To Kill, or Not to Kill

Soldiers of Conscience, a PBS documentary, examines the ethics and emotional cost of killing on the battlefield.
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Soldiers of Conscience, a PBS documentary, examines the ethics and emotional cost of killing on the battlefield.

When it comes to the taking of human life, most societies enforce a stark set of moral strictures. Except under rare and exceptional circumstances, homicide is not only forbidden; it is considered the most heinous, least forgivable act imaginable.

But if you join the military, that ethical structure is upended. If you get sent to a war zone and target people who have been identified as "the enemy," killing is not only allowed but also encouraged — even rewarded.

We give surprisingly little thought to the difficulty of making this 180-degree shift or the emotional cost of adopting the combat-killer mind-set. Those are the twin topics of Soldiers of Conscience, a sometimes-profound documentary premiering Oct. 16 as part of the P.O.V. series on PBS.

Filmmakers Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan tell the stories of four active-duty GIs who come to the conclusion they cannot kill and so apply for conscientious objector status. These are brave men whose insistence on taking a principled path leads to intimidation, ostracism and, in two cases, jail time. But the film is less interested in celebrating their courage than exploring the issue that forced their hand: the morality of killing in combat.

"When an individual soldier looks down their rifle, and their finger is on the trigger, they have to decide: ‘Will I kill, or will I not kill?' That decision, made at that moment, will affect the rest of their lives," Weimberg says. "It's an intense, individual decision, and no one walks away from it unchanged or unscarred."

Camilo Mejia, Kevin Benderman, Joshua Casteel and Aidan Delgado decided they could not pull the trigger. Each tells his own story, describing with quiet eloquence how he came to the decision to seek conscientious objector status. Although their personalities are different, each exudes an aura of calm conviction — a strong sense of being at peace.

They joined the military for highly personal reasons. Benderman was following in the footsteps of his father and two grandfathers; Casteel was infused from an early age with a belief in "the nobility of service." But they found nothing noble about the Iraq War or their participation in it. "It was shocking to see myself fall in line with the conditioning," Delgado recalls. "I was shouting, ‘Kill! Kill!' along with everyone else. I had a feeling something was wrong."

Casteel's moment of truth came at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, where — after interrogating countless innocent inmates who were picked up after being in the wrong place at the wrong time — he finally encountered a genuine jihadist. While he found the man's philosophy abhorrent, he realized that by acting on his convictions, this man had found peace of mind — even in a hellhole. Where, he asked himself, was his own inner contentment? And why wasn't he following his own convictions?

Casteel, a Christian, and Delgado, a Buddhist, were ultimately granted conscientious objector status. Benderman and Mejia, whose moral qualms did not arise from a particular spiritual tradition, ended up going to jail (15 months for Benderman, nine for Mejia). "It's historically true in the U.S. that conscientious objection is more easily tolerated when it is an expressly religious commitment," Ryan notes. "It's easier to argue from that sacred area."

"Your chances (of approval) also depend on the philosophy of your unit," Weimberg adds. "Joshua Casteel was in intelligence. His superior officers were all about having conversations and picking up on nuances."

The less-than-nuanced standard military viewpoint — that killing in wartime is a necessary evil — is presented by Maj. Gen. Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics who has thought deeply about military morality. He lays out various justifications for taking enemy lives, citing the importance of defending the innocent, protecting human rights and confronting evil in an imperfect world.

While providing the film a modicum of balance, Kilner's arguments ultimately come across as self-serving and naive. As Iraq surely shows, the reasons countries go to war tend to be complex and murky; the idealistic motives he lays out are seldom the only catalysts for taking up arms. If they were, American troops might be in Darfur, not Diyala province.

Besides, belief in one's cause doesn't automatically lead to a willingness to kill. World War II historian S.L.A. Marshall concluded that only one-quarter of American infantry soldiers in that conflict actually fired their weapons. While that research has been called into question in recent years, the U.S. military took it very seriously, amending the boot-camp curriculum to include "reflexive fire training." This amounts to drilling the idea of "shoot first, ask questions later" into each soldier's head. Hesitation, they are taught, can cost lives.

While that's undoubtedly true, the film suggests this temporary mental reprogramming also takes lives, in the form of suicides of shame-filled veterans (and de facto suicides, such as an ex-soldier drinking himself to death). Putting on or taking off a uniform is easy; throwing aside your moral beliefs about killing is not.

The four conscientious objectors and Kilner agree on one thing: An open discussion of the morality of killing in combat must be added to military training. Nothing can make that moment of decision when a soldier is looking down the sight of his rifle at an enemy combatant any less profound, but preparing soldiers for the fact it is coming could save a lot of grief later on.

"When this film played at the Nantucket Film Festival, we encountered the angriest person to ever respond to it — a very elegant, white-haired man in his 70s," Ryan recalls. "He said, ‘This film is not balanced! You have really smart people talking against war, but you don't have smart enough people talking about why we have to follow our duty!' It caused a great conversation in the audience.

"Two days later, this same man found Gary on the street and told him, ‘I can't stop thinking about your film. I killed people in Korea, and I've never been able to deal with it.' Fifty-five years later, this man is carrying this burden of guilt."

The military's response to the issue is far from monolithic. It does not release figures on how many servicemen apply for conscientious objector status or what percentage of them have their requests granted. One commanding officer declares there has never been a conscientious objector on his base, "and there never will be."

On the other hand, the fact the Army permitted Ryan and Weimberg to shoot on military bases, travel to Iraq and talk freely with soldiers on this touchy topic suggests a more enlightened attitude — or at least interest and concern — at some upper levels of the chain of command.

"There were a couple of officers — and chaplains — who couldn't even bear to discuss the subject," Weimberg says. "It was so threatening to their worldview they couldn't even hold it in their minds. But soldiers really wanted to talk about it, and given the chance to do so, a volcano of emotion came out."

While the documentary provides an excellent starting point for discussion, it could have gone deeper. Interviews with an evolutionary psychologist or anthropologist on the issue of homicide and human nature could have provided welcome perspective, as would the thoughts of moral philosophers from within or outside our religious traditions. Is self-defense a reasonable justification for taking another human life? If so, how broadly can you define that concept before it becomes mere rationalization for revenge?

But even with its limitations, Soldiers of Conscience is a forceful film full of chilling images, from battlefield body bags to American soldiers yelling in unison, "Blood makes the green grass grow!" And it's worth seeing for the insights of the four men at its center, who have emerged from their intense personal struggles as compassionate as they are idealistic.

"People ask me, ‘What if Hitler hadn't been stopped?'" notes Mejia, who was court-martialed after refusing to return to Iraq with his unit. "I respond: ‘What if there had been enough conscientious objectors in the Nazi army?'"

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