The Court Martial of Kevin Benderman

This Wednesday, May 11, the court-martial of Sgt. Kevin Benderman begins. Sgt. Benderman, who has served in the military for eight years including one tour of duty in Iraq, filed for conscientious objector status after seeing the reality of war in Iraq. He has been denied and now faces court-martial on two counts, desertion with the intent to avoid hazardous duty and missing movement by design. He could spend five years incarcerated if found guilty of the first charge and up to two years for the second.

Kevin Benderman’s opposition to war – all war – is based on his experience in Iraq. As Rep. Cynthia McKinney said on the floor of the House of Representatives on April 28:

"Sgt. Benderman’s opposition is not the theoretical if sincere opposition of a student peace activist. Kevin Benderman has seen things that none of God’s children should have to endure. He was present when his superior ordered his unit to open fire on small children who were throwing rocks at the soldiers of his unit. He chased the hungry dogs from an open mass grave filled with the bodies of young children, old men, and women. Kevin saw the burned child, crying in pain, while all around her ignored her injuries."

Benderman, who is from Tennessee, comes from a family that has served in wars back to the American Revolution. He has heard the stories of his family’s exploits and thus grew up in a culture that supported the military and did their duty by serving. But as a result of actually experiencing war and considering its implications in our modern world, Benderman has come to the conclusion that we must leave war behind. As he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!:

"But once you get right down to it, and you experience war firsthand, you realize that we should not be doing this in this day and age with all the knowledge – advancements in knowledge that we have and technological advances that we have. We should be able to figure out how to live in this world with everyone without war. Because we can provide enough stuff for everyone on this planet with the knowledge that we have. We don’t need war. It is just an outdated, obsolete institution. We need to leave it behind us."

When Sgt. Benderman filed for conscientious objector status, it was received poorly. His superior officer refused to take any action on his application, despite regulations requiring him to do so. His battalion chaplain, Captain Matt Temple, told him he was"ashamed of the way you have conducted yourself. I certainly am ashamed of you. I hope you will see your misconduct as an opportunity to upgrade your character and moral behavior for your own good and the good of your fellowman."

Benderman persevered. His newly assigned chaplain, Major Pete Brzezinski, listened to Benderman’s views and took his his conscientious objection seriously, saying:

"It is my belief that Sgt. Benderman’s beliefs are sincere and that he holds strongly to his asserted convictions. His demeanor, lifestyle, and his outward manifestation of his beliefs demonstrate his sincerity. Sgt. Benderman’s willingness to file for this status is an expression of his deeply held conviction and his moral belief that he is forbidden to bear arms and take life. Everything else is subordinate to this belief."

The military is having a hard time meeting its recruitment goals. Soldiers are fleeing to Canada and refusing to return to Iraq. The National Guard and active duty troops are stretched thin, some serving in Iraq longer than they should. The insurgency in Iraq seems to be gaining strength, and a U.S. exit from Iraq is not in sight – nor even publicly discussed by the administration. North Korea is reportedly ready to test a nuclear weapon, and Iran seems unwilling to slow its nuclear development. Tensions between China and Taiwan continue at a slow boil. The slaughter in the Sudan continues unabated. The United States military is stretched thin – and it is scared.

That’s right: President Bush’s overreaching has put the most powerful country in human history in fear – fear that the U.S. will not be able to handle likely conflicts. As a result of that fear, the conscientious objection of soldiers is not something they want to hear. But, they will hear it. And, more importantly, more and more Americans will hear it. They will learn that our soldiers are being ordered to commit acts they find unconscionable. Our youth will hear that if they enlist, they can’t get out, and recruitment will be made more difficult.

Morally, Sgt. Benderman has already won. The question now is, how will the U.S. military handle a man of conscience?