Tonight, don’t miss PBS’s latest POV documentary, “Soldiers of Conscience.” You may want to set a recorder to share this film later if you’re part of a small discussion group.
This is a disturbing and thought-provoking examination of the question we all, as Americans, ask our soldiers to face each day on battlefields around the world: To kill or not to kill? And, a word of warning to parents: This is not appropriate for children. The film contains graphic battlefield footage from Iraq that illustrates the issues raised the film — and it is shocking to watch.
Over the past year, we’ve recommended a number of excellent POV documentaries on themes ranging from the legacy of slavery to the legacy of Johnny Cash. Many of the POV documentaries, in keeping with the series’ title, are designed to show a Point of View.
But, the first thing you need to know about this newest POV film is that its power flows from its balance between soldiers who explain why military men and women regrettably must take life in war — and several soldiers who have become conscientious objectors during the Iraq War. The film was made with cooperation from the U.S. Army and we spend part of our 90 minutes with Major Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics, who explains that it’s important for all of us to understand these troubling issues.
We may agree that war is necessary, or we may be pacifists, Kilner says, but we all need to understand the traumatic effects of these questions about taking human life. As Americans, Kilner stresses, we are asking soldiers to make these choices every day.
“In war, it’s not that morality doesn’t apply. In war, morality is most
important, because the soldier can do so much good or so much bad,”
Kilner tells us. It’s not a situation that will disappear anytime in the near future, he says. “Until people stop being aggressive, we will need people to defend the innocent.”
“Soldiers of Conscience” was not produced as a religious film, but it is an intensely spiritual window into the human heart.
We hear several soldiers talk about how their faiths, including Christianity and Buddhism, ultimately led them to make painful choices about leaving the military. Why painful? Because all of the conscientious objectors included in this film were brave and patriotic soldiers who wound up facing the full fury of the U.S. Army and, in two cases, prison terms for their decisions.
In one case, former soldier Joshua Casteel talks about his life-long patriotism and sense of civic duty — as well as his lifelong evangelical faith. For years, he thought the two went hand in hand. Then, in Iraq, these two deep moral commitments in his life collided as he saw Iraqi civilians dying day after day.
“I was thinking about the stories in Sunday school of the gentle Jesus,” Casteel tells us. “In the gospels, it says do not oppose an evildoer. If a man strikes you on the left check, turn him also your right. I started to ask questions about redemption. What would it look like if that same determination used to defeat the enemy was used to redeem the enemy?”
Another soldier puts it this way: “In Iraq, I began to wonder why I was carrying around an M-16 in the Garden of Eden. There’s nothing honorable in killing. I went to the war zone and I started seeing how I needed to change and that the only thing I could do was to not pick up a rifle again and to refuse to kill another person.”
Those words come from Kevin Benderman, a soldier from the South whose ancestors had served in America’s armed forces since the Revolutionary War. His decision, during a leave from Iraq, to refuse to return to the war led to a dishonorable discharge and more than a year in prison. It was not a decision he made lightly.
The film takes us to U.S. Army training facilities where officers, including Major Kilner, explain why the current training regimen is designed to produce soldiers with “reflexive fire” responses. The aim is to “bypass their earlier moral training,” Kilner says.
It’s necessary for the safety of other soldiers, he explains. We learn about U.S. Army research into conditions in World War II in which 75 percent of U.S. soldiers never fired their weapons, even when faced with enemy fire. The problem, Kilner explains, is that their moral conscience in the early 1940s outweighed the need to shoot back — even when U.S. lives were threatened.
Now, with advanced training in “reflexive fire,” Kilner says, “I’ve talked to a whole lot of company commanders who say, ‘People now are a whole lot more lethal than they ever imagined.'”
Kilner is part of a move at West Point to reexamine this automatic style of training.
Camilo Mejia, one of the conscientious objectors in the film, explains how this training shaped his life in Iraq. He describes watching a distant Iraqi protest far from his sniper’s perch. It all seemed so close through his telescopic gun sight. He spotted a young man in the protest with an upraised arm, perhaps holding a grenade — even though the young man was so far away that he was not a threat to the distant snipers.
The next thing Camilo can recall, he had fired 11 bullets and only a pool of blood was left where the man once stood.
“Nothing is going to prepare you for the level of destruction that you bring upon a nation and that you bring upon yourself for being a part of it,” Camilo says.
The most haunting moments in the film are scenes in which soldiers describe transformative moments when their consciences overwhelmed them. Aidan Delgado talks about an assignment to guard some Iraqi men, taken prisoner during the war.
“It’s one thing to think of an impersonal enemy. It’s another thing to see a young man — who is another you,” Aidan says. “I was seeing other young men like me, who had lost and were in a prisoner of war camp now. I looked at them and saw my own unit, except with darker skins. I was not able to make the jump to see the enemy as sub-human. … At that moment, I just felt my fighting energy drain out of me. I had no hatred for the enemy. They were just like me.”
Whatever your spiritual view may be on the morality of military service, this is a film we all should see. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served us — and who we continue to ask to make these choices on our behalf, year after year.
PHOTO CAPTIONS TODAY:
Top Photo shows new recruits in formation with Sgt. Washington at Ft. Jackson, SC. Photo courtesy of Luna Productions.
Second photo is soldier Joshua Casteel in Iraq.
Third photo shows conscientious objector Kevin Benderman leaving his court martial immediately after having been found guilty of missing movement but innocent of desertion at Ft. Stewart, GA, July 28, 2005. Photo courtesy of Maritza Castillo.
Fourth is a photo of Camilo Mejia during his deployment in Iraq.
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(Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)