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War: Still Good for Absolutely Nothing

(Image: Haymarket Books)

Tomas Young’s War, Mark Wilkerson, Haymarket Books, 2016

When Tomas Young woke up on September 11, 2001, he learned that several airliners had slammed into New York City’s World Trade Center. Like many Americans, he was horrified. Then, when he discovered that the Pentagon had also been hit, he became even more enraged and, in a fit of patriotic fervor, he called an Army recruiter and signed up for duty.

Young was 21 years old.

A high score on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test boosted Young’s status, and according to writer Mark Wilkerson – himself a veteran – after completing basic training, Young was given a choice of jobs and chose to become an infantryman. “He subsequently shipped out of his permanent station of Fort Hood, Texas,” Wilkerson writes, “expecting to be deployed to Afghanistan.”

That’s not what happened.

Instead, Young was sent to Iraq as part of a so-called “preemptive war,” something he found befuddling. Nonetheless, he assumed that the rationale for this destination would eventually unfold.

“Tomas had expected to hit the ground running upon his arrival,” Wilkerson reports, “with some sort of immersive combat training geared toward counterinsurgency in the Middle East.” Once more he was disappointed.

“When his unit did train,” Wilkerson reports, “Tomas noted that it was inappropriate, World War II-based conventional combat training which would prove ill-suited to the war soon to be waged.” Not one to hold his tongue, he objected, arguing that he and his colleagues would be better served by learning something about Iraqi culture and customs. The Army, of course, disagreed, and labeled Young an “impertinent soldier”; he was punished with additional chores for voicing his reservations about the command. Even worse, his unit mates were cautioned to stay away from the “disrespectful” private.

Young’s trajectory from gung-ho warrior to antiwar spokesperson is as riveting as it is sad.

In actual fact, Young disliked many members of his cohort, so this troubled him less than you might expect. “I would see guys come back from patrol laughing about how they opened a bag of Skittles and scattered them in the Iraqi dirt and laughed as the Iraqi kids ran over and ate the dirty candy, or they’d chew and they’d spit their dip into a soda bottle, close it up, and throw it into the streets and laugh as the Iraqi kids drank the chewing tobacco,” he told Wilkerson. “My thought was that this is what happens when you send a generation raised on ‘Jackass’ and ‘Grand Theft Auto’ to war … They were just fucking kids.”

Kids, in fact, with little-to-no training in how to fire from a moving vehicle or use protective gear properly.

These gaffes had dire consequences. Incredibly, five days after arriving in Iraq – on April 4, 2004 – Young’s less-than-cohesive unit was sent on an “all-hands kind of mission.” They set out in a 2.5-ton truck, Wilkerson writes, “without even a canvas covering to at least make it difficult for a sniper to take aim at the truck’s contents.” Twelve men were piled into the back of the vehicle and within seconds it became obvious that they’d been lured into an ambush. In no time flat, Young was hit; the bullet entered below his collarbone and tore through his lungs and spinal cord.

The day later became known as Black Sunday. Several hundred Iraqis died in the fighting and all but three of the soldiers in the truck with Young sustained injuries, many of them serious.

Young regained consciousness in a Kuwaiti military hospital, with absolutely no idea how he’d gotten there. His pain and disorientation, as described by Wilkerson, are palpable and sympathetically rendered. Indeed, the aftermath of Young’s military service is the most upsetting part of Tomas Young’s War since his injuries were permanent and so severe that he was offered little more than increasingly strong medication for his condition.

Paralyzed from the chest down, Young was unable to cough, walk or get an erection, Wilkerson writes. Predictably, he was frequently depressed.

Still, despite constant pain – the book makes clear that paralysis does not eliminate physical discomfort, aches or muscle spasms – until his illness became dramatically worse in 2012, Young found solace in activism. His involvement began almost as soon as he returned to the United States for treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center.

According to Wilkerson, once he got to Washington, DC, Young asked his mom, Cathy Smith, to contact Ralph Nader. Young had become enamored with Nader due to the older activist’s opposition to the war in Iraq and his relentless demand that the troops be returned home. Young wanted to meet this well-known firebrand and asked his mom to invite Nader to his hospital room.

Nader not only responded, but did one better. He asked his longtime pal, TV talk show host Phil Donahue, to accompany him on this visit. Donahue was so taken with Young’s feisty spirit and articulate critique of the war that he assembled a team to make a film, called Body of War, about Young’s physical and psychological injuries, the often inept and dismissive care he received from Veterans Affairs and private hospitals, and his involvement as a spokesperson and writer for Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Military Families Speak Out.

Young’s subsequent contact with other celebrities – among them a “60 Minutes” producer, the actor Charles Grodin, and musicians Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello – was a huge boon to his mental health. But well-positioned friends couldn’t save Young or cure his spinal cord injury or the blockages and breathing difficulties that accompanied it.

Young died a little more than two years ago. Although he had previously contemplated ending his life, and had even moved to Oregon where assisted suicide is legal, he died in his sleep on November 19, 2014.

He was 34 years old.

Young’s story is compelling and tragic, beautiful and awful. And Tomas Young’s War is a powerful book. That said, readers should know that Wilkerson does not flinch from, or hide, the gruesome details of Young’s predicament. His emotional pain and physical deterioration are described in vivid detail and offer an up-close-and-personal look at the reality of spinal cord injuries, depression, bowel blockages and respiratory distress. Additionally, the difficulties – for both caregivers and the patient – that are inherent in coping with these disorders are central to the narrative.

To the author’s credit, Young is portrayed as realistically fragile and believably flawed, a testament to the hundreds of hours Wilkerson spent with the disabled vet, interviewing him and speaking to people who knew him, from close friends and family members to soldiers he met in Iraq and through IVAW. He is neither turned into a saint nor presented as youthfully naïve or ignorant. Nonetheless, Young’s trajectory from gung-ho warrior to antiwar spokesperson is as riveting as it is sad. After all, had he not been so hell-bent on revenge who knows what he might have done with his life. The positive spin is that Young found deep meaning in speaking out against the Iraq war, and although he did not oppose war more generally, his keen assessment of military adventurism, along with his critique of the medical industry – within and outside of the Veterans Administration – are insightful and important.