Vietnam War veteran
President and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
I found Soldiers of Conscience powerful and haunting. Haunting, because I was a pilot in Vietnam who, in the midst of war, made the lonely journey that ended with my deciding that what I was being asked to do was immoral. Powerful, because the soldiers who become conscientious objectors begin to see through the moral fog of war with a clarity that stands in stark contrast to those who soldier on.
I wonder about the sergeant who admits to having shot a 10-year-old boy in Iraq and claims he has no regrets. Then he adds “Looking back at it, you know, that’s where the demons come back. That’s where it haunts you.” Is his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) like unexploded ordnance, just waiting to “go off”?
The suicide rate in today’s all-volunteer military is the highest since records have been kept, higher for the first time in history than the rate for us civilians. I thought that Maj. Pete Kilner, the West Point graduate and soldier-philosopher, touched on one of the underlying causes when he explained “We recruit people to serve their country and to kill. We train them how to kill. We as officers develop the orders for them to kill. We give’em awards, pat them on the back or credit them for being effective fighters and killers. But we never explain to them why it’s okay. So that when they do what they’ve been trained so well to do they can be at peace with their consciences for the rest of their lives.”
Is he referring to the Vietnam veteran who wrote him, after 35 years of not being at peace with his conscience, asking, “Now that I’ve been to the heart of darkness and done things I supremely regret, will I ever again be the person I used to like?”
The peace movement can learn a lot from the glimpses this film provides into how infantrymen are trained to kill on “reflex,” to kill while purposefully avoiding any thought about the morality of taking a life, to kill whether or not their orders are legitimate. The sergeants who are training them and the soldier-philosopher clearly believe that such “reflexive” training may save the soldiers’ lives and, in the context of war, is moral.
We need to give support and voice to the soldiers who, despite being trained to kill without thinking, actually begin to think. Though they’ve been taught to dehumanize the enemy, these soldiers begin to see that he or she has a human face, a family and places they call home. They begin to understand that maybe war is not the answer. In short, they become conscientious objectors. Though their heroism is not marked by military decorations, there should be no doubt that heroes are what they are. Their quiet and determined courage should be a source of inspiration for the peace movement.
As Veterans Day approaches, this film should remind us, too, of the importance of finding ways to help all veterans tell their stories and to honor their service even as we oppose the war in which they have served.
Charlie Clements, president and CEO of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, is a well-known human rights activist and public health physician. Throughout the years, Charlie has faced several moral dilemmas that shaped his life. As a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy who had flown more than 50 missions in the Vietnam War, Charlie decided the war was against his conscience and he refused to fly further missions in support of the invasion of Cambodia. Later, as a newly trained physician, he chose to work in the midst of El Salvador’s civil war, where the villages he served were bombed, rocketed or strafed by some of the same aircraft in which he had previously trained.