Soldiers of Conscience

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ImageAlthough some Muslim- and Arab-Americans serve in the U.S. military, most Muslim- and Arab-Americans have not met a soldier who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A Conscientious Objector

Much has changed since March 20, 2003, when Gallup pollsters found 76 percent of Americans saying they approved of the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq. Five and a half years later, with no end to this war in sight, a majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake.

As Americans now consider who will be the next president and commander in chief, US soldiers, sailors, and marines are asking themselves, "Should I follow orders without question? ", "Am I doing the right thing?", "Should I become a conscientious objector?", and "Is this war a just war?"

As a Muslim-American who has lived and studied abroad in predominantly Muslim communities, I felt a strong emotional attachment to the issues examined in Soldiers of Conscience, an important documentary that goes to heart of the dilemmas soldiers face in Iraq: to kill or not to kill? This unique film, which premiered Thursday, October 16, on Public Broadcasting Service's P.O.V. series, shares stories by eight soldiers who talk about their experiences in Iraq. Four of the soldiers have applied for conscientious objector status. (This status permits an individual who, on religious or moral grounds, either refuses to participate as a combatant in war or play a role that would support a combatant organization or armed forces to fulfill service obligations through alternative means.)

A strong theme throughout Soldiers of Conscience is the negative images of Arabs and Muslims to which the soldiers have been exposed. Unfortunately for most Americans, the tragedy of 9/11 has created a fear of Islam, Muslims, Arabs or anything "Middle Eastern". The portrayal of Muslims and Arabs as the "other" or the "enemy" makes it easier for soldiers to kill Iraqis. One of the soldiers featured in the film, Aidan Delgado, talks poignantly about the time he could no longer de-humanize "the enemy" and began to see the Iraqis as human beings.

"I looked at [the detainees] and I saw my own unit, but with brown skin," he says. "I was not able to make the jump to turn those people into sub-humans, but it is the nature of war to turn them into sub-humans."

Another soldier, Camilo Mejía, talks about how killing another human being changed him when the weight of his actions set in. "Nothing ever prepares you for what that does to you as a human being, you know, to kill an innocent person," he says. He was the first soldier to refuse to go back to Iraq and spent nine months in prison for desertion before being dishonorably discharged.

Kevin Benderman is a 10-year veteran who comes from a family with a long tradition of military service. However, after serving in Iraq, he was so distressed at the carnage and destruction the war had caused, he started wondering, "I found myself in the region that the historians say might have been the Garden of Eden. I asked myself, 'why am I carrying around an M-16 in the Garden of Eden?'" Benderman's application for conscientious objector status was rejected and he was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment and given a dishonorable discharge.

The producers of the film also delve into the military training that soldiers receive that prepares them to be effective killers but does not prepare them to deal with the emotional toll of killing and war. What is interesting is that an Army poll taken during World War II found that three-fourths of the soldiers surveyed did not try to kill the enemy, even when they were under attack. However, an efficient army cannot function with soldiers who are unwilling to shoot or kill, so over the decades, the U.S. military has developed training methods that instills in soldiers an automatic response to kill the enemy.

As a result, one of the biggest challenges soldiers face in combat is grappling with the emotional and moral consequences of killing another human being. Major Peter Kilner, who is also featured in the film, teaches ethics at West Point and offers an interesting perspective. He argues that sometimes wars are necessary in order to defend human rights and protect a nation. However, he also understands that most soldiers are "not thinking through the great moral decision of killing another human being." He realizes that the best soldiers are those who are the most prepared about what it means to kill. Consequently, he has made Soldiers of Conscience part of his curriculum as a way to help troops come to terms with what they may be required to do or witness in war.

In the past few years, any dissent against the war or the policies of the Bush administration has been considered unpatriotic or un-American. One group that has suffered greatly is soldiers and military families, whose voices have been largely stifled. Using a rights-based approach, UUSC actively supports men and women in the US military as they return from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. As part of our opposition to the war in Iraq, we defend the First Amendment rights of everyone, especially US military personnel, to freely exercise their rights to dissent and petition Congress to responsibly withdraw combat forces from Iraq.

Although some Muslim- and Arab-Americans serve in the U.S. military, most Muslim- and Arab-Americans have not met a soldier who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, after being exposed to photos and videos of American soldiers bursting into homes and abusing or killing civilians, many Arab and Muslim Americans do not hold favorable opinions about US soldiers. Soldiers of Conscience provides an opportunity to bridge that gap and expose Muslims and Arabs – both in the United States and internationally – to stories of soldiers who are opposed to the devastation and carnage in Iraq and who are willing to speak out against the war and do something about it. The film provides space for dialogue about how to work together on a variety of issues.

Along with our partner Luna Productions, the Emmy Award-winning and Oscar-nominated filmmakers of Soldiers of Conscience, UUSC stands with people of conscience for human rights and civil liberties. Together, we share a commitment to informing the public and encouraging civic participation. The film is an important new tool in efforts to promote peace and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims and Arabs and non-Arabs in the United States and abroad.

Fatema Haji-Taki is a civil liberties program associate for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization based in Cambridge, Mass. For more information about UUSC's Civil Liberties Program, visit http://www.uusc.org/content/civil_liberties.

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