Flag lowering ceremony at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Soldiers of Conscience is a dramatic window on the dilemma of individual us soldiers in the current Iraq war — when their finger is on the trigger and another human being is in their gunsight. Made with cooperation of the us Army and narrated by Peter Coyote, the film profiles eight American soldiers, including four who decide not to kill, and become conscientious objectors and four who believe in their duty to kill if necessary. The film reveals all of them wrestling with the morality of killing in war, not as a philosophical problem, but as soldiers experience it — a split-second decision in combat that can never be forgotten or undone.
Soldiers of Conscience is not a film that tells an audience what to think, nor is it about the situation in Iraq today. Instead, it tells a bigger story about human nature and war. The film begins with a little-known fact: After World War II, the Army’s own studies revealed that as many as 75 percent of combat soldiers given a chance to fire on the enemy failed to do so. The studies showed that soldiers, despite training, propaganda and social sanction, retained a surprising inhibition when it came to taking human life. The statistics surprised and alarmed America’s generals, who developed training techniques to overcome the reluctance to kill. But if the military found a solution to its problem, the moral contradiction for the individual soldier remained. The mental and emotional burdens carried by soldiers who have killed affect America’s families and communities after each of its recent wars. As this film shows, every soldier is inescapably a “soldier of conscience.”
Soldiers undergo training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina and at other training centers.
The military’s very success in “reflexive fire training,” which has steadily raised firing rates in combat to as high as 90 percent, may well have intensified the soldier’s personal burden. Major Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics and former 82nd Airborne Infantry Commander, addresses the issue in the film: “When you train them reflexively, they learn to make those decisions much more quickly, but the price of that is they’re not thinking through the great moral decision of killing another human being.”
Major Kilner is clear that, at times, there is a moral imperative to kill. “The million people who are out defending our country, fighting our wars, and the millions who have done it throughout history are not immoral people. No one likes to kill — no healthy person…. It may be nasty, it may be unpleasant, but the alternative is worse.” But facing the brutal responsibility to kill another person compels some soldiers to undergo a profound transformation that turns them into conscientious objectors. The film follows the transformation of four such soldiers. Two are honorably discharged from the Army as conscientious objectors: Joshua Casteel, an Evangelical Christian, and Aidan Delgado, a Buddhist. The other two go to prison: Camilo Mejia, the first combat veteran to come back from Iraq and publicly refuse to return and Kevin Benderman, a 10-year veteran Army sergeant from Tennessee.
All four — Mejia, Benderman, Casteel and Delgado — had little in common when they volunteered to serve in the Army except a sense of duty and patriotism.
Conscientious objector Camilo Mejia during his deployment in Iraq.
Mejia joined the military at age 19, believing he would be bringing “freedom to other lands.”
Sgt. Benderman comes from a military family steeped in a Southern devotion to honor and duty. He was already a 10-year veteran when he went to Iraq. Casteel was raised as a deeply religious, highly engaged Evangelical Christian who carried a copy of the us Constitution in his pocket as a boy. Delgado signed up just before 9/11 and felt proud that he’d seen the need to serve before the Twin Tower attacks.
Each of these men later underwent what military regulations call a “crystallization of conscience” that turned them against war and allows them to apply, under rules first promulgated by the Continental Congress in 1775, for conscientious objector status. Says Mejia: “Nothing ever prepares you for what that does to you as a human being, you know, to kill an innocent person.” The shock of what he saw and did in Iraq turned Mejia into the first combat veteran to come back from Iraq and publicly refuse to return; he appeared on 60 Minutes before turning himself in to the Army.
Benderman had a similar experience seeing “how war affects civilians.” It put him in mind of the warnings his father gave against going to war, despite the elder Benderman’s own service in World War II. After one tour in Iraq, followed by “a lot of deep down reflection, and I guess the term is soul-searching,” Benderman applied for conscientious objector status and then did not return to Iraq with his unit, instead reporting for duty at his us base to await his fate. Casteel’s turnaround came when he worked as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib and the faith of an admitted jihadist deeply challenged his own faith. Soon he found “my position as a us Army interrogator contradicted my calling … as a Christian.”
New recruits on the bayonet course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Delgado’s doubts began in basic training when he was first exposed to “the venom” of reflexive fire training. They crystallized when his unit was assigned guard duty over Iraqi soldiers, whom he saw as men like himself. “It’s the nature of war to set the other apart, because you can’t kill someone who’s like yourself.” Buddhism, which Delgado had already been studying — and whose first precept is not to take life, without exception — became his guide as he applied for conscientious objector status and became an outspoken antiwar activist.
But the film extends equal sympathy to the viewpoint of soldiers who are willing to kill, including three who served in Iraq and are still on active duty as drill sergeants, Thomas Washington, Todd Savage and Jaime Isom. Like Major Kilner, each of these men in his own way justifies the killing in war as inevitable and necessary if the world is to be made a moral place. They see the pacifism of conscientious objectors as utopian, as a dereliction of duty not only from the soldiers’ military oath but also from the duty to protect their families and the weak. “When you’re out there in the middle of combat, sometimes it’s kill or be killed,” says Sgt. Washington, who also admits, “When you first do actually get into the first battle and you actually wound or kill someone, it starts messing with your head … it’s just like shaking up a pop bottle with your thumb over it; [the stress] just keeps building and building.”
The film’s surprising revelation is how many beliefs these soldiers, in fact, share. All are eloquent about the moral dilemma of having to kill in war. Where they disagree is how each should act — as soldiers and as human beings. Mejia, Benderman, Casteel and Delgado are strong spokespeople for the idea that peace need not be an unrealistic idea, and that achieving it must begin as an individual responsibility — just as, in the field, the decision to kill becomes a devastatingly personal one. Major Kilner and the three drill sergeants feel their responsibility differently. “War is necessary sometimes because it’s been brought upon peace-loving people by people who are … not willing to let another society … live in peace,” says Major Kilner. “You can’t say that you believe in human dignity and human rights if you’re not willing to defend them.”
Soldiers of Conscience is a timely and powerful look into a central drama of our time — how the soldier decides to kill or not — and the life-changing consequences that come with either choice.
“This film is about the burden of conscience,” says co-director Gary Weimberg. “If you break the taboo and talk to a soldier about killing in war, as we did for this film, you’ll learn that if soldiers have to kill, almost every single one suffers the rest of his or her life for doing so. We previewed the film for West Point cadets and for Quaker pacifists, and both audiences learned something new about the question of ‘to kill or not to kill.'”
“Another goal we had in making this film was to build respect for one another — even when we disagree,” says co-director Catherine Ryan. “We tried to make a war film that examines and explores our common ground. Where we can find common ground, we can eliminate problems. Perhaps even war.”
Soldiers of Conscience is a Luna Productions Film.