“I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble,because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”
It wasn’t long before the death of Desmond Doss on March 23, 2006, that I had the chance to speak with the Congressional Medal of Honor winner by telephone while interviewing Terry Benedict, director of a documentary based upon Doss’s life, The Conscientious Objector. Having already possessed a lifelong commitment to nonviolence myself, even from my childhood days as a Jehovah’s Witness, that brief conversation forever changed the way I view my commitment to creating a peaceful world.
I’m not certain, of course, exactly how Doss would feel about Hacksaw Ridge, the Mel Gibson-directed feature film based upon his life that opened in theatres nationwide recently. Somehow, Gibson is both faithful to Doss’s story and yet glorifying of the violence that Doss so committedly shunned and that left him 90 percent disabled at war’s end. His severe injuries were visible reminders of Doss’s commitment to his faith and commitment to his fellow man.
Despite being eligible for a deferment and having a religiously grounded opposition to violence, Doss opted to enlist as he felt he could not sit idly by while others fought for his freedom. Doss unwaveringly believed he could both serve his country and remain faithful to his commitment to not kill another human being. Doss was so committed to nonviolence that he refused to hold a gun, train with a gun, or ever consider carrying a gun as a member of the Army Medical Corps—even when his platoon was sent to Okinawa in the perilous battle to climb the Maeda Escarpment, aka Hacksaw Ridge. It was through this battle that Doss would become the first conscientious objector ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, having saved approximately 75 lives despite never having picked up a single weapon.
It is worth noting that Doss himself shunned the conscientious objector label, preferring to see himself as a “conscientious collaborator” who was committed to serving in the military but doing so within the framework of his deeply rooted faith as a Seventh Day Adventist.
They say that real pacifism isn’t just avoiding conflict, but being at peace amidst the conflict.
Doss lived it and nearly gave his life doing so.
Even if Doss might have issues with the overall tone of Hacksaw Ridge, especially the latter half, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be enthralled by Garfield’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the quiet and humble man whose faith and commitment to nonviolence should be the textbook role model for any true pacifist or peacemaker. Gibson prefers relentless authenticity and he lives into that with Hacksaw Ridge, a film that is at times jarring in its brutality and relentless in its carnage.
As I left the theater, I found the lingering effects of that relentless carnage blurring the line between the brutalities of war and tiny, shimmering lights like that provided by Doss’s uncompromising devotion to “Thou shalt not kill,” a scripture seldom taken as seriously as it was taken by this unassuming man from Lynchburg, Va. In one of the key battlefield scenes in Hacksaw Ridge, while other men have taken cover to protect themselves Doss can be seen exposing himself to artillery fire while lowering a soldier to safety, then praying aloud, “Lord, give me one more!”—an action and a prayer he would repeat dozens of times before his own body could do no more.
After being pummeled by Gibson’s recreation of the battle, the truth is I felt even more enveloped by that brief conversation with Doss just over 10 years ago. That conversation has served to remind me time and again that I can choose love instead of hate, peace instead of conflict.
Hacksaw Ridge deserves to be mentioned among the year’s finest films and, most assuredly, Garfield’s stand-out performance as Doss must be mentioned among the year’s finest performances. It would be as hackneyed and clichéd as the film itself is on occasion, however, to suggest that Gibson has, perhaps, integrated into his own worldview the reality that one can be fully immersed in the world but not of the world. Has that lesson helped him direct this film about a man considered one of America’s unlikeliest heroes?
Richard Propes is a graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary and a member of Northview Church of the Brethren in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is founder/director of the Tenderness Center, a non-profit dedicated to using the arts to break the cycle of abuse and violence. He is also the author of The Hallelujah Life.