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Q&A: “How Does Killing Impact Individual Soldiers?”

Enrique Gili interviews CATHERINE RYAN

SAN DIEGO, California, Oct 15 2008 (IPS) - In their latest documentary “Soldiers of Conscience”, husband and wife filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg probe the nature of war and the human condition, asking the question: when is killing in combat permissible?

Catherine Ryan Credit:

Catherine Ryan Credit:

The film refrains from answering directly, instead offering clear-eyed accounts of four U.S. soldiers who refused to fight and the countervailing views of their critics.

The soldiers – Camilo Mejia, Kevin Benderman, Joshua Casteel and Aidan Delgado – share little in common and come from diverse backgrounds. However, each felt compelled to join the armed forces out of a sense of duty and patriotism.

When confronted with the realities of serving in Iraq, however, their attitudes towards military service shifted from idealism to profound soul-searching, leading each of them to seek status as conscientious objectors.

Delgado, a Buddhist, finds the random violence inflicted on civilians to be abhorrent and is unable to use “weapons that roast people”. Casteel, an evangelical Christian, interrogates an imprisoned jihadist who challenges his religious faith. Both are eventually granted honourable discharges for their refusal to fight in Iraq.

Mejia and Benderman share harder fates, serving prison sentences after failing to report for duty. Mejia feels liberated when he’s no longer faced with taking human lives. Benderman asks the question, “When is enough, enough?”

The film opens with the revelation that an estimated 75 percent of U.S. soldiers refrained from killing the enemy during World War Two. So strong was the taboo against taking human lives that the majority of infantrymen froze under fire with the enemy in their sights.

“Will I be able to kill another human in combat?” is the moral dilemma facing soldiers serving not just in Iraq but throughout history. Many seem to be haunted by their decision.

“Will I ever like myself again?” writes one soldier.

IPS correspondent Enrique Gili spoke to Catherine Ryan from her production studio in Berkeley, California. “Soldiers of Conscience” airs in the United States on the public television channel PBS on Thursday, Oct. 16. Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: What was the initial motivation for this film? CR: We make films about social issues. So we wanted to make a film from a perspective that has not been done over and over again. We decided we wanted to understand some aspect of the Iraq War. Not from the viewpoint of generals, presidents and politicians but from the very intimate experience of individual soldiers.

IPS: How did you find your subjects? CR: We have subjects that are sincere war fighters and conscientious objectors. The objectors were pretty easy to find, they’ve been very motivated to talk.

We were granted permission. People inside the service know it’s critical. I think there is an openness and willingness among people that work with and care about soldiers to want to explore this issue. How does killing impact individual soldiers?

IPS: During the process of making the film, did you ever consider what it would take for you to kill someone and under what circumstances? CR: Of course, it’s still an ongoing investigation for me. I’ve come to understand both sides of the question. I don’t know what I would do under the circumstances. Our hope with this film is to make all of us ask questions.

IPS: Seeking conscientious objector status is a basic right stemming as far back as the U.S. colonial era. What are the origins? CR: That was why people came here. A lot of people that first came here were pacifists who were fleeing Europe in order not to serve in the wars of the kingdom. It’s an old tradition in this country.

IPS: What are the criteria? CR: Religious reasons for conscientious objection have the most clarity. When soldiers start speaking from a humanistic perspective, [i.e.] war is wrong, they have a much tougher time.

IPS: Do you have any sense of how many are applying now? CR: The Army is not releasing those numbers. By the end of the Vietnam War 170,000 had applied. . IPS: Major Peter Kilner, the West Point Military Academy instructor, spoke with a great deal of clarity of his own. CR: We really wanted to find a guy who could speak very well from the perspective of why we must obey duty in times of war. So that people could hear the things they already believe and then take in some of the perspectives of the conscientious objectors, which is not stuff that we commonly agree upon.

Our hope was that in keeping everybody in the discussion that we could keep everybody in the discussion – not to have people turn off the show because it’s either anti-war or pro-military.

IPS: All the conscientious objectors profiled have book deals. Is that a coincidence? CR: I think a huge part of it is the process that one has to go through to become a conscientious objector requires deep reflection and study. If you’re going to try to explain yourself from inside of the military system, you have to be very good. The process is like an intensive orals exam – sitting across from your commander in a room for three hours, and their job is come up with false points in your argument. That takes a lot of preparation.

And then their lives as conscientious objectors. You have to be very clear about what you think and be able talk about it in ways that people can understand, in order not to be an outcast in the world.

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