To quote the opening line of the film “Soldiers of Conscience” by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan, “at some point, every soldier has to face the question – will I be able to kill another human being in combat?” It’s a difficult question with no easy answer. This documentary does a fairly balanced job at exploring the moral issues involved as it follows eight U.S. soldiers who have faced this question. Four of them choose the path of becoming conscientious objectors.
What does that mean? What is involved? If people aren’t conscientious objectors does that mean they are fine with killing others? I first entered the Army as a psychologist because I was interested in what it took to make a soldier. What has to happen psychologically to make a person go against human instinct and place themselves in mortal danger while at the same time taking the lives of others. I found part of that answer is simple – training. More specifically, soldiers are trained to reflexively fire and think of others in danger before themselves. “Soldiers of Conscience” explores this issue and adds the dilemma that happens when a trained instinct conflicts with one’s morality. Even separate from religious issues, to kill another human being seems to go against every grain that is within us. Soldiers can kill because they are trained. That doesn’t mean it is easy to do or to live with.
There is also the question of whether or not soldiers should be able to change their mind about one of the fundamental duties of being a soldier – going to war. This documentary does an excellent job describing the heartache, soul searching, and opinions for both those who decide they cannot go to war and those who choose to remain with the military. Both sides agree that it is a fundamental right of everyone to have their moral code and stand by it. People have the right to be conscientious objectors. But the point is also made that this right is possible because of those willing to fight for the rights of others, which sometimes means going to war. It is a definite quandary that the film does not try to answer. Instead, both sides are explored.
By the end of the documentary, I was left feeling as if there is a standoff between two ideals. On one side, conscientious objectors stand by the belief that all war is wrong, and until there are enough people willing to say they will not kill or commit war, we will live in a violent world. On the other side, things are a bit murky. The stance of these individuals is that they do not want to die, nor kill other people. However, they don’t want people around them to die either and the reality of the world we currently live in is that there are people who mean to harm others and deny them their rights through lethal means. Therefore, we fight to protect those people and beliefs we love. It is an interesting pair of extreme sides, and I tend to believe both are absolutely correct. It is hard to watch this film with an open mind and not come to that conclusion. I’m left with the conclusion that this leaves us between two ideal states, considering what is happening between them and the reality and murkiness of the middle ground.
I highly recommend that anyone who works with Service Members, or even knows one, watch this documentary. It opens a window to see what happens in the minds and hearts of men and women faced with the reality of having to kill. By understanding how hard this can be morally and intellectually, we can all better understand the heartache and questioning that can persist.
Debra Nofziger, Psy.D, is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX
“Soldiers of Conscience” by Luna Productions and Docurama Films. It was produced and directed by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan.