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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Soldiers of Conscience

Last night we went to a screening of the documentary "Soldiers of Conscience" that will air on PBS channels on October 16th. It crosscuts interviews with four U.S. soldiers who became conscientious objectors after some time in Iraq along with some soldiers who do not question their military role. The C.O.'s are very eloquent in recounting their change of heart and the consequences of their respective decisions to stop fighting.

Following the film, there was a discussion led by Producer/Director, Catherine Ryan. One of my favorite authors, Tobias Wolff, was on hand to interview Ryan. He himself is a Viet Nam veteran and wrote "In Pharoah's Army" about his experience. Wolff and one other in the audience raised variations of the same difficult question. Are all wars wrong? One of the C.O.'s says that when people challenge him asking what would have happened had the world not fought to stop Hitler, he responds with his own hypothetical. What would have happened if most German men had declared themselves "conscientious objectors?" Another C.O. in the film says he could no longer fight this particular war of occupation. Wolf and the audience member both cited tyrannies or genocides that seem to call out for armed interventions.

Nobody criticized anyone else for the views or questions they raised, but it seemed that most of the audience felt there was no situation in which war was a good answer. One man, himself a "Viet Nam Vet," said that most of the world calls that war, the American War in Southeast Asia, and considers the three million people we killed to be an atrocity. He decried the fact that our government has never entertained that perspective.

Is there such a thing as a "nation of conscience" that decides to intervene militarily to stop a genocide? Can war and killing qualify as a national act of conscience in the same vein as Denmark's decision to wear yellow stars and protect its Jewish citizens during World War II? How many would condone a person who did not kill an intruder who was about to kill their child, if they had an opportunity to save their child? Where does the slaughter occurring in Darfur fit into this "conceptual dilemma?" In this benighted world, I think there are times when a multilateral force ought to use its violent power for a greater good. Then get off the slippery slope as quickly as possible.

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