Soldiers of Conscience: The War Within Those Trained to Kill

By Kaitlin Barker 11-12-2008

Life is easier in black and white, when things are clearly right or clearly wrong. We tend not to like the gray very much. It was certainly easier for me to hard-headedly disapprove of all war, including those who took part in it. But, working at an orphanage in India, I met Chad, a young man fresh from Iraq with an American flag tattoo, and he muddled up my clarity. Instead of the war-touting stereotype I expected, Chad taught the kids to solve their conflicts without violence because, as he told me, he'd recently seen that violence doesn't solve problems.

Chad didn't change my mind about war, but he forced me to recognize the complexity of the human heart and the painful moral conflict that soldiers face when confronted with the reality of war, and in particular, the reality of killing another human being. This internal struggle is what Soldiers of Conscience, a new film from PBS's "P.O.V." series, investigates through the voices of soldiers on both sides of the issue.

The film features eight U.S. soldiers and the common ground of their conscience. Each faces the same question: to kill or not to kill. Four of the eight believe deeply in the necessity and morality of war, that the strong must protect the weak, and that war and lethal force are morally justified at appropriate times. The others believe equally deeply that killing is never justified, and that peace can only be obtained by individual stances of courage and conscientious objection.

Basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, introduces the film's topic. "Kill, kill, kill without mercy" is chanted across a field as fresh recruits begin training. Major Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics, shares the surprising fact that 75 percent of soldiers in World War II never fired their weapons at the enemy. S.L.A. Marshall, a World War II historian, found that one in four soldiers of that war became conscientious objectors. The army decided they needed to fix that, Kilner says, so soldiers are now put through "reflexive firing training," which is designed to bypass natural moral reaction and decision-making.

But such a bypass will eventually require a reckoning, and Kilner has noticed the emotional and spiritual struggle many soldiers meet once they arrive in Iraq and are confronted with the momentous choice to kill or not to. Soldiers can only kill because they're taught to, Kilner says, but "we never explain to them why it's okay." Nor is there much mention of killing when soldiers come home. "We don't talk about it," Kilner observes. "It's a taboo to talk about."

Kilner, along with three Fort Jackson drill sergeants, represents the mainstream perspective on war, that it "can be an awful but necessary, and morally right, choice," as he says. For them, killing is part of the job, lamentable but justifiable. The other four soldiers, whom the filmmakers follow on their journey to conscientious objector status, find themselves asking, as Camilo Mejia did, "How are we going to survive as a human race if we continue to embrace war?" Home on a two-week leave, Mejia publicly refused to return to Iraq; he was the first to do so and was given one year in prison. Kevin Benderman, a 10-year army veteran whose objector application was denied, was charged with 15 months of confinement and dishonorably discharged. But, he says, he had the freedom to put his weapon down.

The film's other two objectors, one a Christian and one a Buddhist, both guided by faith, were granted C.O. status and discharged honorably, but their decisions were still met with hostility and challenge. Joshua Casteel, stationed at Abu Grahib, struggled with the contradiction between his position as a Christian and his position as an interrogator. His "crystallization of conscience" occurred during an interrogation with a jihadist, and three months after filing his application, he was out of the army. "I have a different picture of tomorrow's humanity," he says, "and I want to be involved in creating that."

Aidan Delgado shares with the filmmakers the first precept of Buddhism: Don't take life. The war wasn't personal for him until he saw its reality, and an internal dispute erupted within him when he took his position as a guard at a POW camp. "I saw my enemy and I had no hatred for him," Delgado says. "It's the nature of war to set the other apart, because you can't kill that which is like yourself." When he chose to take a personal stand and hand over his weapon, his comrades saw him as a traitor. He served his entire tour of duty as an objector, without weapon or body armor.

There are plenty of Iraq war documentaries that hit you over the head with overt stances and a maelstrom of images and facts, but they don't make you think. Soldiers of Conscience doesn't berate one view and glorify the other, but instead looks honestly at the moral conscience at play in each, allowing the soldiers' experiences to paint the complex picture. The filmmakers suggest solutions, but don't tell us what they are.

As Casteel says at the end of the film, "Peace is not a utopian vision. It can happen. But it takes people willing to commit their faith and their practical efforts to achieve it

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