It's not exactly light entertainment, but Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan's Soldiers of Conscience (2008) is required viewing for anyone interested in how war affects both sides of a battlefield. It's undoubtedly rooted in an anti-war sentiment (or anti-Iraq-war, at the very least), but this even-handed documentary allows both sides to speak and judges no one. The subject at hand is how the basic premise of war---that is, kill or be killed---can affect a soldier's will to continue fighting. If they grow to oppose all war in general, enlisted soldiers (and, of course, those who avoided serving in the military to begin with) may choose to refrain from battle as a "conscientious objector". Of course, it's not an easy path: not only can they lose the respect of their more determined fellow soldiers, but they're often sent home with a dishonorable discharge...and in some cases, jail time. It's certainly the road less traveled, but Soldiers of Conscience offers a compelling argument on both sides: whether you use weapons or words, fighting is necessary to secure one's individual rights.
Told from the perspective of several soldiers in the ongoing war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Soldiers of Conscience is generally free of third-party narration and close, comfortable categorization. The interviewed parties speak with extreme conviction, while talking-head interviews are broken apart by brutal scenes direct from the battlefield. Bloody, decimated corpses are shown instead of hinted at, whether the dead are civilians (children included) or soldiers. A particularly tense sequence involves an abandoned vehicle containing high-powered explosives. More than anything else, though, Soldiers of Conscience is an intense, emotional character study of those with first-hand experience in combat: they've been trained to kill without thinking, but many have continued to struggle with their role in such a controversial and ambiguous conflict. Some have made the transition back to civilian life easier than others, but none have come back unscathed.
Featured participants include Joshua Casteel (a young Republican and former interrogator at Abu Gharib with a deeply religious background) and Aidan Delgado (who has become a fierce proponent of peace since his return, and speaks with staunch convicition); both applied for CO status and were approved with minimal delays. Camilo Mejia (a soft-spoken man who struggled internally with what he saw on the battlefield) and Kevin Benderman (a ten-year veteran whose change of heart was much more gradual) weren't so lucky: both went AWOL and were not formally recognized as COs---and though they eventually made it back to civilian life, their exit from the military was met with harsher disciplinary action. Other contributors include Peter Kilner, a West Point professor of ethics, who explores the history of conscientious objectors and the military's change in training style during the last several decades. Overall, Soldiers of Conscience still manages to become more than the sum of its parts: there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, both sides manage to make very strong points...and above all else, everyone speaks from the heart.
Presented on DVD by Docurama, Soldiers of Conscience arrives in a modest one-disc package that documentary fans should appreciate. Though the technical presentation is hardly spotless and the bonus features aren't exactly thorough, the strength of the main feature is enough to forgive any and all shortcomings. In short, it's a well-intentioned film that belongs on the shelf of anyone even casually interested in the subject at hand. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Soldiers of Conscience looks a little rough around the edges. Obviously, the footage varies in quality: some of the on-the-fly battlefield sequences are shot with low-resolution equipment (and cropped to fill the 16x9 frame, unfortunately), while other segments suffer from mild pixellation and edge enhancement. Even some of the newly-recorded interviews are plagued by modest amounts of digital noise. With that said, many of these problems can be forgiven: under the circumstances, Soldiers of Conscience is visually on par with most like-minded documentaries.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is somewhat low-key but still has its moments. Separation is strong and the narration comes through clearly, never fighting for attention with the film's occasionally dramatic score. Overall, it's a basic mix that gets the job done nicely. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or Closed Captions are offered during the main feature or bonus material.
Like the main feature, no optional Closed Captions or subtitles have been included during these extras.
Brutal and completely captivating, Soldiers of Conscience is a fine example of modern documentary filmmaking done right. Both sides of the issue are given time and attention, and no clear-cut judgments are made by the filmmakers. Though it undoubtedly takes a more anti-war stance during many segments, we're treated to an even-handed meditation on the cold reality of modern warfare and the people it directly affects. Docurama's one-disc package doesn't offer a great deal of support, pairing a passable technical presentation with only a few related bonus materials---but based on the strength of the main feature, Soldiers of Conscience is not to be missed by those mature enough to handle the subject matter. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.