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.”