When I read that Soldiers of Conscience was “made with official permission from the U.S. Army” I was immediately skeptical. I expected to watch a film that ultimately supported war and dismissed conscience as a luxury that a soldier cannot afford. While I am still somewhat skeptical about the U.S. Army’s desire to discuss consciousness and morality, Soldiers of Conscience is a compelling, balanced documentary that does not strive to present a “side”. Many angles are examined making it clear that there is not a simple answer to the question that the tagline proposes: “To kill or not to kill?” Soldiers of Conscience pulls back the curtain on “the war within”.
Soldiers of Conscience reveals important details about war and conscience and fosters a conversation that is long overdue within and without the U.S. Army. Maj. Peter Kilner, a soldier with an Army-sanctioned M.A. in philosophy, provides one perspective. He argues that the kind of “reflexive fire training” that the U.S. Army uses creates effective soldiers but does not allow for any kind of “thinking through” regarding the act of killing. This lack of reflection carries over generally since “we [the U.S. Army] don’t talk about it”. It is exactly this approach to training and war that, the documentary implies, creates conscientious objectors like those featured in this documentary. As Camilo Mejila argues “nothing prepares you” for the “level of destruction you bring” to others “let alone to yourself”.
Soldiers whose stories are undeveloped within the context of the documentary provide perspectives on the necessity of killing and their ability to do “whatever it takes” to defend their country. These perspectives provide balance to a discussion about morality and war. They remind us that each soldier has his or her own perspective on the necessity of killing and some can justify this act to themselves. But the documentary reminds us that the U.S. Army does not prepare soldiers for conscience; they train them to be “reflexive”. Several soldiers reveal that killing is something that “you just don’t talk about” and that each soldier wrestles with the idea of killing another human being. Soldiers of Conscience asks us to talk about, and think about, these issues.
The most compelling parts of Soldiers of Conscience are the stories of Camilo Mejila, Aidan Delgado, Joshua Casteel, and Kevin Benderman. Each of these men describes his path toward the decision to become a “conscientious objector” to war. The right to do so was established in 1775 and, yet, the process is long and arduous. For Camilo Mejila, the first Iraq veteran to go AWOL, and Kevin Benderman, a veteran with ten years of service and one tour in Iarq, the decision resulted in a court marshal and jail time. For Aidan Delgado the decision resulted in many months of service in Iraq as he continued his work, his duty, without a weapon and with the scorn of most of his unit and command.
The stories these men tell are diverse despite the similar thread of conscience. Because of his Evangelical upbringing, Joshua Casteel questioned his role as a soldier on his first tour but re-enlisted after 9-11. He then became an interrogator at Abu Ghraib (two months after the prisoner abuse scandals broke) where he faced his hypocrisy head on during an interrogation with a “self-proclaimed jihadist”. Casteel wondered how he could really justify his actions in light of his beliefs, like the belief in a “gentle Jesus”. When Delgado began to question his conscience, he found answers through Buddhism and countless hours of conversation. Regardless of the different impetus for each of these men, the decision was not an easy one. It was made after months, even years, of service and after months of agonizing over the questions, consequences, and impacts of their decision.
This decision was also made, in each case, after serving in Iraq and this documentary puts the war in Iraq in perspective through the idea of conscience. For some soldiers, the perceived lack of purpose to this particular war and especially the devastating effects upon an entire nation were a large part of their decision to become conscientious objectors. Soldiers of Conscience shows graphic never-before-seen footage of the war in Iraq as well as U.S. Army basic training where cries to “kill, kill, kill” echo chillingly. Delgado includes photos of such devastation in presentations he makes in his work toward peace. These images provide only a glimpse into the true conditions of war in Iraq and the soldiers in the film remind us not only that “soldiers do what soldiers do” but also that “war’s not as clear cut as they portray in the movies”.
What all of these conscientious objects share is a desire for peace and a vision that includes a kind of mass movement of conscientious objection. Mejila believes that while some may think the idea naïve, “peace is not a utopian vision”. It may start off this way, but he, and others like him, are convinced that once people really start to see what is happening they will have no choice but to be conscientious objectors.
Soldiers of Conscience provides not only a needed conversation, but also a wealth of information and ideas to consider. The DVD extras include excerpts for further conversation. The way in which these clips are listed and labeled make them helpful as conversations starters in the classroom, the boardroom, or basic training. I can’t help but wonder, however, what the U.S. Army will do when soldiers begin to choose to be conscientious objectors and cite Soldiers of Conscience as their “moment of crystallization”—the moment when they became aware of their conscience and their inability to carry out the necessities of war. There may just be a mass movement.