Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan produced and directed Soldiers of Conscience, which had its broadcast premiere on PBS on October 16 but if you missed the broadcast, the full film is available online through November 30.
Last month, Gary participated in a live chat hosted by PBS Engage and answered viewer questions online. Time ran out before he could answer all of the questions that came in that day, so he’s taken the time to respond to many of the others here on the POV Blog. Read on to see what he had to say.
Alton Hegary asks: Do you believe that most of these guys came to their crystallized realization because of the necessity to engage noncombatants?
Gary Weimberg: Yes and no. All the conscientious objectors in the film expressed intense moral outrage over the treatment of noncombatants. But equally, they all expressed the burden of conscience they felt over war and killing itself.
But this is a good question on a more general level, too. Before we started work on the film, I would have assumed that it is the killing of noncombatants that causes the greatest feeling of guilt. Turns out, it is not so simple. Soldiers and research studies indicate that it is the act of killing itself, regardless of combatant or noncombatant status, that causes the soldier to suffer the burden of conscience. The marvelously informative book On Killing by Lt. Col (ret) David Grossman goes into this in some detail, and there are a number of theories as to why, and of course it varies from individual to individual.
For those interested in an account of soldiers facing guilt for the killing of soldiers, the excellent Aug 17, 2005 Wall Street Journal article “Breaking a Taboo, Army Confronts Guilt After Combat” by Greg Jaffe has an insightful scene concerning a single incident and the 2nd Armored Calvalry Regiment (registration and fee required).
Theresa asks: What did soldiers have to say about the idea of leaving Iraq soon? More specifically, did they feel that these calls for withdrawal were unsupportive or unpatriotic, as they are often called?
Weimberg: To my surprise, yes. As we made this film, when talking with the soldiers who were not conscientious objectors, we made a real effort to be worthy of the trust they gave to us by staying very personal, and NOT political, i.e., not have discussions about the reasons and goals and conduct of the war.
That being said, soldiers often brought up their own political feelings and observations, and I feel I violate no one’s trust by simply reporting:
We heard considerable resentment over incompetent civilian leadership in the conduct of running the war.
We heard a profound willingness to stay and fight, mostly expressed in terms of respecting the sacrifice of lives and limbs of fellow soldiers already.
But returning specifically to your question, soldiers often told us that the slogan “honor the troops, bring them home” was disrespectful of them as professional war-fighters. Like a parent who is over-protective of a child, they felt that civilians were being overly concerned with them because after all, they were professional soldiers so going to war was what they were there to do.
Charles Kennedye asks: Would you discuss the storytelling process during writing/editing, key ideas, limitations, and development? I thought the writing and editing were exceptional. It very much kept my interest for a worthy subject. Would you help me understand the challenges of taking a huge amount of information and crafting it into a comprehensible story?
Weimberg: We went into making this film without preconceptions and learned from the people we talked to exactly what themes and points that were most important to include. Thus, for me, the truthfulness of the film is a reflection of the truthfulness we were offered by the people in front of camera and we worked hard not to distort or misrepresent in any way.
We filmed and edited many, many sequences that ended on the cutting room floor, including experts, historians, activists, other soldiers, other conscientious objectors and vets from other wars. In the end, we realized the film needed to be narrow and specific and focused, and made a painful decision to leave out everything except soldiers who went to this war in Iraq.
We worked very hard and made many mistakes over the lengthy editing process, but we held dozens of rough-cut screenings for many different types of people and learned from them what was being communicated and what was failing. During discussions with viewers after those screenings, we never defended the film or our ideas at all, but asked questions and listened to the answers to help us improve the film.
We were 100 percent clear in our hearts that this film was not about us and not about our egos in any way, and that informed and improved the editing at every step.
We tried to structure the film with this mental concept: for each scene we imagined how it would be viewed by someone who disagreed with the speaker, and at the very point that the imaginary viewer would be thinking, “Well, what about counter argument ‘X’?” we would cut to someone saying that counterargument, or asking that question. We imagined it as an intense tennis match of ideas between the sincere war-fighters and sincere conscientious objectors, and strived to keep the ball going back and forth with deep strong volleys each one informative and dramatic and then hit back with something just as powerful.
We made a promise to ourselves that this film would be as dramatic as any war film ever made, fiction or documentary, and not rest with the self-satisfaction that it was a documentary, and thus somehow “noble” enough that it did not need to be viscerally entertaining.
And at every step, we were inspired by the eloquence of the people whose lives we were portraying.
Jenny Harwood asks: Were there any stories that you had to cut because they were too difficult for the audience to hear?
Weimberg: Yes, of course. And there are many, many images not included because they were too difficult to see.
Bri asks: Were there any photos or talk about what is happening on the other end as far as torture and killing of our soldiers?
If not, why? Shouldn’t both sides be represented equally to provide perspective? I only caught the last 30 minutes so I don’t know if this subject was covered.
Weimberg: We work very hard to include both sides in this film, but both sides in this film are not “kill or be killed.”
In this film the two sides are sincere people facing the question: to kill or not to kill? So, our film is not about the torture and killing of our soldiers. In the literature of war, the pain and horror of seeing one’s buddy killed or wounded is explored in great depth, and it is a worthy and tragic theme. But it has been well covered.
Our film is deliberately different.
This film is about the morality of killing in war. What does the individual soldier do? Not what is done to you by the enemy.