Movie about conscientious objectors raises hard questions

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, November 1, 2007 5:09pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The central focus of “Soldiers of Conscience” is conscientious objectors in the military, but the movie takes its own calm, even-handed approach to this subject. In fact, you can be a half-hour into this film and not realize that’s what it’s about.

This lucid documentary looks at specific cases from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also traces the nature of killing in combat. In fact, it begins by pondering a statistic that troubled the U.S. military in the years after World War II.

An Army poll taken during WWII found that fully three-fourths of the soldiers surveyed did not try to kill the enemy — even when they were under fire themselves. This finding helped encourage the military to develop “conditioned responses” in training soldiers, which would make killing the enemy a more automatic reaction.

The toll this conditioning takes on soldiers is part of the movie’s point. None of the four soldiers profiled here was any kind of peacenik going into military service; in fact, they were all pretty gung-ho at first.

The fascinating thing about this movie is how different these four are. One of them, Joshua Casteel, was raised in a strict evangelical Christian family, and remains devout. He wanted to serve his country from childhood, and eagerly enlisted. But he describes having doubts even as early as basic training, where the attitude toward killing seemed at odds with his Christianity.

Then there’s Kevin Benderman, a giant Army sergeant with 10 years’ military service, who looks like the last person you’d expect to turn away from a fight. Yet after a tour in Iraq, Benderman applied for conscientious objector status.

The movie gives the military a voice — in fact, the U.S. Army allowed the filmmakers access to boot camp and to classes taught by a thoughtful West Point professor, Maj. Peter Kilner. Other soldiers are heard from, too, including one who says that these conscientious objectors violate the oath they took as soldiers.

Directors Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan don’t pull any punches, in either the testimony of the soldiers or the footage they use from the war. The consequences of pulling a trigger or pushing a button are shown on screen.

There are questions not raised here that might well have been asked, so this is a film that stirs things up rather than solves a problem. But the problems it addresses are thorny ones, and range beyond the subject of conscientious objectors.

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