Published on Sunday, October 19, 2008 by The Women's International Perspective (WIP)
Soldiers of Conscience: Opposing the
"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
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
The concept of being a conscientious objector was acknowledged in 1775 by the Continental Congress. When the
Watching the film's haunting footage of the
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.
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
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
Copyright © 2008 The Women’s International Perspective
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in San Francisco,
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs