558: What is a “Soldier of Conscience”? News on a DVD that’ll provoke questions


his week, ReadTheSpirit’s various sections are offering creative ideas in challenging times. We’ve taken a hard look at the realities we face—from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the tough choices facing our men and women in military service. Plus, we’ve offered help and hope, including the spiritual wisdom of Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan.
    Today, we continue sharing important news about spiritual resources, specifically about our neighbors in the U.S. military.
    A PBS documentary that we strongly recommended a year ago has just been released on DVD. It’s a terrific, thought-provoking film, great for small-group discussion.
    Here is an excerpt of our review of “Soldiers of Conscience” …

THIS NEW DOCUMENTARY 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?
    The first thing you need to know about this 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
    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.
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.


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    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)



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