Shakespeare, Courage & a Fallen Hero

Tomas Young with a dedication of Shakespearean lines, .there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be“…there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

(Hamlet, act 5, sc. 2)

In 2004 Tomas Young enrolled in the US Army, fired by the desire to serve his country.

“The game’s afoot;
Follow your spirit: and, upon this charge,
Cry – God for Bush, America and Saint George!”

Desire to serve his country, with special impetus to avenge the victims of 9/11. Tomas thought he would go to Afghanistan, from where a consumptive religious fanatic with a beard and a turban, had launched, from a cave, the most sophisticated, elaborate, costly, coordinated and spectacular act of terrorism in history. Not only spectacular but marvelous, if marvel can ever be linked with evil. In fact, not only two planes brought down two skyscrapers, but a third 50-storey skyscraper, untouched by planes, collapsed of its own initiative.

Instead the Army sent Tomas Young to Iraq. On the fifth day of his assignment, while on patrol in Baghdad, he was hit by a bullet near the neck and was paralyzed from the chest down. He died during this November 2014, after years of pain and agony – the last ten  spent in and out of a hospital.

The event would have probably been ignored and filed in the thick folder titled “Nothing new on the Western Front.”

But by a twist of fate, Tomas caught the attention of Phil Donahue, a well known TV personality, fired by his employer just before the Iraq invasion, for having said on line that the weapons of mass destruction were a fib.

Having been introduced to Young, Donahue saw to it that a film be made about him, called “Body of War.” Donahue thought that the Iraq war was the most sanitized war ever. It is redundant to recall that the Pentagon prohibited the filming of the coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq arriving in Washington. Unlike the Vietnam war, when the televised coffins contributed to create a feeling of detestation for the whole thing.

Here is a transcript of Tomas’ words at the Lafayette Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn – I have excised the expressions where he could hardly speak due to the pain and the difficulty in breathing,

“I called my recruiter on around September 13, 2001, when, if you all can remember, the president stood on the rubble with a bullhorn and said we were going to get the evil-doers that did this. and he led the rah-rah around the country and got everybody really excited, and I was excited. And I wanted to go to Afghanistan and get the people that did this to us. But after I joined the Army, it became clearer and clearer to me that we weren’t going to go to Afghanistan, that we were going to go to Iraq.” And more and more, it began to feel—with statements like George Bush saying that he sought the approval of a higher father than his own and things like that, it really concerned me that President Bush was trying to use Jesus Christ as an advocate for the war. But I always remembered, at least from the Bible that I read, Jesus Christ was always about peaceful things and love and “whatsoever you do unto the least, my brother, you do unto me.” And it just shocks me that a man who tries to live his life by such devout Christian philosophies seems to skew so much on this one issue. But I heard somebody once say that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. So just everybody keep together and stay strong, and one day we’ll get what we need to get done. And thank you all for waiting, and I hope I didn’t disappoint.”

In the movie, Tomas recites the medicines he had to take, interspersed by the roll-call of congressmen and senators, all declaring “Aye” in approval of the impending Iraq war.

Here is a reduced list of the medicines,

Coumadin, Tizanidine, Gabapentin, Buproprion, Omeprazole, Morphine. Of morphine Tomas says, “It’s a narcotic. And in this situation, the effect is not to get high, but to kill pain. And so, I have to take more and more of it to stop the pain.

In an interview, Tomas said,

“Well, it’s been an amazing honor to travel the country with this music that I’m putting out on this album and the movie that has been an amazing experience to make, and to reach out to soldiers that are speaking out against this war and to try to touch lives on an individual basis has been an incredible experience. But right off the bat, I have to address something that Dick Cheney said yesterday….[ Cheney, “The president carries the biggest burden, obviously. He’s the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women, an all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm’s way for the rest of us.”

Tomas’ reply to Cheney,

“…from one of those soldiers who volunteered to go to Afghanistan after September 11th, which was where the evidence said we needed to go, to the master of the college deferment in Vietnam, the last conflict we didn’t go into voluntarily, many of us volunteered with patriotic feelings in our heart, only to see them subverted and bastardized by the administration and sent into the wrong country. Yes, we volunteered, but we didn’t volunteer where you sent us to go. And I realize that we don’t choose where we get to go, but we at least should be sent in the right places to defend the Constitution, just as we volunteered to do. That’s all.”

There is a part in the film showing the White House Correspondents’ Gala Dinner of 2005. Among the glamor, the ladies in furs and jewels, the men in tuxedo and the compliant academics of mutual flattery, President Bush jokes about the non-existent WMD, pretending to look for them under the tables.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: “Those weapons of mass destruction got to be somewhere. Nope, no weapons over there. Maybe under here.” (laughter among the guests).
LAURA BUSH: “I said to him the other day, “George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you’re going to have to stay up later.” Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife.”

Tomas Young said,

“I’d like to tell Laura Bush that there are probably several—there are probably a couple thousand desperate housewives who are quite missing their husbands and would love to have their husbands there to go to bed early before 9:00. And for the president to be so glib about a lie that he told the American people and my brothers and sisters in arms to get us to go to war so blindly and patriotically for this country, it’s offensive to me as a soldier, first, and as an American, second. And now, that clip that I was watching was recorded from the year previous, so I had a full year for that wound to fester and boil, as far as my anger and resentment at the president making that joke and looking around the Oval Office as if the weapons of mass destruction were under his desk.”

In fact the joke at the Gala Dinner was a repeat of a similar gig inside the Oval Office.

The impudent joke about the weapons of mass destruction, is the sublimation of cacocracy, the oligarchy of the ugly inside, of ambition, pride and ostentation, held as un-renounceable political virtues.  Of social climbing as an indispensable necessity for self-assertion, of media visibility as a substitute for reputation, of integrity as a redundant quality in the machine of government. Integrity is indeed an inessential qualification, compared to conformism and to a volatile obedience to him who pays, satisfies and satiates more.

Tomas was a member of Iraq Vets Against the War. He was very impressive in his speeches, even though his breathing was affected by the paralysis.  In hot weather, he had to use freezer gels in his vest, just to cool his body temperature. The film shows some of the painful experiences he had to go through just to remain alive.

The  journal of his interchanges with the medical system are equally illuminating. Here are excerpts from an interview,

“Last year, (Feb 2013) I began to experience sharp pains in my abdomen. And I went to the VA (Veteran Administration),  and they treated me like I was a second-class citizen, a junkie looking for pain medicines just to get high, even though I was genuinely in pain. I went to a private hospital, was treated much better. They suggested a colostomy, where they would remove my colon. I thought that would reduce the pain. It did for a few days, but the pain came rocketing back. And I decided to go on hospice care, where I have a pump that provides the same IV medications the hospital provided. And after my one-year anniversary with my wife, I will begin to wean myself off of food and one day go away.”

The chronicle of the final days of Tomas Young partakes of the unbelievable. During the last eight months of Young’s life Veterans Affairs reduced his pain medication, charging he had become an addict. His wife says it was a decision that thrust him into agony. His existence became a constant battle with pain and the VA. The VA was indifferent. It cut his 30-day supply of pain medication to seven days. Young, when the pills did not arrive on time, might as well have been nailed to a cross, says his wife.  She remembers hearing her husband on the phone one day pleading with a VA doctor and finally saying: “So you mean to tell me it is better for me to live in pain than die on pain medicine in this disabled state?”

Not long before he died, Tomas Young wrote a letter to Bush and Cheney, as follows,

“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. I write this letter because…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.
Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago…you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.
I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks… 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 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…I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11…We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins?…
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.”

In the military, moral courage is much rarer than physical courage. Those who speak the truth to power are punished – see Bradley Manning’s 35 year prison sentence for having made public a secretly recorded crime.

Tomas Young had courage, physical and moral. During his last days of suffering, he had to resort to sleeping pills to reduce the unbearable pain. He died in his sleep.

Shakespeare may nod if we borrow the last words of Horatio to the fallen Hamlet and dedicate them to a fallen hero,

“ Good night Tomas Young:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

Young’s words “… the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” ring in the mind of many. Let’s change ‘good’ with ‘those men who see evil’. Many see it but there is, at large, a sense of impotence towards the utter inhumanity of neo-con ideology, neo-liberal economics and gunboat imperialism.

What can words, floating online, do against the seemingly irrefragable power of evil, displaying itself in countless instances at home and abroad? Titus Andronicus’ words come to mind,

“… I stand as one upon a rock,
Environ’d with a wilderness of sea,
Who marks the waxing tide grow wave by wave,
Expecting ever when some envious surge
Will in his brinish bowel swallow him.”

In the play. Horatio attempts to discourage Hamlet from engaging in a duel with Laertes, but Hamlet decides to go on with this final trial.

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