POV: Soldiers of Conscience

Soldiers' moral struggles tend to remain invisible, like the situations that drive them. Soldiers of Conscience shows the dilemmas and the costs of war.


Airtime: Thursday, 9pm ET
Cast: Kevin Benderman, Joshua Casteel, Aidan Delgado, Major Pete Kilner, Camilo Mejía
Subtitle: Soldiers of Conscience
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-10-16
I think one reason people who have killed in combat don't talk about it is they don't want to be condemned for it... They don't even want to go there with somebody who doesn’t understand.

-- Major Pete Kilner

"I made it easy for my recruiter," says Iraq War veteran Jaime Isom. "I said, 'I just want to shoot a machine gun and jump out of a plane.' He said, 'Sign right here.'" The sergeant's memory is hardly unusual. At the beginning of Soldiers of Conscience, Isom appears alongside Josh Casteel, who enlisted in the Army Reserves at age 17. "I was raised on American pie," he recalls, "I was a cradle conservative. I was voted most likely to succeed, most conservative. My nickname among a lot of my friends was 'GI Josh.'"

Enthusiastic and honorable, Isom and Casteel, like other soldiers profiled in Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg's documentary, soon faced the question articulated by narrator Peter Coyote: "Will I be able to kill another human being in combat?" Major Pete Kilner, a professor at West Point, lays out the complicated context for that question. "We train them how to kill," he says, "We as officers develop the orders for them to kill. We'll give them awards or pat them on the back a lot of times, you know, 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."

The film, made with cooperation of the U.S. Army, shows repeated examples of soldiers in training -- shooting, marching, yelling en masse, "Blood, blood, blood makes the green grass grow!" It also explicitly shows the dilemmas and the costs of war, in soldiers' own stories and in its graphic imagery. A student of moral issues in war, Kilner describes the U.S. military's route to its current training practices as emerging from a study of WWII troops by Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall. In his 1947 book, Men Against Fire, Marshall concludes that only 15-20% of frontline American combat soldiers actually shot their weapons at enemies. This surprising "ratio of fire" inspired the military's "reflexive fire training," that is, drills repeated to the point that shooting becomes "muscle memory," an instinct in combat that doesn't allow, Kilner observes, for a "moral decision-making process."

One result is trauma. Isom, who served with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq, appears in military gear -- camo, helmet, sunglasses -- as he recalls the event that changed his life forever. "Me, I had to go shoot a 10-year-old boy over there," he says. "He was throwing grenades at my squad." He did what he had to do, he insists, "I got no regrets about it." Still, he adds, "It's like the demons come back, that's when it haunts you." Casteel recalls his service as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib, questioning "boys, imams, people taken off the streets." Horrified by his own behavior, Casteel says he had a "crystallization of conscience" during a session with a jihadist. The film underscores the disjunction he feels between his evangelical background and his current circumstance with paintings of Jesus and a choral soundtrack.

This sense of revelation is made less strenuously during interviews with Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía, of the 124th infantry in Iraq, shares similar memories. "Nothing ever prepares you for the reality of war," he says, as the film shows footage of explosions and U.S. troops slamming into Iraqi homes, and photos of bloody bodies and weeping survivors. "When I get to Iraq," he says, "the first mission that we have is to abuse prisoners." The film illustrates his story with dire imagery: methods include sleep deprivation, stress positions, threats of death for men with bags over their heads, unable to see where they are.

The first soldier during the Iraq war to refuse redeployment, Mejía was convicted of desertion by a military jury, received a bad conduct discharge, and spent a year in prison. Now, he says, he still talks about shooting that little boy. His memory -- or more accurately, his lack of memory, for he doesn't remember actually pulling the trigger -- is accompanied by shots of a finger on a trigger. More compelling, however, in his interview he describes counting his bullets afterwards, and realizing he had shot at the child 11 times.

The film offers counterarguments to these visceral moments. Kilner says, "War is always a loss in the sense that people are gonna get killed. Collateral damage to structures, to society, to human beings, to noncombatants." Still, "War can be an awful but necessary and morally right choice." Soldiers just need to be allowed to grapple with their decisions, before and after they make them, rather than provided with a framework for discussion ethical dilemmas. Such a framework is described by the several soldiers who have applied for conscientious objector (CO) status, some successfully (like Isom), others not.

Sergeant Kevin Benderman, an Army mechanic in the Gulf War and Iraq, refused to redeploy when his application was rejected, and he was sentenced to 15 months in prison and dishonorably discharged. During one of his interviews for the film, he appears in his kitchen with his wife Monica, the camera framing both or zooming to focus on him alone, as he goes over his history. "I spent a lot of time learning and reevaluating my personal opinion of myself," he says, "and how I want to conduct myself."

Such struggles tend to remain unseen, like the situations that drive them. And this is Soldiers of Conscience's most effective point, the insistence that war be made visible. The trouble for civilians, observes Aidan Delgado, formerly of the 320th Military Police and assigned to Abu Ghraib, currently a CO, asserts, "If people could see the bodies, if they cold see the blood, they could not support the war with a clear conscience."


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.