Ask the Filmmakers: Soldiers of Conscience’s Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg

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Catherine Ryan and Gary WeimbergWith Soldiers of Conscience, filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg confront the question of what it means for a person to kill another human being. As told through the eyes of both active military personnel and conscientious objectors, the film presents a dramatic window on the dilemma facing individual U.S. soldiers in the current Iraq War — when their finger is on the trigger and another human being is in their gun-sight.

Soldiers of Conscience airs on most PBS stations on Thursday, October 16 at 9 PM. (Schedules vary, so check your local listings.)

Made with official permission of the U.S. Army, the film profiles eight American soldiers, including four who become conscientious objectors; and four who believe in their duty to kill if necessary. The film shows all of them wrestling with the morality of killing in war, not as an abstract philosophical issue, but as a reality that soldiers experience — a split-second decision in combat that can never be forgotten or undone.
In their filmmaker letter, Catherine and Gary talk about how all soldiers are “soldiers of conscience,” whether they are conscientious objectors or war-fighters:

[W]e came to see the profound agreement between the sincere war-fighters and the sincere conscientious objectors. Both understand the horror of having to kill. In fact, when thinking about killing, these two types of soldiers actually agree more than they disagree. We hope that when soldiers and veterans view the film, that they will come to the same conclusion — seeing their own common ground and learning to honor and respect each other more, even when they do disagree.

Read more from Catherine and Gary’s filmmaker interview with POV
Do you have a question for Catherine and Gary? Leave it in the comment field below or join them in a live chat on PBS Engage this Friday, Oct. 16th at 1 pm ET, and they will answer your questions.

Ruiyan Xu
Ruiyan Xu
Former POVer Ruiyan Xu worked on developing and producing materials for POV's website. Before coming to POV, she worked in the Interactive and Broadband department at Channel Thirteen/WNET. Ruiyan was born in Shanghai and graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Modern Culture and Media.
  • john

    FOREIGNID: 17709
    You may use HTML tags for style and links.

  • Greta

    FOREIGNID: 17710
    I enjoyed this documentary as it put into words so clearly how we as Jehovah’s Witnesses feel world wide. No Witness anywhere would pick up arms against another. And we feel strongly that some day hopefully before long, ‘war will be no more,’ Rev. 21:4

  • Barbara Boraks

    FOREIGNID: 17711
    As someone currently working on a program which raises the question of the morality of war, I was wondering if you have a sense of what intellectual/religous/ethical foundations are used on which to base the concept of a ‘moral’ justification to war, or to some wars.
    Terms ‘moral’, ‘ethical’ etc. are used continually (not just be the military) but the question is – what, or which, morals, what ethics, what foundation?

  • Pete Kilner

    FOREIGNID: 17712
    The moral justification for killing in war that I advocate is based on a (Kantian) rights-based approach to morality. I don’t know of any other moral justification for killing that is used in the military.
    To learn more about my approach, see

  • sanford bottino

    FOREIGNID: 17713
    My congratulations and gratitude to all those who made this film
    possible. It was thought provoking and admirable in scope and depth. I did
    have two critical comments which I hope are constructive.
    First, I think that there is a fundamental issue of conscience that
    American Military and civilians should continue to address that is distinct
    from the C.O./ Just War debate. Many of us accept that lethal force will
    be required to maintain stabile societies in the face of the current worldwide
    potential for aggressive and terrorist acts. Then, is it possible to train lethal
    combat soldiers who do not dehumanize the enemy? Certainly
    this would require intensive training in emotional compartmentalization as is
    provided to civilians who are employed in fields such as emergency medicine.
    I would suppose that these skills would also help a soldier deal with
    potential PTSD as well as reintegration into civilian life. As a point of
    reference, I would point out that the conventional wisdom expressed in the
    film as “nobody likes to kill” appears to be disproved frequently in warfare
    as well as in domestic gang fights. Human beings with a healthy moral center
    don’t like to kill. The world’s courts are constantly trying to prosecute
    war crimes precisely because some combatants go into war as homicidal
    psychopaths or become homicidal psychopaths when faced with the reality of
    warfare. Frankly, I think many of us (myself included) are only a few bad
    experiences away from serious blood lust.
    Second, I was confused by the combat sequence that followed Kevin
    Binderman’s conversation about the Garden of Eden towards the end of the
    film. It appeared as though the American soldiers were using a mortally
    injured combatant for lethal target practice. There may well have been
    extenuating circumstaces justifying this, but, if so, I did not find these
    presented in the film. Did we view the ugly side of war or a war crime? If
    it was a war crime ,was it prosecuted?
    Finally, I would like to share another “pov” in regards to the
    pacifist/ just war debate. I should note that I am borrowing most of the ideas here
    from Rev. Edward A. Malloy (in particular; his lectures titled Terrorism
    Counterterrorism and the Ethics of Warfare)
    I found Pete Kilner’s thought experiment regarding the Good Samaritan quite
    interesting. I propose that the Samaritan , as a subscriber to the Pentateuch, would have felt obligated to defended the traveler even to the point of combat. But does that help us interpret the teaching of Jesus? The Good Samaritan, simply by his historical place in the parable, would not have been able to consider the teachings of Jesus. Pacifism would not have been part of his moral code. We, however, have had 2000 years to ponder the call to love our enemy. Whether that proscription is reasonable or advisable given our current conditions is legitimately still the subject of much debate. But certainly I would suggest such dialog is healthy for Americans as well as the American Military.
    Clearly military and civilian leaders have felt it was advisable to allow
    this debate to continue otherwise a member of the military would not be able
    to apply for C.O. status. The system may not be perfect but that is in
    part because the goal is so amorphous and difficult to boot. I would
    like to remind those in the military that find C.O. applications objectionable
    that pacifism and just war doctrines are two acceptable responses to
    aggression within the Judeo-Christian tradition as well as within the American
    conception of individual freedoms. I would also point out that human being
    (including those who enlist in the military) are living growing creatures.
    They have the freedom to grow and change as moral beings and should have
    the right to petition the American government or it’s institutions in acting
    on those changing values.
    sincerely sanford bottino