October 21, 2008

P.O.V. (Season 20, #16): Soldiers of Conscience

I know it's been a while since I profiled one of these, but if you remember my P.O.V. season preview, many of the ones I wanted to see came at the end of the season, which is now. Plus Up The Yangtze has already been reviewed here. Plus I've been really busy.

Anyway, Soldiers of Conscience was the last official P.O.V. documentary of this season, and wow, what a way to finish the year. I can't say I'm not suspicious that it was scheduled as the last one in order to be close to the election, but then again I'm suspicious about everything happening right now. As if people haven't already made up their minds?

Speaking of the mind - it is the place where this deeply probing documentary lies. Through interviewing current and former soldiers, including several conscientious objectors, Soldiers of Conscience explores the fuzzy area where war and morality intersect. The film, by husband and wife filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weinberg, can be seen for the next few days in its entirety on the P.O.V. website (it may also be showing on your local PBS station for another week or two). Be advised, you will see the horrors of war - several scenes took my breath away. You will see many people dead, and you will see many people die. And this is actual footage, not some stylish, glamorized Hollywood blockbuster. It is not for the faint of heart.

And neither is war, as so many of these soldiers report. This isn't news; the effects of war on the human mind have been documented for years, but only a few soldiers are ever willing to talk about it, and even fewer are willing or able to describe how their mind changed because of their experience in war.

Aidan Delgado, Joshua Casteel, Camilo Mejia and Kevin Benderman are four of those soldiers, all of whom served in Iraq and two of whom successfully received conscientious objector status before their honorable discharge.

Delgado, who was the focus of national attention when he appeared on "60 Minutes" in 2004 while still AWOL, receives the most sympathetic treatment in this film. "There's no higher assertion of freedom than to follow your conscience," says Delgado, who spent nearly a year in jail while waiting for his conscientious objector status to be approved (which is no small feat as described here - sounds like filling your FAFSA out in Chinese and then having to orally defend it in Russian). Says Delgado, "Nothing prepares you for the unmeasured killing of civilians." He recalls an incident (complemented by video footage) in which a political protest in Iraq turned violent. He saw a young boy in the crowd with a grenade and immediately succumbed to his "reflexive fire training". He says he doesn't remember pulling the trigger, and didn't know what happened until he saw the boy later dragged out of a pool of blood. When he got back to base he disarmed his weapon and saw he had fired not one, but 11 shots.

A troubling story, and one that reinforces the lessons being taught by Lt. Col. Peter Kilner at the U.S. Military Academy at Westpoint, who boasts that "reflexive fire training" increased firing rates by over 300% after World War II. As he describes it, such training is meant to override moral reasoning; there is no time to think about what is wrong and right, and the decision-making process is eliminated. "No one likes to kill," says Kilner. "It may be nasty, it may be unpleasant, but the alternative is worse." But what is the alternative? We don't hear. "I've never killed anyone, but I've talked to a lot of people who have," finishes Kilner. More from him later.

Carlos Meija was at the Army recruiting office signing his enlistment papers on the morning of September 11, 2001. He remembers being disturbed at the behavior around him during basic training, including his own. He couldn't believe "how easy it was when you're surrounded by people shouting 'Kill, Kill, Kill!', to also shout 'Kill!'." However, he describes how during his time in Iraq he was never able to "make the jump" and see the enemy as subhuman. Rather, he saw the enemy as himself - a young soldier with orders to follow.
Although a commanding officer reassured him "if you hurt others because you have to, and without hatred in your heart, it's alright," Meija applied for conscientious objector status and was immediately ostracized by his platoon: "They see you as the enemy." Meija is now the co-chair of the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

"We sleep comfortably in our beds because violent men do violent things on our behalf," explains Joshua Casteel, an Evangelical Christian who left the army after a short stint and then reenlisted again after 9/11. It's a saying he read long ago, and a saying he no longer believes. While serving as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, Casteel had his "crystallization of conscience" (the moment necessary to prove when applying for conscientious objector status). He was interrogating a jihadist and surprisingly found himself stuck in a tit-for-tat stalemate discussion about the misinterpreted religious duty to kill the enemy. He realized neither he or the jihadist was getting anywhere, but he desperately wanted to continue the discussion and learn more about the jihadist's views. It was then that Casteel decided he had to get out, reasoning that "following Christ means taking seriously the charge for peace-making."

The role of religion springs up like this several times in the film (including Sgt. Kevin Benderman's description of his crystallization of conscience: "Why am I carrying an M-16 around in the Garden of Eden?"), but one moment really troubled me. Lt. Col. Kilner uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to justify the need for war. What if the Samaritan would have come earlier, asks Kilner. Would it have been better for him to wait for the beating to stop before helping, or would it have been better to use force - lethal force if necessary - to stop the beating?

It's not that this question isn't worthy of discussion, but it reveals a total misunderstanding of the parable. It wasn't about what the Samaritan did, but who the Samaritan was, and the fact that both a priest and a Levite passed by the victim first and did nothing. Pointing out this misunderstanding doesn't answer Kilner's question, but it still concerns me that the military continues to refashion religious scripture and make it convenient to the moral reasoning they need to justify to themselves that killing is excusable.

Oops. Have I shown my colors? Yes, I sympathize with these soldiers. I am a person of conscience, I suppose, and I'm trouble that so many people have been thrown into the mess of war, either forcibly or voluntarily, only to realize that taking another life isn't as easy it seems in so many video games and movies. "Some people say, 'Once a soldier, always a soldier,'" says Delgado. "Well, once a human being, always a human being." I agree, while fully admitting that I've never been a soldier in any military and can only speak from the "human being" perspective.

Kilner claims that a conscientious objector's "freedom to dissent is made possible by the very soldiers they criticize." Well...maybe, but by that stretch reasoning I'm obliged to thank the military for everything I have in my life, including my opinions, right? So how does it work in a country like Costa Rica, which has no standing military? And what about Germany? According to a statistic shown in the film (which I have yet to corroborate), 150,000 Germans were drafted into mandatory military service in 2004. Of these, 70,000 served in the military and 80,000 became conscientious objectors and completed domestic community service instead.

It's an incredible statistic, and it's no wonder it comes right after Delgado makes an interesting insight about World War II. He claims that military promoters often ask, "What if no one had stopped Hitler?," to which he replies, "Well, what if there would have been enough conscientious objectors in Hitler's army?" It's a clever, unprovable, and naive point, which Delgado readily admits. But he is convinced, "peace is not a Utopian vision."

Soldiers of Conscience is more of a psychological documentary than a political documentary, and although it gives fair screen time to Kilner (interesting name, I just noticed) and other active soldiers who morally justify killing, it's not quite as even-handed as it claims. Let's just say you're probably not going to gain a new sympathy for military philosophy. Additionally, the disturbing visuals
and somewhat scattered editing sometimes make it confusing for the viewer to figure out who is saying what and which pictures and videos actually relate to our subjects. Not a major problem, but one that bugged me a little bit.

As always, the conversation can be continued at the P.O.V. blog, where already many former and active members of the military have spoken their mind on the issue and the film. Additionally, you can find updates about the film's subjects and learn more about the moral justification for killing on Kilner's blog.


  1. If nothing else, the conscientous objector is visible, human proof that war is neither inevitable nor something everyone has to rally to for patriotic reasons. Thsoe who would villify the CO are people who have never been in combat.

    I have a couple of professional soldiers in the family and remember one career soldier from The War Tapes. They are all intelligent about their career and the necessities surrounding war - all of them agree that a war must have a tangible objective.

    My brother-in-law and sister-in-law are loyal, but they both agree that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have no objective and are wasting lives, resources, and good will around the globe. They are extrememly critical of the president (and Patty has always been loyal to the commanders in chief). If the weekend warriors and kneejerk militarists would actually listen to the tropps on the ground, they might find something better to do with their lives.

    PS--I'm not sure why you put a poll up about the presidential race. I'm still a big fan of yours, but I think that's a line I wouldn't have crossed myself on my blog.

  2. The War Tapes was one of the best movies I saw in 2006, and I think it remains maybe the best documentary about Iraq so far, followed by No End in Sight.

    The War Tapes should be required viewing for most people, including those passing down the commands, like you say.

    Regarding the poll, well I appreciate your thought. It's true that I've somehow kept myself from posting anything personal or non-film related here in over a year, but this seems to be an occasion worthy of a poll, if not a post. I'm not interested in making this a political blog at all, but I'm just curious what the results will be. My hypothesis is that most people choose their candidate based on personality alone, which I think is a problem...

    But haven't you posted a number of your thoughts about Chicago and its politics at your place?

  3. To be sure, I have. I guess the difference for me is that I relate directly to those events, to things that have happened to me, my friends, my neighborhoods. I try to be fact-based about it so I don't sound like I'm just grinding an ax, though it may come off that way to many.

    But as far as asking people for their opinions about the presidential race, well, that's a little too remote, too hard to grasp, and would be--for me--too much of an invasion of privacy. It's just the way I was raised.

  4. I understand, Marilyn. I've never read your "local" posts as anything but fact-based, but the comments have the potential to bring in as much political opinion as a post would. Which is fine, anyway. I'm not a stickler for blogging rules, not that there really are any to begin with.

    The election poll is shallow, to be sure, but I would still consider it anonymous. I would get rid of it if it wasn't, because I respect people's right to privacy about their beliefs and opinions. You'll never find me coming right out and asking an individual who they voted for. A minor but important difference from what I'm doing here.

    Additionally, although a clear bias toward Obama has emerged here, I accept that people's core beliefs may not "relate" to their candidate of choice. People pigeonhole each other too easily.


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