he had arrived in Iraq.

Tomas’ story is heartbreaking enough, but Body of War is more than a personal narrative. Juxtaposed and interspersed throughout runs the congressional debate that ultimately led to the war. Legislator after legislator regurgitates Neo-Con talking points and scoffingly disregards any peaceful opposition. In the end, only twenty-three Senators voted against sending people like Tomas to war.

The film was an emotional metronome. I was swung between Tomas struggling to achieve an erection and senators barking about weapons of mass destruction. Tomas sat in his bed, ran through his daily medications; politicians repeated W. Bush’s mushroom cloud sound bite. It was disgusting.

When Senator Robert Byrd finally appeared on the screen, pointed his finger at the American media audience, and told us—with a voice cracked with emotion—to fight for the sanity of our country, my stomach dropped. I sobbed into my napkin. Those poor soldiers. Those poor families. Those poor children, I thought.

After the film, I limped up to Donahue, my eyes bloodshot and watery. I shook his hand, introduced myself as a doctoral candidate in Modern History and Literature, and told him my father is a psychologically-disabled Vietnam vet. I told him I admired his efforts and wanted to help. He asked me for my card. Thankfully, I had some.

As I left, I told him about NJ Peace Blog, and that I would be writing about his talk. He said he would be watching for it.

But now I’m stuck. I’m blocked because Body of War was a visceral experience that words cannot approach; it has to be felt in the gut to be grasped. I’m blocked by the impact of Phil Donahue, a powerful voice of reason and ordinary human compassion amid a storm of corporate media whores—that means you, Billy.

I am blocked because I realize that I’m just a poet who grew up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. My father’s spirit died in the jungle; his body came home and conceived me. I am the son of a human shell—a child of war. These horrors require new metaphors, but I am too shaken to coin them.

So, for now, I’ll take solace in the belief that the most profound response is a stunned silence, and the best review of a film is a nod of appreciation and action for change.  Body of War and Phil Donahue inspire all this.  They rattled me to my foot soles. I’m wide awake in the United States. I can see the Iraq War and my government with crystal clarity: the war machine has eaten too many children; war trauma has swallowed generations of families; and the drum beats on. I, for one, am tired of it. I’m outraged and  grief-stricken to silence, sure, but I will not stay silent much longer.


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