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.

Faith plays a role

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.”

Resonates with faith communities

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.

“This film has a special resonance for communities of faith, because those are the communities with the courage to discuss matters of conscience,” says Weimberg. “I knew that a film about conscience would necessarily be spiritual. What I didn’t know was how much of a spiritual journey I personally would have to go through in making this film. In my own life, I’ve never met people who take Jesus as the Prince of Peace as seriously as these conscientious objectors. At the same time, I saw the love that soldiers have for their country, that they are willing to die for. I can only describe it as a beautiful, sacred thing.”

Check your local PBS listings for the Oct. 16 broadcast of Soldiers of Conscience on P.O.V. To learn more about the film, arrange a screening, or buy it on DVD, visit the official website. For a discussion guide on the film, click here.

Note: The film contains foul language and depictions of intense wartime violence. It is not recommended for children under 13.

Conscientious Memoirs of Iraq

Five of the individuals interviewed in Soldiers of Conscience have published books:

Joshua Casteel is completing an MFA at the University of Iowa. He traveled with a delegation of Catholic leaders to meet with the Pope in March 2007. His book is Letters from Abu Ghraib (Essay Press, 2008).

Camilo Mejia, co-chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War, lives in Florida. His book is Road from Ar Ramadi (The New Press, 2007).

Aidan Delgado is pursuing a law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. His book is The Sutras of Abu Ghraib (Beacon Press, 2007).

Kevin Benderman lives in Hinesville, Ga., with his wife. His book is Letters from Fort Lewis Brig (Lyon’s Press, 2007).

Lt. Cmdr. Pete Kilner teaches at West Point. He was deployed to Iraq and will deploy to Afghanistan this winter. He publishes a blog, Thoughts of a Soldier-Ethicist, and his book is titled CompanyCommand: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession (The Center for the Advancement of Leader Development & Organizational Learning, 2005).

© Martin Stillion subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.

Share This On: