“Then he taught me, and he said to me, ‘Take hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands, and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Cherish her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will give you a garland to grace your head and present you with a glorious crown.’” – Proverbs 4:4-9 (NIV)
Over the weekend, I took Mrs. Booth to see the movie Hacksaw Ridge — the true story of World War II Army medic Desmond Doss. It is as frank in its depiction of combat and human destruction as anything I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan, and it is also the most uplifting story I may have ever seen.
Meet Desmond Doss
The facts of Desmond Doss’s life are a matter of history. A devout Christian and a pacifist raised in the hills around Lynchburg,VA, volunteers to serve in World War II. His convictions forbid him to even handle a gun, so he enlists with the purpose of becoming a combat medic.
Assigned to Fort Jackson, SC, Doss finds himself in a rifle battalion, where his officers and his fellow soldiers accuse him of cowardice and harass him trying to hound him out of the Army — even subjecting him to a court-martial for refusing a direct order to handle a weapon. But Private Doss didn’t waver in his faith or go along to get along to make the trouble go away.
Desmond Doss and his battalion saw combat in the Pacific, ultimately participating in the bloodiest battle of that theater — the battle for Okinawa, set atop a 400-foot cliff known as the escarpment. Desmond Doss did not carry a weapon into that carnage — only his Bible and his faith. When the enemy counter-attacked, the Americans retreated from the top of the escarpment — all of them except Desmond Doss. And he single-handedly rescued at least 75 wounded men, retrieving their broken bodies while under hostile fire, moving within yards of enemy soldiers. As he tended each soldier, he carried each man to the edge of the cliff lowering him into US hands.
Who is this guy?
The movie does a good job of conveying that it was Desmond’s faith in God, and his desire to please God that motivated him to resist the taking of life, but that also motivated him to serve. When the war began, Desmond was eligible for a deferral based on his work in a naval shipyard. He felt it was his duty to serve, so he chose the more difficult path of honor.
And during the night as he lowered his wounded comrades away from danger, he prayed through his fatigue: “Lord, let me get just one more.” I wondered if this was simply Hollywood gloss, but in a documentary titled The Conscientious Objector, Desmond Doss explains that this was indeed his prayer.
The takeaways from “Hacksaw Ridge”
I hope you’ll see the movie, but if not, here are the main takeaways I left with:
- We need stories. As we’ve discussed before, there’s much less benefit to telling a man to “Man up,” than there is in telling a story of a man who was willing to put principle ahead of his own comfort.
- We need heroes. Too many people we enshrine as heroes will let you down if you study them closely enough. Here, at least, is one case, where a man walked unarmed into Hell to save his fellow-man. He even provided care to some wounded Japanese soldiers. The fact that one man was able to do this inspires me to aim higher.
- Freedom of conscience is necessary — and expensive. Just to have the right to go into combat — unarmed — with is battalion Doss had to suffer the insults, the beatings, the extra duty, and the mischaracterization of his motives.
- Even when you’re right, sometimes you have to absorb the hit. Conscientious objectors like those practicing civil disobedience have the right to express themselves. And defying authority usually brings consequences. Doss never lashed out at the unfair treatment he received. He stuck to his principles and trusted God to work it out.
- One man can make a difference. Desmond Doss’s devotion to God and country impelled him toward danger again and again. As a result, 75 men who almost certainly would have died of their wounds or been finished off by the enemy lived.
The rest of the story
Desmond Doss sustained multiple wounds from enemy snipers and grenades. Even when it was his turn to be carried from the battlefield, he insisted that a more critically wounded soldier be carried on the stretcher he occupied at the time. For his most conspicuous gallantry and willingness to put himself in harm’s way for his fellow soldiers, Corporal Desmond Doss received the Congressional Medal of Honor — the first conscientious objector to receive the nation’s highest military honor.Desmond Doss had numerous health problems resulting from his wounds, but he lived well into old age giving honor to God.
A lot of times, a movie based on a true story takes liberties to make it seem better. In the case of Desmond Doss, the truth is even better than Hollywood, as I hope you’ll see.