BY GLENN GARVIN
• Soldiers of Conscience, 11 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Thursday, WPBT-PBS 2
Soldiers of Conscience is about wars, those that men fight against
one another and those they fight against their deepest human
impulses. The latter are on display in the earliest moments of the
show, in footage of U.S. infantry recruits learning to fight with bayonets.
''What's the spirit of the bayonet?'' their drill instructor screams.
''Kill, kill, kill without mercy!'' they chant back. ''There are two
types of bayonet fighters -- the quick and the dead!'' the sergeant
shouts. ''Which are you?'' The recruits, in unison: ``The quick,
drill sergeant, the quick!''
It's a scene of reptilian cold-bloodedness from which even the most
Spartan soul is likely to flinch . . . and yet the truth of the drill
instructor's Orwellian shouts is inescapable: A soldier who pauses
for moral reflection during a bayonet fight will go home in a body bag.
This thoughtful and disquieting film, airing as part of the PBS
documentary series P.O.V., explores the fundamental contradiction
between the killing required by war and the remorse required by
humanity. It profiles eight soldiers who served in Iraq -- half of
them men who regarded killing the enemy as their duty, half of them
men who came to see it as a crime and turned into conscientious objectors.
Balancing the film between the two sides is likely to raise doubts
about Soldiers of Conscience's objectivity -- clearly, half the
American soldiers in Iraq do not refuse to fight -- and the
documentary's underlying thesis is certainly vulnerable to attack.
Filmmakers Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan suggest that U.S.
military training over the past several decades has been
systematically aimed at suppressing moral and ethical judgments by
soldiers. As one trooper says of firing at the enemy: ``It becomes
muscle memory -- you just do it.''
Their argument is based on research done by U.S. Army historian
S.L.A. Marshall, who claimed that three-quarters of American soldiers
who had the opportunity to shoot at enemy troops refused to do so.
But Marshall's research has always been highly controversial -- he
offered no data to back it up -- and frankly, it flunks the
common-sense test. Did three-quarters of the GIs being cut to pieces
on Omaha Beach on D-Day really have moral compunctions about shooting
back at the Germans?
But even if Soldiers of Conscience's math can be criticized, its
fairness cannot. The soldiers who believe that their service in Iraq
was just and honorable -- no matter how horrific -- get a full and
respectful hearing, and the film does its best to put their words in
context. In one truly terrifying sequence, American troops spot an
abandoned car on an Iraqi roadside. As they push it away, it
explodes, debris and shrapnel cascading everywhere. ''Son of a
bitch!'' screams the officer directing the operation as he ducks for
cover; then, turning to the camera, he adds: 'Welcome to friggin' Iraq.''
That scene underlines a soldier's most fundamental justification for
killing: If he doesn't, someone will kill him. Says another: ''The
people on the other side are soldiers too. And soldiers do what
soldiers do. They're trying to kill us, we're trying to kill them.
That's just the ugly face of war.'' Beyond that, the men offer a
broader justification for fighting. ''You can't say that you believe
in human dignity and human rights,'' argues one, ``if you're not will
to defend them.''
Some of the men who became conscientious objectors after serving in
Iraq believe that what they were doing there had nothing to do with
dignity or rights. Appalled by the brutality and corruption in places
like Abu Ghraib prison, horrified by the burned and mutilated corpses
that were a routine part of the landscape (on frequent,
stomach-churning display in Soldiers of Conscience), they came to see
the war as a murderous merry-go-round that would never stop unless
they got off.
Camilo Mejia, the Sunny Isles Beach man who was court-martialed after
refusing to accompany his infantry unit on a second tour of Iraq,
says everybody asks him what would have happened if American soldiers
had refused to fight in World War II. What kind of world would we
live in now? ''Well, what would have happened if there would have
been enough conscientious objectors in the Nazi army?'' he counters.
``There would have been no war, there would have been no Hitler,
there would have been no Holocaust.''
Soldiers of Conscience treats that as a rhetorical question. But
there were conscientious objectors in Nazi Germany, mainly Jehovah's
Witnesses. They wound up in front of firing squads or locked in
concentration camps. In the face of fanaticism, turning the other
cheek may simply amount to signing a suicide note. It is a question
that hovers in the background of Soldiers of Conscience, one of
several that's never answered and may be unanswerable, much like the
soldier who admits to shooting a 10-year-old Iraqi boy who was
throwing grenades at his squad. ''I got no regrets about it,'' he
says matter of factly, then admits: ``But looking back at it . . .
that's when the demons come back.''