Arts & Events

PBS Film Shines Light on Murky Morality of War

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 10:09:00 AM

Soldiers of Conscience, a new documentary airing at 9 p.m. today (Thursday) on PBS, begins with a surprising fact: Approximately 75 percent of World War II combat soldiers, when presented with the opportunity to fire on the enemy, did not pull the trigger. Turns out the inhibition that keeps a man from killing was stronger than all the training, conditioning and propaganda thrown at them in preparation for just such a moment. 

Since then, the U.S. military has implemented methods to decrease the impact of that inhibition and maximize the lethal effectiveness of its soldiers. Current data suggests that as much as 90 percent of Iraq War soldiers pull the trigger when the enemy is in sight.  

But despite the success of these training techniques, the essential moral dilemma remains for the individual. The decision to fire, made in just a fraction of a second, is still a life-altering experience, whether one goes through with it or not. Directors Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg have focused their cameras on eight soldiers; four of them pull the trigger and find ways to cope with the decision after the fact; the other four could not overcome that inhibition—at least not in the questionable moral context of the current war and its dubious execution—and risked career, disgrace and jail time in applying for conscientious objector status. 

One solider, from a deeply religious background, is forced to grapple with the contradictions between his faith and his notions of patriotism. Another, a 10-year veteran, comes from a long line of soldiers, making his change of heart at the age of 40 an especially wrenching decision, resulting in a court martial and a year in jail. A third became an anti-war activist. 

Soldiers of Conscience goes beyond politics and the artificially bifurcated discourse of patriotism to examine the moral fog of war and its impact on the human soul.