Kevin Benderman is a mechanic who is trained to fix Bradley armored vehicles. On December 20, 2004, he applied for conscientious objector status. Yesterday he made time to talk with us about his decision.
Omar Khan: Kindly tell us your name and a little about your background—your age, where you live, where you were born and raised, where you went to school, things of that sort.
Kevin Benderman: My name is Kevin Mitchell Benderman. Currently I’m living in Hinesville, Georgia, with my wife, Monica, and my stepson Ryan. I was born in Alabama. I was raised between there and Tennessee. I’ve gone to various schools, and I’m currently studying Criminal Justice out of Ashworth College for a Bachelor’s Degree.
OK: A Thursday, January 13 CNN article has a subtitle that tells of your “claim” that others “just don't know how bad it is.” But that article gives none of your or any other’s observations of how bad it is. Can you take a few moments to tell us something about how bad it is?
KB: The things that I have seen in the war zone that I’ve been to—and I am referring to this as all war, because my father told me about things he saw during World War II, and I’ve talked to Vietnam War veterans, I’ve talked to Korean War veterans, and they’ve all told me similar things that they’ve seen. And that is how people’s homes are destroyed. That’s how people are destroyed. And just how insane, really, the entire thing is. War destroys everything in its path. It’s the most destructive force on the planet that mankind has come up with, I can tell you that.
When we were moving from the southern part of that country to the north, we saw numerous people that were having to get drinking water from mud puddles on the side of the road. One thing that really sticks out in my mind, is that young girl—probably 8, 9, no older than 10 years old—standing there with her arm burned, black—you know, charred all the way up to her shoulder. And her mother was there and they were both crying, both begging for help [whom the executive officer refused to help because troops had limited medical supplies]. I saw mass grave sites full of old men, old women, children, you know—I saw them all over that country.
OK: Article 3 of the 21 October 1950 Geneva Conventions reads: “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de [outside of] combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.”
To the extent that your experience in Iraq sheds any light on the matter, can you comment on the commitment with which this principle has been held up by the armed forces of the United States in Iraq?
KB: I don't want to discuss specific wars. But I’ll tell you that by the very virtue of war itself—what is humane treatment? I mean, you answer that question, if any one can answer that question: what is humane about war period? There’s nothing humane about it. The very virtue of what war is the design to inflict casualties on other human beings.
OK: The Nuremberg Tribunal was adopted by the International Law Commission of the United Nations in 1950. It lists under the heading “war crimes” the “wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages” and other actions against persons that constitute “devastation not justified by military necessity.” Please share any thoughts you have on this.
KB: I’m not a government, I’m just a man. And I feel that the only true way to prevent any of those things that you’re describing is for men—and women—to reach across the table and open themselves up for discussion so that this stuff won’t happen between people. If war is a tool to achieve peace, then why do we still have war?
Monica Benderman: War is not a necessity. Necessity is defined in alternatives to war.
OK: Lt. Col. Robert Whetstone, a Fort Stewart spokesman, was quoted by MSNBC on January 20th. He said—referring to you, Kevin—“We’re still going to treat him with honor and respect. He’s a soldier, he’s wearing the uniform and he’s a veteran,” Whetstone said. “But when regulations are broken and orders are disobeyed, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”
Now, the same Nuremburg Tribunal says that “the fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.” But it says more: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” Can you tell us a little bit about that “moral choice” today?
KB: Well, I’ll tell you where I’ve exercised that moral choice. When that captain, who I was with me over there, ordered the people—including me—to shoot small children that were throwing rocks at us, and I refused to obey that order, I exercised that moral choice in that particular case, that particular incident. When that order was given, we ignored it. We all looked at each other like, that man has lost his mind. So I would say that everyone who was with me at that time exercised their moral choice not to follow that illegal order.
OK: Mark Stevens, a military defense lawyer and retired Marine Corps judge advocate has been quoted repeatedly in our media, with reference to you. He asked, “If he went to Iraq and then comes back and says, ‘I'm now opposed to war,’ the issue is are you opposed to all wars or just this one you don't want to go back to?” said. “He wasn't opposed to war two years ago, why is he opposed to it now?” Now, the same media that energized and continues to reenergize the country for this war—telling nothing of its gross illegality—is being used as a forum to say, “why didn’t you know earlier?”
KB: I can’t tell you about international law violations or anything of that nature, but that man who made that statement about me: he doesn’t know me. You don’t know me either. You don’t know how long I’ve been thinking about a particular subject before I decide to speak out about it. And I think about a lot of things that no one knows what I think about. But this one was important enough for me that I needed to speak out about it to anyone that would listen.
Having watched and observed life from the standpoint of soldier for ten years of my life, I felt there was no higher honor than to serve my country and defend the values that established this country. My family has a history of serving this country dating back to the American Revolution and I felt that to continue on in that tradition was the honorable thing to do.
As I went through the process which led to my decision to refuse deployment to Iraq for the second time, I was torn between thoughts of abandoning the soldiers that I serve with, or following my conscience which tells me: war is the ultimate in destruction and waste of humanity.
Thoughts that we could, and should, consider better ways to solve our differences with other people in the world have crossed my mind on numerous occasions. And this was the driving force that made me refuse deployment to Iraq a second time. Some people may say I am doing so out of fear of combat; I am not going to tell you that the thought of going back to that place isn't scary, but that is not the reason for my decision to not return.
I want people to know that the longer I thought about just how stupid the concept of war really is the stronger I felt about not participating in war. Why do we tell our children to not solve their differences with violence, then turn around and commit the ultimate in violence against people in another country who have nothing to do with the political attitudes of their leaders?
Having read numerous books on the subject of war and having heard all the arguments for war, I have come to the conclusion that there are no valid arguments for the destructive force of war. People are destroyed, nations are destroyed, and yet we continue on with war. The young people that I went with to the combat zone looked at it like it was a video game they played back in their childhood.
When you contemplate the beauty of the world around us and the gifts we have been given you have to ask yourself, " Is this what humanity is meant to do, wage war against one another"? Why can't we teach our children not to hate or to not be afraid of someone else just because they are different from us? Why must it be considered honorable to train young men and women to look through the sights of a high-powered rifle and to kill another human being from 300 meters away?
Consider, if you will, the positive things that could be accomplished without war in our lives; prescription medication that is affordable for seniors; college grants that are available for high schools seniors; I could name a list of reasons not to waste our resources on war. The most important being to let the children of the world learn war no more.
I've received e-mails from people who said that I was a coward for not going to war, but I say to them that I have already been, so I do not have anything to prove to anyone any more. What is there to prove anyway, that I can kill someone I do not even know and has never done anything to me? What is in that concept that anyone could consider honorable?
I first realized that war was the wrong way to handle things in this or any other country when I went to the war zone and saw the damage that it causes. Why must we resort to violence when things do not go our way? Where is the logic of that? I have felt that there are better ways to handle our business than to bomb each other into oblivion. When you are on the water in a boat and you have a chance to see dolphins playing with each other as they go about their business, you realize that if they can live without war then humanity should be able to as well.
Can't we teach our children to leave war behind in history where it belongs? We have come to realize that slavery was an obsolete institution and we realized that human sacrifice was an obsolete institution and we left them behind us. When are we going to have the same enlightened attitude about war?
I look at my stepchildren and realize that war has no place with me in giving them what they need to survive the trials and tribulations of early adulthood. And if you look at all the time soldiers lose in the course of fighting wars such as birthdays and anniversaries, their children going to the senior prom and college graduations, and other things which can never be replaced, then you have to come to the understanding that war steals more from people than just their sense of humanity, it also steals some of that humanity from their family.
I have learned from first hand experience that war is the destroyer of everything that is good in the world, it turns our young into soulless killers and we tell them that they are heroes when they master the "art" of killing. That is a very deranged mindset in my opinion. It destroys the environment, life, and the resources which could be used to create more life advancing endeavors.
War should be left behind us; we should evolve to a higher mindset even if it means going against what most people tell us in this country, such as that we can never stop fighting with other people in the world. I have made the decision to not participate in war any longer and some people in this country cannot comprehend that concept but to me it is simple. I have chosen not to take part in war and it was easy to come to that decision.
I cannot tell anyone else how to live his or her life but I have determined how I want to live mine--by not participating in war any longer, as I feel that it is stupid and also that it is against everything that is good about the world.