"There are two types of bayonet fighters, the quick and the dead. Which type are you?" This is what a boot camp drill sergeant yells at new recruits, who then reply in unison - "the quick!" During any war, a soldier's survival depends on this "kill or be killed" mentality. But killing the enemy, even for soldiers who deeply believe in the cause, is not easy. Some soldiers decide they must put down their weapons - even if that means being court-marshaled and imprisoned.
The new film Soldiers of Conscience documents soldiers who, during the middle of their deployments in Iraq, became conscientious objectors. The documentary, which premiers on PBS as part of the Point of View series this week, is not 86 minutes of liberal-biased, anti-war propaganda; it is a very thoughtful exploration of the moral debate about killing during times of war. Filmmakers Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan made Soldiers of Conscience with cooperation from the United States Army.
The ethical dilemma that anchors the film is blatantly stated in the first few minutes - "At some point, every soldier has to face the question: Will I be able to kill another human being in combat?" Until recent wars most soldiers were not willing to kill; during WWII the military found that 75 percent of combat soldiers did not fire at the enemy when given the opportunity. "Reflexive fire training" - a technique now taught during basic training wherein firing a weapon becomes second nature - has increased firing rates to almost 90 percent.
A quick reaction may save a soldier's life, but it can also mean that killing becomes so intuitive that a soldier may not clearly evaluate the situation before firing. Major Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics who was recently deployed to Iraq and will serve in Afghanistan this winter, questions the implications of this training practice. "When you train them reflexively, they learn to make those decisions much more quickly, but the price of that is they're not thinking through the great moral decision of killing another human being," he says.
The concept of being a conscientious objector was acknowledged in 1775 by the Continental Congress. When the U.S. had a military draft, conscientious objectors often cited religious beliefs. Quakers, for whom pacifism is a fundamental part of their religion, notably objected to combat when drafted, but would serve in other parts of the military to fulfill their obligation. Since the U.S. no longer has a draft, why would a pacifist volunteer to flight? The answer is, they wouldn't. But some soldiers have a "crystallization of conscience," military speak for having an epiphany that turns them against the war while enlisted. They can then file for conscientious objector status.
Watching the film's haunting footage of the Iraq war is so incredibly upsetting from the comfort of my living room that it is difficult to comprehend what it is actually like for soldiers who experience this unending brutality on a daily basis. Becoming a conscientious objector, like four of the military personnel profiled in the film, seems like a reasonable reaction.
The film takes the idea of conscientious objection one step further by profiling two soldiers (Joshua Casteel and Aidan Delgado) who formally became conscientious objectors, finished their tours, and were then honorably discharged; and then, in contrast, features two other soldiers (Camilo Mejia and Kevin Benderman) who were not formally recognized as conscientious objectors, went AWOL, and were court-marshaled and imprisoned. All four soldiers have now written books about their experiences.
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Although Mejia's and Benderman's dramatic stories made the national news, Casteel's experience is the most captivating. A staunch republican who was raised as an Evangelical Christian, Casteel attended West Point and voluntarily enlisted in the military - despite feeling a conflict with his religious beliefs. While working as an interrogator Abu Ghraib prison, he interrogated a self-proclaimed Jihadist. The man's impenetrable religious conviction so affected Casteel that he couldn't finish the interrogation. After this "crystallization of conscience," he applied for and was granted conscientious objector status, and later honorably discharged. It is very obvious that Casteel's strong-held religious beliefs were not used as a ploy to avoid finishing his tour, but rather the "nobility of service" that he grew up believing in became an illusion.
The film features respectably in-depth interviews. No one - not the conscientious objectors nor their critics - is reduced to a flashy sound-bite that misconstrues their actual opinions. This helps the film in its impartiality. Soldiers of Conscience doesn't take sides, it is not an anti-war or a pro-war film; instead, it truly surveys and attempts to understand the complexities of a moral conundrum.
Many civilians, who have never experienced extreme violence firsthand, may find it difficult to comprehend a justification for murder - or how a person can emotionally recover after killing someone. For the active duty military personnel interviewed in the documentary, they are just doing what they have to do because, according to Kilner, the "alternative's worse." But this does not mean that the soldiers who voluntarily fight are not bothered by their experiences. No one is portrayed as warmongering or hungry for blood.
Soldiers of Conscience does not vilify or glamorize any of the soldiers who choose to fight. War is an unfortunate part of life and someone has to fight. The reality of modern war, not just the unpopular Iraq war, is bloody - high body counts and collateral damage. The film, possibly unintentionally, engenders a newfound respect for the soldiers that experience hell daily on the front lines, while simultaneously questioning the fundamental idea of war.