Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the path of most resistance

(above: Robert Weiss - picture credit Jo Motson Scott)

In the four years since its foundation, the London-based documentary production company Tourist with a Typewriter has carved a niche for itself in the production of offbeat and topical films related to the Middle East. Its latest production, “The Path of Most Resistance”, looks at what happens when members of the US military turn against war and become conscientious objectors (COs).

Tourist with a Typewriter was co-founded by the Palestinian-British documentary filmmaker, journalist and photographer Saeed Taji Farouky and the film and TV animator and editor Gareth Keogh. Its new film is directed by Keogh, with Taji Farouky as producer and camera operator.

The 45-minute full-length version of the film was premiered a few days ago at the Frontline Club in central London. A 21-minute version is due to be screened by Al-Jazeera TV before the end of the year.

The film makes for involving viewing. Through focusing on the stories of two applicants for CO status, it shows the difficulties and dilemmas that confront them. The accomplished camera work has touches of poetry, and the soundtrack by Joe Lewis, head of South London-based Dojo Studios, adds an edgy, unsettled tone.

How can one be sure that an applicant for CO status is genuine, and not simply seeking a way out of the military? Taji Farouky acknowledges that a lot of people want to get out of the military, and several documentaries have been made on deserters. “We didn’t want to make that, we wanted to make a film specifically about conscientious objectors”, he says. “If you just wanted to get out, there are a lot of easier ways to do it; you could say you are gay, or could literally shoot yourself in the foot.”

Daniel Baker joined the US Navy in 2004, but soon after being deployed in Qatar as a communications officer in 2006 he made a successful application for CO status. He now works for the Catholic Peace Fellowship, one of the organizations that advise CO applicants.

In contrast, soldier Robert Weiss’s application for CO status was turned down in December 2007. He said: “I feel that at this point I have no legal avenue for pursuing recognition of my beliefs, so therefore I have no choice but to leave the military rather than do something I feel is immoral.” On December 22 he was due to fly back to Iraq, but saw no alternative but to go absent without leave (AWOL) for 30 days, the minimum time necessary to be classified as a deserter. He would then turn himself in and face the inevitable court martial and imprisonment.

During his period of being AWOL, he was given refuge by a family with pacifist sympathies. In February he turned himself in, and on May 13 was court martialled. He is serving a seven-month sentence in a military prison in Mannheim, Germany.

Michael J Baxter, professor of theology at Notre Dame University and a member of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, points out that a major change since the Vietnam War is that people in the US military are not drafted, but join up as volunteers. If they become conscientious objectors, they have to explain why they joined in the first place.

Lt Col Anne Edgecomb, a spokesperson for army affairs based at the Pentagon, says that even in an all-voluntary force people’s beliefs may change. And this is “why we have this process and why it’s so thorough”. A conscientious objector is “someone who is opposed to war in any form because of deeply held religious, ethical or moral beliefs, but not a political or sociological belief.”

In the process of applying for CO status, applicants have to identify the moment of the “crystallization” of conscience. A member of a CO support organization says: “For many it is when they’re pointing a weapon at someone and seeing the person, or being confronted with taking the lives of very innocent people”

When Daniel Baker (pictured: credit Jo Motson Scott) joined the Navy, he saw it as “a chance to make something out of myself – a chance to really succeed in life and have an honorable profession to help those in need.” But his career did not provide the hoped-for sense of meaning and purpose in his life. He started to look at philosophy and stumbled across the writings of Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh. “This was my first introduction to the theory and practice of non-violence.”
A main point of “crystallization” came when he was flying at 300 feet over the Gulf on a reconnaissance mission tracking an Iranian submarine. “I heard over the radio set an Iranian voice saying ‘Coalition aircraft, maintain five nautical miles’ and as we kept making passes over this submarine the voice got more and more nervous.” Baker realized that “this man, human being, in the submarine, Iranian or not, was just a human being like me who’s my brother.” This was to be his final mission: before his next mission Baker told his instructor that he was a CO.

Weiss describes the circumstances that at the age of 16 led him to enlist. “I had nowhere to live, I had no money, I don’t have a car, I don’t have a driver’s license, so really the only possibility I had for having a place to live and a means to get by would be to join the military.”

After he joined up, his sister’s boyfriend was stabbed to death at a New Year’s Eve party. “That was a huge turning point in my life, because it really made me think I am not guaranteed another day. I thought that if I did die right now I would have to stand before God and it wouldn’t be good enough for me to say, well hey I had fun, I got drunk, I went to the strip club.” He started taking religion seriously and brought God back into his life.

The process of applying for CO status sounds straightforward, the way Anne Edgecomb depicts it. “The process starts when a soldier declares that he is a conscientious objector. At that point the commander will then counsel the soldier and explain what his rights are, and the things he will give up if he is processed out of the army – things like veterans’ benefits that you get once you serve your obligation to the army.”

But Baxter points out that while on paper the regulations have a certain fairness and validity, in practice “more often than not people come to their commanding officer and say ‘I want to be a conscientious objector’ and are told there is no provision for them to be a conscientious objector. They signed a contract and are obliged to fulfill it.” They “meet resistance all along the way.”

For many COs, the only form of support is the Military Counseling Network (MCN), an independent organization founded on the principles of Mennonite Christianity (which is committed to non-violence) and based in Bammental, Germany.

Anne Edgecomb says that “in a perfect world” there would be 90 days between a soldier declaring he is a CO and the review board making a decision on his application for CO status. But “we’re in a time of war and that’s a lot to ask right now” and it is taking on average 196 days.

Anne Edgecomb notes that the US army last year had only 39 conscientious objector applications out of 125,000 soldiers on active duty. But Michael J Baxter says: “I do see a movement of conscience and a movement of resistance in the making.” He thinks the movement will grow. “I don’t know if it will turn the tide against the war and make the US withdraw from the Middle East or whatever, but I do take hope in the fact that people are raising the right kinds of questions and are getting into the right kind of trouble.”

Susannah Tarbush

Saudi Gazette 18 August 2008
(below: Robert Weiss picture credit Jo Motson Scott)

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