For perhaps only the second or third time in 30 years, I care what movie is bestowed with the Academy’s “Best Picture” award this weekend. My unqualified vote goes to Mel Gibson’s biographical war drama, Hacksaw Ridge. Aside from its superb acting and riveting cinematography, it provides a thoughtful treatment of the wartime role of the conscientious objector – and a famous one in particular.
The Peaceful Soldier
Gibson’s film faithfully tells the true-life story of Virginia-born Desmond Doss (1919-2006), a medic and US Army corporal who distinguished himself at the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist who from his childhood days detested the thought of taking the life of another. Doss could have avoided military service by accepting a deferment offered him because of his vital work at the Newport News, Virginia shipyard. Some accounts mistakenly claim he was drafted. The fact is that he enlisted in spite of the deferment offer but refused to carry a weapon or to kill an enemy soldier.
Doss was the first and only conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II.For his unconventional views, Doss was initially shunned and ridiculed by some of his fellow soldiers, bullied by others, and suspected of cowardice by his superiors. How wrong they were! In 1944, he earned the Bronze Star for providing assistance under fire to wounded soldiers on Guam and in the Philippines. The next year, on Okinawa, Doss performed an unbelievably (some would say Providentially) herculean feat: he saved the lives of 75 infantrymen amid one of the most hellish environments imaginable. He was wounded four times in the process.
For his valor above and beyond the call of duty, he became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and the only one to earn that venerable distinction during all of World War II. In keeping with his faith and character, the quiet and humble Doss was never known to boast about or cash in on his exploits (though you could hardly blame him if he had).
The movie doesn’t delve into Doss’s post-war life. If it did, it would have revealed a continuing life of courage, perseverance, and humility. Doss’s extensive injuries prevented him from returning to work as a carpenter.The tuberculosis he contracted in the Pacific eventually claimed a lung and four ribs. He was honorably discharged in 1951 with 90 percent disability. Then, while still under Army treatment, he was accidentally administered an overdose of antibiotics. It left him completely deaf for 12 years until cochlear implants restored his hearing. Through it all, he raised a fine family on his Virginia farm and died at the age of 87 barely a decade ago.
How the Draft Plays Out
Of course, the very notion of “conscientious objection” arises mainly because of conscription. In the absence of compulsory military service, anyone who objects to a particular war, or to war in general, or to killing another human being, or chooses to pursue interests other than military ones, would be free to go his own way or serve voluntarily in a non-combat role. The fact that Doss declined a deferment and volunteered prompted military authorities to void his draft status as a conscientious objector. It was his insistence that he not touch a gun that caused him problems until he proved himself as a combat medic, and more.
It's incumbent upon the government that chooses to wage war to make a convincing case for it so its citizens willingly go to battle.The larger issue of the draft deserves some attention here. Many people who support a volunteer military make an exception if a nation’s freedom, legitimate security interests, or very existence are at stake. Not me. My view is that if a war is truly justified, men will rise to the occasion. It’s incumbent upon the government that chooses to wage war to make a convincing case for it so its citizens willingly go to battle.
As an economist, I recognize that even government gets what it pays for just as surely as it should pay for what it gets. If it pays enough, it will get the men it needs. If it claims it can’t afford to pay that price, one of two things must be true: 1) the war isn’t justified in the eyes of most people, or 2) the politicians can’t muster the integrity to cut spending elsewhere.
If I were Congress or the President at a time of a national emergency that required troops, I’d offer any compensation necessary to attract the men and women we needed. And there’s nothing in the federal budget I wouldn’t cut to come up with the money. The draft doesn’t make war any cheaper; it simply means that the people we draft will bear a disproportionate share of the costs. Strange things happen when governments can simply force people to serve at cut-rate wages. When something costs you less, or if you can compel somebody else to pay for it, you’re tempted to buy more of it – including war.
The conscientious objector says to authority, “At least to me, you haven’t made your case. My conscience calls me to higher values.” I respect that. Anyone who equates it with cowardice must reckon with the stories of Desmond Doss and many other men and women in American history. Those stories go back as far as the Quakers in 17th Century colonial America, as demonstrated in the 2002 book edited by Peter Brock, Liberty and Conscience: A Documentary History of the Experiences of Conscientious Objectors in America through the Civil War.
In Brock’s book, I learned of this compelling statement in an 1818 document of the Massachusetts Peace Society. It stands as a compelling defense of conscientious objection:
If a man should urge the plea of conscience in favor of liberty for burning his neighbor’s house, or murdering his family, or promoting sedition, insurrection and havoc in society, there would be no reason for a law to tolerate such outrages; but if a man conscientiously desires to be exempted from every species of war, and from every requisition which in his opinion is inconsistent with following the Prince of Peace … he ought to be not only tolerated but respected. Such men will never blow the coals of strife, nor seek the overthrow of our government … Those who cordially adopt the principle that “it is better to suffer wrong than do wrong” are not the men by whom our government will be demolished, or the public tranquility endangered. Those who may be disposed to despise, oppress or abuse such men, on account of their pacific principles, are themselves far more dangerous members of society, notwithstanding all their boasted patriotism and their readiness to fight for liberty. Their love of country, their love of liberty, or at least their consistency, may justly be suspected while [or so long as] they are disposed to trample on the rights of conscience in the case of peaceable and inoffensive brethren.
Three cheers to the brave men and women who have fought in defensible wars for the right causes, such as liberty, self-determination, independence and security. And that includes men and women like Desmond Doss who fought for those same things in less conventional ways. Hacksaw Ridge proves you can be a hero whether you pick up a gun or not.
For additional information, you can watch CBS Sunday Morning’s Almanac: The Conscientious Objector; “The Conscientious Objector: The Story of an American Hero;” Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge: The True Story Behind the Movie; and Desmond Doss himself on the “This is Your Life” TV show, February 18, 1959.