I can’t remember when I first heard the story of Desmond Doss, the Seventh-day Adventist conscientious objector who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War Two, but like a lot of Adventist kids, I heard it pretty early. Now his story is the subject of a big-budget Hollywood movie, directed by Mel Gibson. Other people besides Adventists are seeing the story of this man who showed amazing courage in saving dozens of his fellow soldiers under enemy fire — without ever firing or even carrying a weapon himself.
This story has been told many times and many ways, and there is an excellent documentary (“The Conscientious Objector”) about Doss already. But a feature film, complete with special effects that bring the battlefield to all-too-vivid life, does add something that a documentary or book can’t do. It’s one thing to know that Doss brought 75 wounded men to safety by lowering them by ropes, one by one, over the cliff at Hacksaw Ridge while he and they were under enemy fire. It’s another thing to see it re-enacted, to feel the visceral terror and sheer effort that must have taken. Reading or hearing about what Desmond Doss accomplished told me that the man had tremendous courage; watching it made me feel what that must have cost him, and left me in awe. But what I loved most about this movie was how it subverted our expectations of what heroism in a movie (and, by extension, in real life) should look like.
At the time Desmond Doss joined the US Army, most Seventh-day Adventists believed in non-violence and non-combatancy (positions that many today reject, something I consider a great loss within our community). However, most did not go as far as the more traditionally “peace churches” (like Mennonites) and avoid involvement in the military altogether. When their nations went to war, Adventist young men often joined the armed forces (sometimes as volunteers, sometimes when drafted), usually in non-combat roles. Many served, like Desmond Doss, as medics. Doss’s story is not unusual for Adventist young men from the time of the church’s founding (during the US civil war) to nearly the present day, when attitudes began to shift away from non-violence.
Desmond Doss is remembered as unique among Adventist non-combatants for two reasons: his commitment to non-combatancy was so extreme that he refused even to touch a gun in training, and his courage was so great that he was award a medal for it.
The are obvious ethical and moral complexities surrounding a position like Doss’s; Adventist writer Nathan Brown examines them very well in his reflection on the movie. Desmond Doss believed that if he didn’t carry a weapon God would protect him, and I have no doubt God did, but he was also protected by his fellow soldiers’ willingness to fire their guns, as the movie frequently depicts. Doss, like most Adventists at the time, believed that it was ethical to support your country’s war effort as long as you weren’t doing the killing yourself, which is problematic, to say the least. But the movie’s battle scenes are unsparing in showing the horrors of war, and there’s no sense (that I saw, anyway) of glorifying the violence.
Doss, as portrayed by Andrew Garfield (and in fact in real life, based on the interview clips I’ve seen with him) doesn’t seem like a guy who’s given a lot of nuanced thoughts to the issues around non-violence. He clearly hasn’t read Thoreau or studied Gandhi. He’s absorbed a few very basic Biblical principles — thou shalt not kill; turn the other cheek — which he applies with absolute literalism to his own life. (A tangent I haven’t got space to get into here: why is it so many Christians, including Adventists, are willing to apply certain Bible passages very literally, and brand the rest of us as heretics if we don’t take them that way, yet the same people can glibly explain why “thou shalt not kill” or “sell all that you have and give to the poor” are not meant to be taken at all literally, and we’re just crazy to suggest it?). Movie-Doss, not unlike real-life-Doss in interview clips, comes across as a likeable, a bit naive, incredibly stubborn kid, who just turns out to have almost superhuman reserves of courage and compassion.
What really struck me hard about midway through this movie, while Doss is still in basic training and getting bullied by his commanding officer and fellow soldiers for his principles, is how very, very rare it is to see nonviolence portrayed in a positive way on a movie screen. As I saw a fellow soldier taunting Doss in the barracks while Doss stood there refusing to hit back, I thought of how many movies and TV shows I’ve seen where the expected, and cheered, climax of this scene comes when the mild-mannered, non-violent victim finally snaps, lands a punch on the bully’s jaw, and knocks him out cold. The great-short-story-turned-terrible-John-Wayne-movie The Quiet Man is the classic of this genre, but there are many other examples: the good guy can only take so much before he resorts to violence, and everyone applauds his courage.
In fact, if someone managed to watch Hacksaw Ridge without already knowing Doss’s story (which, admittedly, seems unlikely), they might go through the whole movie thinking that it would climax with Doss actually picking up a gun or throwing a grenade — if not to defend himself, then to defend one of the wounded soldiers he’s dragging to safety. That’s how deeply ingrained into our culture is the idea that, ultimately, violence is the solution. And if it were fictional instead of a true story and had ended that way, many in the audience would have cheered to see this naive idealist finally pick up the gun and fight. It’s the ending we’ve seen over and over, the one our culture celebrates and normalizes. Violence may be distasteful, but in the end it’s just what a man’s gotta do.
I don’t know if Hacksaw Ridge is, objectively speaking, a great movie or not. I’m not a movie critic; I like what I like and I found this movie engaging and moving. But what I loved best was seeing Doss not punch the bully; not pick up the gun; not throw the grenade. I loved watching a movie where non-violence was not a lead-up to the climactic moment where the hero finally realizes he has to stand up and fight for what he believes. We’ve all seen that movie a thousand times. I loved watching a movie that celebrated a hero who stood firm for his right not to fight; a man whose courage could not possibly be questioned, but who staunchly maintained that courage did not mean having to hit, shoot, or kill.
It is the most counter-cultural of all assumptions: that you can be brave without ever physically fighting back. In a time when our American friends are more politically divided than I can ever remember their country being, people on both the left and the right of the political spectrum will find something to cheer for, and also something deeply troubling, about Doss’s story (different things in each case, of course).
As for me, Hacksaw Ridge reminds me that I’m glad to belong to a faith group that once had a heritage of non-violence. I’m disappointed that that heritage has been so inconsistently applied and often forgotten in late years, because it’s a heritage worth remembering and preserving. All of us must, in different ways, face the question of how to stand up to injustice, to cruelty, to evil. We need stories that remind us that the “punch the bully” moment, when the audience claps and cheers, is not the only possible ending to that story.