No More 'Shoot to Kill'
- Monday, October 13, 2008
Soldiers in today's U.S. military undergo "reflexive fire training"—a drill process that teaches them to fire their weapons instinctively, before they have time for second thoughts.
Recent statistics suggest that more than 90 percent of soldiers now shoot to kill during combat—compared to less than 25 percent during World War II.
Having shot first, however, some Iraq war veterans are now beginning to ask questions. And those veterans are the subject of a documentary film, Soldiers of Conscience, which will have its national broadcast premiere on Thursday as part of the P.O.V. series on PBS.
Produced and directed by the award-winning husband-and-wife team of Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan, Soldiers of Conscience profiles four Iraq veterans who chose to leave military service and become conscientious objectors—and examines the events and motives that led to their decisions.
Each soldier's story is different, but all four claim to have witnessed mistreatment of Iraqi civilians and/or prisoners. Two served at Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, one as a guard and another as an interrogator. The guard, Aidan Delgado, has become a Buddhist and derives his commitment to nonviolence from that religion's principles.
The interrogator, Joshua Casteel, is from an evangelical Christian background, and experienced a crisis of faith during an encounter with a jihadist prisoner. Now a Roman Catholic, Casteel says his military service was at odds with Jesus' teaching on loving one's enemies.
Whereas Delgado and Casteel applied for and received conscientious objector status from the Army; the other two veterans profiled in the film, Camilo Mejia and Kevin Benderman, were court-martialed and served time in military brigs for refusing to redeploy to Iraq after coming home on leave.
Soldiers of Conscience treats these four conscientious objectors favorably, devoting the majority of its 87 minutes to their stories. Yet if it's an antiwar film, it's doubtless one of the most balanced ones ever made. In addition to the conscientious objectors, the filmmakers interview a West Point ethics professor, Maj. Pete Kilner (now a Lieutenant Colonel), three active-duty drill sergeants, and Army spokespersons who offer what can be considered an official military point of view, given that the Army approved the footage. (In fact, the National Veterans Affairs Chaplain Center is using Soldiers of Conscience as a training resource for military chaplains, and the film will be screened in January for the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces.)
To its credit, the film doesn't try to refute, dismiss, or play "gotcha" with the arguments offered by Kilner and others in favor of military service. Weimberg and Ryan have created one of the rare breed of documentaries that have a point of view, but don't try to manipulate viewers into sharing it.
"We wanted to make a film about a very controversial issue," says Weimberg, "but find the common ground where people agree—and only then look at the places where they disagree. We wanted to make a film that builds community by having respect for every single person who appears in the film or even watches it at home. With respect, we can actually find solutions to problems."
Since April 2007, Soldiers of Conscience has appeared at festivals in the United States and Europe—it already has three "Best Documentary" prizes under its belt—as well as in screenings hosted by churches, universities, and activist groups. The upcoming broadcast on P.O.V., which reaches 2.5 million viewers, is expected to boost these grassroots efforts—in which churches play a particularly important role. The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have already used Soldiers of Conscience as a resource at the denominational level, and the filmmakers are seeking more such relationships.
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