For centuries we have been sending young men into the abyss of war. Sometimes the causes have been noble but mostly the reasons for fighting have centered around politics that the average person found difficult to comprehend. History is stained with the very life blood of our youth. It takes great courage to volunteer to represent a country on a battlefield and even more to actually participate in a battle. It is something that most of us pray that we never have to endure and yet it has been a fact of history. Over and over again the treasure of our youth has had to bear arms against an enemy that they did not know for reasons that they may not have understood. We can almost all agree that war has and always will be hell and should be a last resort.
I am against all forms of violence. I think it morally wrong to abort babies, execute criminals and fight enemies and yet I understand that there are times when killing is the only choice to protect the innocent from danger. I am a conscientious objector up to a point. My faith tells me that if I have to choose between simply watching a despot like Adolf Hitler bullying his way across a continent or taking action to stop him with gunfire and bombs then I have every right to defend all that is good and just. I think that I might be able to set aside my gentle ways to stop such hate from spreading and I certainly commend those who put their very lives on the line in the call of duty. It is a sign of nobility to defend the innocent against aggressive tyrants and I often wonder if I would be capable of rising to such an occasion. I am in awe of those who find the grit within themselves to do so.
World War II was a nasty affair as are all wars but it bore the patina of being a just cause. Here in the United States virtually everyone in the country rallied to fight the despots from Germany, Italy and Japan. Young men joined the military at a fever pitch. High schools, universities and factories were emptied out as our youth eagerly volunteered to join the fight. Among them were my father, my uncles, and a young man from Virginia named Desmond Doss. What made Desmond a bit more unusual than most of his peers is that he was a Seventh Day Adventist who believed that it would be against God’s will to kill. Rather than registering as a conscientious objector and sitting out the war at home he decided to join with the intent of becoming a medic. With a kind of naive belief he actually thought that he would be allowed to accompany his unit without bearing arms.
His training for battle went well up until the time that he was instructed to choose a rifle and learn how to use it. When he refused to do so he became a pariah and the focus of a concerted effort to get him to simply quit. Somehow in spite of the bullying, insults and persecution that he had to endure he continued to insist that he wanted to be of service but simply could not and would not use a weapon. His conviction sent him to a military court where it was eventually ruled that he might be trained as a medic without bearing arms.
Doss’s battalion was sent to the war in the Pacific, a brutal theater where very different cultures clashed in some of the most horrific battles of that era. Their objective was to take a ridge known by the name of Hacksaw. When they arrived the fighting had already decimated entire units. The Japanese soldiers were relentless in their attacks and it seemed as though there would be no stopping them. Over a hundred and fifty thousand Japanese troops had been sent to keep possession of the area and so the battles were fierce. Doss followed his fellow soldiers as they attacked according to their orders. He provided medical aide to the wounded in the middle of a battle so bloody that it was almost overwhelming. Even after his group left to recoup for the night Doss stayed and rescued over seventy five men including some Japanese soldiers who had also been wounded. It was a miraculous and unbelievably heroic feat that earned him the respect of his brothers in arms. For the rest of his life he would tell of how he kept asking God to allow him to help just one more man to safety throughout that long and treacherous night.
Desmond Doss’s story is depicted in the movie Hacksaw Ridge, a brilliant film that brings us face to face with the sheer humanity of war. It is an homage not just to Doss but to all who risk their lives in battle. It slams the viewer into the visceral horror of fighting and asks us to imagine what soldiers have endured from the beginning of time. It forces us to consider questions of faith and to ponder our own beliefs. It is a brilliant work of art and a metaphor for both mankind’s brutality and its humanity. Through the eyes of a Godly man we see the chaos, fear and complexities of wars and those who participate in them.
I left the movie understanding that I had just seen something important. I was shaken and emotional. I thought of all of the people that I had ever known who had gone to war. I wondered what terrible and courageous things they must have seen that changed them forevermore. I realized just how fragile and strong each of us truly is. I was moved to tears as I pondered the importance of treasuring every life as a gift from God Himself. I worried that we humans have yet to find ways of resolving our differences without rancor and hate. The threat of war still looms in our hearts as long as we are unable to set aside our arms and our ugliness, as long as there is evil lurking on our planet. I contemplated our goodness as people as well. It occurred to me that there are individuals like Desmond Doss all around us, those who stand for something bigger than themselves. They quietly and peacefully work to serve us because it is right and just, not for glory or compensation. They are truly exceptional and they far outnumber those who would harm us.
Ours is a world of contradictions and uncertainty. We quietly wonder from one day to the next if we are truly living our best lives. We search for answers amidst noise and distractions. In the end we must do as Desmond Doss did in the middle of chaos. We must listen for the voice inside our souls that allows us to do just one more good thing, just one more.