Bending it

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 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” in Iraq. But that article gives none of your or any other observations of how bad it is. Can you tell take a few moments to tell us something about how bad it is over there?

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 peoples 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 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.