At the height of World War II, there was room in America for conscientious objectors. Where are we now?
It was the great cataclysm of the twentieth century—World War II. America was fighting for its life. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, totalitarian nightmares bent on world conquest, had to be defeated.
Millions of Americans took up arms, willing to sacrifice their lives.
And now there’s an amazing, powerful film about one man who was willing to give his life, but whose conscience and deeply held religious beliefs would not allow him to take the lives of others.
Mel Gibson’s new movie, “Hacksaw Ridge,” tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist from the hills of Virginia, who enlisted in the Army with the understanding he could serve as a medic—and therefore not violate his firm belief in “thou shalt not kill.”
But when Doss arrived at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, he was in for a rude surprise. His sergeant, his captain, and the judge at the subsequent military hearing didn’t seem to care much for Doss’s convictions. Nor did members of his platoon, who accused him of cowardice—and let Doss know how they felt with their fists.
Doss stood firm—despite facing years of imprisonment. “With the world so set on tearing itself apart,” he told the military tribunal, “it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to put a little bit of it back together.”
Now, I won’t tell you exactly how the Army gave in—that would be a spoiler—but I will tell you this, because, as they say, the rest is history.
Doss went with his platoon to Okinawa and scaled a cliff known as “the escarpment,” which in the film is called “Hacksaw Ridge.” And that is where the floodgates of hell opened. Hundreds of GI’s perished in the fight that day. At night, as the wounded lay in agony, Doss went from man to man, dragged them to the edge of the escarpment and lowered them down on a rope one by one. In all, he saved some 75 wounded GIs from certain death.
For his actions, President Truman awarded Doss the Congressional Medal of Honor. The first conscientious objector in U. S. history to win the nation’s highest award.
Before I go any further: “Hacksaw Ridge” is rated R for horrifically brutal battle scenes. It is not suitable for children. But it is an outstanding movie: the characters, the dialogue, the drama, and the cinematography are phenomenal. If you can stomach the scenes of death and destruction, you should go see it.
And here’s the major reason why. I’ve never seen a film that so powerfully underscores the importance of freedom of conscience.
Writing at the National Catholic Register, Steven Greydanus calls WWII Private Desmond Doss “a hero for our troubled times.”
Times in which florists and bakers are being hauled before civil rights commissions, being fined, losing their businesses; times in which pharmacists in Washington State can lose their licenses for refusing to dispense abortion pills; times in which churches in Massachusetts can run afoul of “public accommodation” laws requiring gender neutral bathrooms—we do indeed have a model in Desmond Doss.
Doss quietly and courageously sought to be a good citizen, but he knew where his true citizenship lay. Scorn, the threat of imprisonment, even Japanese bullets could not induce him to abandon his convictions.
And most importantly, Doss backed his convictions with his actions. His humility, his bravery and his willingness to sacrifice his life–even for those who opposed him—won over his harshest critics.
May it be so with us.
Editor’s note: We originally said that Private Doss was the only conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor. When he received the award in 1945, he was. Since then two conscientious objectors who served as Army medics in Vietnam, Thomas Bennett and Joseph LaPointe, Jr., both of whom were killed in action, received the award posthumously.
Further Reading and Information
Freedom of Conscience on Hacksaw Ridge: A Story for Our Times
As Eric has pointed out, the emphasis on freedom of conscience in “Hacksaw Ridge” is a timely reminder that standing for our faith and our convictions can sometimes be costly. Then Jesus said to his disciples, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Matthew 16:24