POV: How did you come to make Soldiers of Conscience, and what were your reasons for making it?
Catherine Ryan: Gary and I have been making documentary films for a very long time now, and we have made films about the Vietnam War, the war in Nicaragua and the war in El Salvador. When the invasion of Iraq occurred and this war began, Gary and I were very concerned that we, as a country, were marching off again into a war that is going to bring about really dire consequences for people all over the world. We wanted to make a film that was going to look at the fundamentals of war; not the economics of war, or the protests of war, or the political outcomes of war, but instead look at the fundamental action. What is war about? War is about soldiers killing other soldiers and very often killing civilians as well. So we decided to look at that very basic question: What does it take to kill another human being in war, and what is it like to live with that experience?
Gary Weimberg: In making this film, we thought that if people realized the difficulty of war, of how much our brothers and sisters and fathers and sons who go to war are scarred and changed forever, it would make them more committed to peace. So in a sense, the goal of making the film was to have less war more peace.
POV: Did you have to get permission from the us Army to make this film? Tell us about that process.
Weimberg: We made Soldiers of Conscience with an assistance agreement from the us Army, which means we had official permission to make this film. Most people think that the Army wouldn’t support a film about how difficult it is to kill, but to their credit, they were open-minded enough to support it. I think the Army did it at least in part because they know the mental cost to soldiers when they kill another human being. A huge part of the Army cares deeply about soldiers who come back from wars with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or who are mentally wounded in some way. So the Army is interested in addressing the issue, and seeing that through conversations in films like Soldiers of Conscience, we can perhaps help soldiers heal from doing things that we, as a nation, ask them to do in our name. So I’m very thankful to the Army for their participation: We couldn’t have gotten soldiers to talk as honestly as they did to us without approval from the top down.
But to be clear, at the start, it was not easy to get the Army’s permission to make this film, although I’m proud that in the end they did. But as a documentary filmmaker, that’s one of the things I have to take on: I have to get people to say “yes.” I found people inside the Army that wanted to participate, and I brought those people to the attention of the offices of the Chief of Public Affairs for the Army, who were in charge of giving me permission. And in the end, one by one, they said, “Okay, you can talk to this person, you can talk to that officer,” and the next thing you know, we had an overall agreement.
The Army’s precondition for offering us permission was that they got to review a rough-cut of the film. The contract that we signed with them did not allow them to exercise any political censorship, and they did not. But they were allowed to make points of accuracy and points that led to greater security for the soldiers.
POV: How did you find the people in your film?
Ryan: The first person we found was Kevin Benderman and that’s because he had a website. When we started looking at conscientious objectors today, his name popped up right away. He was facing court martial in less than a month for refusing to participate in the war, because his conscientious objector status had been refused. We went to Georgia and spent the week with him before his court martial, and that’s where we met Camilo Mejia and Aidan Delgado, who showed up at Kevin’s court martial to support him.
Aidan and Camilo had declared themselves conscientious objectors earlier in the war, and Aidan had succeeded in achieving his conscientious objector status and receiving an honorable discharge. Camilo’s application to be a conscientious objector was refused and he went to prison, and later he was released. The thing about the very few conscientious objectors in this war is that they all seem very committed to carrying their experiences in public. So Camilo and Aidan agreed to be filmed, and then we heard about Joshua Casteel, who had received his conscientious objector status from the Army. He was released from the Army and traveling around the country talking about his experience, to let people know what the war was really like.
The conscientious objectors were easy to find. Finding the soldiers, the war fighters, was a much more difficult task. The first person we found was Pete Kilner because he’d been doing research and work on the question of the morality of killing in war, and we came across some of his writing. We were very excited about what he was doing and felt like there were ways in which he was a real bridge between both sides. Many people in the military service don’t want to deal with the question of the morality of killing and war because it’s too destabilizing, in some ways. But Pete Kilner is a man who feels that the question of morality is really important, so [he was] an ideal person for our film.
Finding the drill sergeants who would participate was the toughest part because we had to go through the highest levels of the public affairs office in the Department of Defense to get permission, and then we had to get permission from specific bases and find people who were willing to talk to us. Gaining access to what goes on in basic training and having drill sergeants talk about what the experience is like to kill in war is not something that’s been highly publicized, especially in this war. But it was a very rewarding experience in the end to find that the Army is not a monolith, and there are people inside the institution who really believe that being able to bring the questions of the morality of killing to the public and having people understand the experiences of soldiers, is good for all of us.
POV: What kind of responses have you gotten to Soldiers of Conscience, especially from military audience?
Ryan: The film screened at the San Diego Film Festival, and just before the screening, a woman came up to me and said, “I was an officer in Iraq in 2003, and I’m very interested to see what you’ve done with this film.” After the film ended, she stayed silent during the question and answer session. Then she came down to the front of the theater to see me and I said, “How was the film for you?” She burst into tears, hugged me and said, “Thank you for making this film.” She told me that the film was the hardest thing she’s had to witness since she came back from Iraq, and told me that the film is so important, and that I had to get it out there because it makes it possible for people to talk about the experience of being in a war. Then she looked at me in the eyes and said, “I nearly killed a child when I was over there — thank god I stopped in time.” She told me that the film really shows what it takes to be in a war, and the horrible situations that you end up in.
Weimberg: The film has been shown at West Point and at other places. We’ve shown it to soldiers and to veterans. The military is our most special audience, because they know the truth of what we have filmed and we have gotten an amazingly warm response without exception. Some people are shocked, because the film does profile a lot of conscientious objectors who refused to kill. But conscientious objection is allowed by us Army military regulations and is part of the us tradition, so it’s not illegal or even immoral. It’s just not that common.
POV: How many conscientious objectors are there?
Weimberg: That’s a hard statistic to come up with. The army does not officially release the number of soldiers who have applied for conscientious objection anymore. When they did, during the Vietnam War, there were 170,000 soldiers who applied for conscientious objection. Now our best estimate is that between 200 and 500 people have applied for conscientious objection in this war, but there’s no way to know for sure. There’s another statistic that’s more telling, though, and that comes from the Army: Since 2000, about 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have deserted. So you can say that some of those deserters are conscientious objectors who didn’t want to file the paperwork and voted with their feet.
POV: What do you want POV audiences to get out of the film?
Ryan: Right now, in terms of the war in Iraq, there are two sides in this country: the people against the war and the people who say that war is inevitable and it is our duty to fight in wars when we are called to do so. I think Soldiers of Conscience represents both sides in a discussion, not an argument. As a country, we who are on opposite sides of the issue need to each understand the other a lot better if we’re going to make better decisions about war.
I’ve had many people who’ve watched this film come up to me and say: “I’ve been a peace activist my whole life and this film has made me feel really humble because I never respected soldiers. I didn’t realize how little I respected them, but this film had me listening to them in ways that I never imagined I would, and I really want to rethink my attitudes.” We’ve also had people who really believe that war is the only way to solve problems come away from the film saying: “I hadn’t thought about some of these questions, which are very important questions” and thanking us for expressing how horrible it is. So for audiences watching the film, I’d like them to think about how to have more meaningful dialogue about war.