What happens when you’re a soldier and you are asked to fight in a war your conscience tells you is immoral?
I’m not from a military background and I always opposed the Iraq War, so it was a stretch for me to empathise with Jo’s struggling subjects who, to me, simply made – and continue to justify – rational assessments. How difficult or taxing can common sense be? To get me out my own head, I called on Jo to explain this emotional minefield of a topic.
Scroll down to read our Q&A.
Prison Photography (PP): Where does the title come from?
JMS: The title is to try and explain the difficult position so many of the soldiers found themselves in. Nothing is ever black and white, nothing is ever as simple as right or wrong, and these people were having to make a decision between what they were contractually obliged to do and what they felt was the right thing to do. I felt The Grey Line was a way of explaining the difficult line they were choosing to walk.
PP: You say some of the soldiers were imprisoned for their views?
JMS: Actually, none of the soldiers were imprisoned for speaking out against the Iraq war. Some of the soldiers refused to fight in the Iraq war and were imprisoned for going AWOL, but not for speaking out.
Each person’s story is very different, so I’m always nervous about generalizing. So instead, I’ll give an example. Kevin Benderman was one of the older and higher rank soldiers I interviewed and he was very opposed to the Iraq war. He was deployed to Iraq for a short period. Over there his opinions really became clear and he felt strongly that being in Iraq was the wrong thing to do. When he came back he applied for Conscientious Objector status but it was denied. So he refused to go back. He was court martialed and given a 15 month prison sentence.
Kevin said he always knew that he would get a prison sentence. It was fascinating to hear how his morals were so strong he was compelled to go against the military and risk his career. It wasn’t that he was a pacifist, or had found God, he just strongly believed that what America was doing in Iraq was wrong. That’s what really impressed me about some of the people I interviewed, they really stayed true to how they felt. Kevin knew if he spoke out and refused to fight, his career would be ruined, he’d be accused of being a coward and he faced imprisonment, but he still refused to go to Iraq.
It’s like another person I met who refused to deploy to Iraq. He was openly gay, and could easily have got out through the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Policy, but he felt if he wanted to leave for moral reasons it would be wrong as he would see it as taking the easy option. Instead, he applied for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied, so was then imprisoned for refusing to be deployed.
Kevin Benderman can explain his situation so much more clearly that I ever will. He said to me:
“Have you heard the term, “I cannot in good conscience do that…?” Well, that’s how it was for me.
I took a look around when I got over there. We weren’t fighting an army, there were no weapons of mass destruction. None of that stuff was there. We were just bullying the civilians. We weren’t fighting soldiers; we were just kicking doors down of civilians’ houses and taking them out and that’s not what I joined the army to do. I mean, if there had been a soldier over there I would have fought a soldier, but that’s not what we were doing… not at all[…]
There was no doubt in my mind that I’d go to prison. I had to be made an example out of. I mean, I was an NCO for one. I wasn’t a young kid and they knew that if I was able to do what I was trying to do it would only strengthen my argument. They had to make an example out of me so that no one else would try it.
With all the charges they were trying to give me I could have got seventeen years. They tried to charge me with larceny, desertion, missing movement. I knew it was a bunch of bullshit. I knew they weren’t gonna be able to stick all that stuff on me. I was convicted of missing movement by design, which carried a fifteen month sentence. It was a dishonourable discharge but it was upgraded to bad conduct. But that still isn’t very good. I mean you can’t really do a whole lot with a bad conduct discharge.
I know I did the right thing but it just didn’t really change anything, you know? I invested twelve years of my life in the military. I gave that away. I gave away my retirement. I lost my home, my wife … I can’t really find a … well, I’m stuck here driving a truck.
I had more trouble with my family – sisters, brothers and brother-in-law – than with people in general.
My family didn’t even want to hear my reasons for doing what I was doing and they still don’t. Most of the ones who have openly criticised me have never served and don’t know what they’re talking about. More soldiers and veterans agree with me than my own family do. But I’m not really concerned about their opinion and that makes them mad. You know, that was part of the stress; my own family chose George Bush and his stupid ass doing something illegal over defending me, and they wouldn’t even hear my reasons why. […]
There’s still people who say I’m a hero. Well no, I’m not a hero. I was just doing what I thought was right and I really thought that people who made noises about the constitution and the law would stand up for that instead of just wanting someone to be a figurehead for them. […]
A few years ago I took a job in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor. I wanted to go back was because I know I’m a good mechanic and there’re still soldiers over there and I figured they deserved somebody who was conscientious about the work. I had given them the best vehicles that they possibly had. I didn’t leave the military to abandon the people that I served with, but I knew that it didn’t matter. Whether or not it was right to be there […] I’m a good mechanic and they’re still over there. They’re not coming back and we’re not prosecuting Bush and I wanted to make sure that they had the best possible vehicles. Should we be there? No. Are we there? Yes.
PP: Benderman’s is one story of how many? What was the number of soldiers you met?
JMS: Over the space of 5 years I met in total 45 soldiers. 29 are in the book.
PP: Has the story of conscientious objectors been adequately told?
JMS: Before I started the project, I had only associated the term Conscientious Objector to the first and second world war – to times of conscription. So I was intrigued to know why someone would need to apply for conscientious objectors status when they had willing signed up. Meeting with the veterans and doing this project made me realise that of course people who are in the military can have a change of morals and principles just like any ones else does, and some people also realise that they no longer want to be a part of war.
But not all of the people I met with were conscientious objectors. Many of them didn’t even know that the process existed. I was interested in meeting people who had moral doubts about their involvement in the Iraq war, not all were conscientious objectors.
Some people choose to whistle blow and speak out to the media about their experiences, others simply refused to fight and went AWOL. Others chose to keep quiet until they left the military and then spoke out. Speaking out from within the military is a very difficult thing to do. The quote below is from a veteran called Ryan. He was in the Marine Corp and was deployed for 7 months to Iraq. After he was honourably discharged from the military, he decided to speak out about his experiences in the military and about what he came to see as atrocities that he and his colleagues committed in Iraq.
After I made my public testimony, my brother disowned me on Facebook for everyone to see. He said I was a traitor and I wasn’t his brother anymore, that I wasn’t even a man.
Every single person that I served with in the war found out about my testimony and have publicly said that I’m a liar, a bitch, that I’m full of shit, that I’m a fucking American flag-burning, troop-hating, communist.
I understand why a lot of these guys did what they did; they’re not ready to accept that what we did was wrong … because it’s hard. It’s hard to accept that what you believed in was wrong. And not just wrong like two plus two is five, but wrong like you fucking killed somebody and that’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life. Some people just aren’t ready to live with that yet.
PP: What do you hope to communicate with The Grey Line?
JMS: Many of the people I spoke to were very torn between their duty, the bond with the people they fought with and their own belief that what they were doing was wrong. Several soldiers talked about being ordered to do things that they felt very uncomfortable about doing, but that they knew were legal.
I spoke to one soldier who had been a military Intelligence officer in Abu Ghraib. He had absolute faith in the military, but was feeling very uncomfortable with what he was being asked to do. In the quote below, he talks about his experiences of interrogating a young detainee.
He was 16; just a kid, scared to death, and skinny as a rail. We went out to get him from the ‘general population’ [prisoners who aren’t in solitary confinement] area to interrogate him. The general population area was right next to the questioning booth, but they still wanted me to put one of those sacks over his head to transport him. It wasn’t like a normal sack, it was like a plastic sand bag with sand all over it. It barely fit on his head and he was shaking as I put it over him. We used it so he couldn’t see where we were taking him, even though we could see the booth from where we were standing. We had to cuff him too, but his wrists were so skinny you couldn’t put the handcuffs on him. So he just kind of carried them instead. I felt so rotten.
The weirdest thing was when we were in the room with the kid and an MI guy came in and gave the interrogating officer a handful of Jolly Ranchers. It was meant to be put on the table like, if you talk we’ll give you some apple Jolly Ranchers, you know? The kid knew nothing. He was just this guy’s son. Originally we were supposed to interrogate his father, a general in Saddam’s regime, which was why I had agreed to be a part of it. It sounded interesting. But then when we got there, they told us that he had already been ‘broken’ and as a sort of consolation we were told we could interrogate his son.
I only found out afterwards what they had done to break his father. His son had been doused in cold water, driven around in a truck in the freezing cold night, and covered in mud. I guess, at the same time his father was being interrogated somewhere else and from what I understand they told him that they’d take a break from the interrogation and let him see his son.
So the general’s thinking he’s gonna see his son and have some kind of a reunion with him, but instead they just allowed him to see his son naked, shivering, and covered in mud.
A lot of people will probably wonder why I didn’t say something publicly right away, but it would have been pointless. Even though I thought what was happening was wrong, doesn’t mean that it was illegal anyway.
PP: What are your thoughts on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Jo? Was it wrong, justified, legal or illegal? Is your opinion of importance? Does it come through in the work? Or need to come through?
JMS: I was shocked when Tony Blair took my country to war. I couldn’t believe that he could go against the majority of the country’s wishes. I was shocked that he didn’t listen to the advice of the UN. Maybe it was naive of me, but that is how I felt. I think that is why I became interested in the soldiers stories. I had really believed in Tony Blair when he had come to power. I never would have dreamt he would have taken us into a war like Iraq. And that’s why I wondered how some soldiers must have felt. Many people join the military having complete faith in their government, so what happens if then the government goes into wars you think are wrong? As a soldier you have no choice.
People will always say. “You can’t have military that questions every order their given,” but on the flip side what if it was you? If it was you being asked to do something you felt in the bottom of you stomach was wrong? Something you felt went against everything you been taught? Do you ignore that feeling and carry out your contractual obligation or do you listen to your conscience?
In the end I didn’t particularly want to look at the politics of the Iraq war (though a lot of issues are raised in the book). What I wanted to explore was how an individual deals with the doubts they have in times of war. I wanted to look at the more complicated issues affecting a soldier’s decision. There are so many other things that affect one ability to make a decision – commitments to colleagues, expectations of family, financial implications, confusions of loyalty and legality. The aim of the book was to explore the complexity of their situation. There wasn’t a right way or a wrong way of doing things.
PP: How does The Grey Line fit in with your other work? You’ve recently been in Sri Lanka, you hang out with Beth Orton. I mean, to me, all your work is gentle, warm and purposeful so I’m not asking about the style or aesthetics in The Grey Line, I’m asking about its purpose for you as an artist.
JMS: I love doing commercial work and the challenges and opportunities it brings. But my approach and my purpose in doing commercial work is different to my personal work, and its difficult to compare them.
I am interested in people and because I have a camera it allows me to enter their lives in a unique way. I like to tell other peoples stories through my photographs.
For a long time now the theme of morality is something that I have questioned and explored – my own sense of morality and other people’s sense of morality, and how that affects their decisions… I think that I was unintentionally looking for way of exploring this theme with my photography, and when I first met Robert, something clicked.
PP: Can you imagine not having explored this issue? Can you imagine not having made this statement to the world?
JMS: It doesn’t really feel like I made a statement, or at least it wasn’t my statement to make. The men and women that were in the military and had the courage to question are the people making a statement.
PP: Thanks Jo.
JMS: Thank you, Pete
[Right click on the images below to view them larger.]
Jo Metson Scott is a portrait and documentary photographer whose work highlights the relationship between people and their communities. She has been commissioned by organisations including The New York Times, The Telegraph and The Photographer’s Gallery and her work has been exhibited in both the UK and Europe, including Arles Photography Festival, Nottingham Castle Art Gallery, Hereford Photography Festival and the Venice Biennale Fringe. She is repped by Webber Represents. Jo lives and works in London.