After World War II, the Army conditioned soldiers—taking a playbook from B.F. Skinner—to follow the “reflexive fire training” system. Its idea was simple: don’t think–just shoot. As a result, the Korean firing rate shot up to 50-60%. During Vietnam, the rate was 85 to 90%. Today the exact statistics are unknown, but the firing rate is likely even higher. This new style of conditioning, “Soldiers of Conscience” claims stripped the soldier of his central moral question: to kill or not to kill?
The documentary—screened at multiple film festivals and aired on PBS just a month ago—frames this moral dilemma through the stories of three Iraq War veterans that, either during or after their active duty, chose to become conscientious objectors. At times, the movie raises insightful questions about war and the inner life of the soldier. Unfortunately, Soldiers of Conscience offers limited and unsatisfying conclusions to these questions during its admittedly short 87-minute running time. By the end, its optimistic take of pacifism fails to account for the tragic necessity of many American conflicts.
The movie’s greatest strength is its warm and generous treatment of its subjects, who are depicted in-depth. Nobody comes off as a villain in this tale except the machinations of warfare itself. The conscientious objectors are all self-proclaimed patriots, two of them from storied military background. Joshua Casteel, the most interesting of the characters, is an Iraq War veteran. Growing up, he attended an Evangelical church, was “President of the Young Republicans, carried around a constitution . . . and then received a 4-year ROTC scholarship and appointment to West Point.” Deployed to work as interrogator at Abu Ghraib in 2004, Casteel became disillusioned with the randomness of American detainment and the maltreatment of prisoners.
In the midst of telling these objectors’ stories the documentary approaches war with a refreshingly sober tone. For Soldiers of Conscience, war is not about patriotic rhetoric or geopolitical strategy but the sobering reality of life and death. It has its fair share of bloody and saddening photos and videos. In a particularly harrowing video the viewer witnesses footage of a roadside scene leading up to, during, and after an IED explosion.
In its weakest spots, however, Soldiers of Conscience abandons its sober tone and swells up with sugary admiration for its stars. Former soldiers like Casteel stare earnestly and silently past the camera or give speeches at clichéd youth rallies. “These are the real heroes,” the movie silently suggests, “And they are going to change the world!” Certainly, in their own ways, these men are heroes. But there is an odd gap between the movie’s admiration for the men’s actions and the prevailing view of society. Instead of celebrating them as if they were already leaders of a movement, the movie should explore how that movement might actually materialize.
After establishing admiration for the objectors, Soldiers of Conscience implicates the blame for war and killing in the hands of an impersonal system. In this documentary’s universe, war is a story of nurture over nature. As Rousseau famously said, “Men are born free but everywhere they are in chains.” In “Soldiers of Conscience,” men are born pacifists but everywhere they are forced to fight. Scenes of basic training at Fort Jackson feature soldiers screaming “Kill! Kill! Kill without mercy!” The Army molds soldiers into killers, desensitizes them to the moral dilemma of taking another life.
But the weakness of the documentary’s vision of pacifism is evident in its title: Soldiers of Conscience put its faith in the human conscience as the means to end future wars. If humans followed their consciences, the documentary reasons, then war all would cease. If soldiers only looked inside themselves, into their hearts, they would take their fingers off the trigger and all wars would grind to a screeching halt. “We all have a conscience,” Iraq Veteran Camilo Mejia muses, “We all have a sense between right and wrong.”
The documentary fails to consider, however, that maybe—just maybe—the human conscience is responsible for war in the first place and that conceptions of right and wrong originate not because of the human conscience, but in spite of it. These arguments are not addressed by Ian Slattery and company, perhaps for good reason: history indicts humanity. War—often senseless, always brutal–cuts across human epoch, location, culture, and religion. The only constant in all this bloodshed is the roles of humans.
While Soldiers of Conscience’s DVD case claims that it is “a realistic yet optimistic look at war, peace, and the human conscience,” its core argument sheds realism for simple optimism. It answers complicated questions (“what effect does war have on soldiers?” “How can morality play a larger role in modern combat?” “Why should an individual kill other individuals?”), and comes up with the simple answer “just don’t fight.” The documentary implies that ending war is easy, when it clearly is not.
By aggrandizing its arguments, Soldiers of Conscience obscures one of its greatest assets: the particular historical context of the war in Iraq. The movie fails, deliberately at times, to account for the peculiar nature of the Iraq War: it is a war of choice and not necessity. The conscientious objectors of the documentary oppose all killing, they claim. This is reasonable enough. But what if their obligation to kill was not in the context of a war with unclear goals and unclear enemy like Iraq, but rather, a war of self-defense and overwhelming necessity? Would they have made the same choice if faced with a fight for American independence, an end to slavery, or the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese?
The most coherent vision of an absolute pacifism articulated by the documentary comes from religion. Soldiers of Conscience attempts to articulate the relationship between war and religion but fails to flesh it out fully to its own detriment. At one point, a soldier shrewdly observes, “(The military) was asking me to put my nation-state (when it) comes into conflict with loyalty to the kingdom of God.” We later see him climb the steps to his church. These moments stuck out with startling clarity; the zeal for war steamrolls over not just secular pleas for peace but religious pleas as well. This raises the question of how a nation that is more then 75% Christian and Jewish can justify fighting wars. Unfortunately the movie never really explores the question.
Moreover, the relationship between war and religion is particularly relevant to America’s current political climate. Bush-era conservatism loudly prides itself on a Christian outlook and the ability to wage war. As a result, there is overwhelming Evangelical and Mormon support for the U.S.’s current military engagements. The U.S. Army draws heavily on recruits from Evangelical households across the South and Midwest. How do these devout Christians feel about chanting “blood makes the green grass grow” in boot camp or killing an armed child in the streets of Baghdad, as one soldier did? It is a morally murky question that we rarely raise.
Solidiers of Conscience’s ability to raise such questions is admirable. Unfortunately, its answers often resort to “kumbaya” clichés that work against the anti-war movement. Hopefully the objectors in the film find a way to shed these clichés and articulate a more forceful argument.