Desmond Doss, who died on March 23, 2006 at the age of 87, was the very first hero to be enshrined in the Ethics Alarms Hall of Heroes. I wrote about him before there was an Ethics Alarms, shortly after he died. I had never heard of Doss before, and I remember being angry that I had never heard of him. Everyone should know about him. There literally are no Americans who were any more heroic, and whose ethical conduct was any more astounding, than Desmond Doss.
If the values of this nation, and especially Hollywood, were healthy and correctly aligned, he would be a household name, and the film about his World War II heroism would have been made long ago. Finally “Hacksaw Ridge” was produced in 2016, and has been nominated for an Academy Award, although it will never win.
When I first read about Doss, I couldn’t get my mind around what he had done to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only conscientious objector ever to achieve that honor during combat. During the battle of Okinawa, we were told that he survived heavy enemy fire as he struggled to carry seventy-five wounded soldiers to the sheer cliff at Hacksaw Ridge, personally picking up each one and lowering them over the edge the cliff 400 feet to safety. How is that possible? Now that I’ve seen the film, it still seems impossible.
Desmond Doss proved that principled opposition to violence against his fellow human beings need not be based on fear, self-interest or self-preservation. It is often impossible to tell whether those who oppose armed combat really object to the spilling of all human blood in battle, or only their own. With Desmond Doss, there was never any doubt. He didn’t like the term “conscientious objector,” preferring the term “conscientious cooperator.” He enlisted in the army following Pearl Harbor, believing that the war against the Axis had to be fought and wanted to be part of the war effort despite believing, as a devout a Seventh Day Adventist, that it was a sin to kill, with no exceptions. Thus he refused to carry a rifle (or shoot one, even in training) but yet insisted that he be involved in combat as a battlefield medic. He achieved conscientious objector status but would hot accept a deferment. Assigned to the 307th Infantry Division as a company medic, Doss was hazed, abused and ridiculed for his dedication to non-violence, and as the Mel Gibson-directed film shows, many of his tormentors eventually owed their lives to his astonishing heroism. All of his compatriots were amazed by his evident fearlessness under fire and remarkable dedication to duty, never hesitating to go after a wounded soldier no matter what the personal risk. As a combat medic on Guam and at Leyte in the Philippines, Doss had already been awarded the Bronze Star before the three-day battle at Hacksaw Ridge.
Many of the soldiers in Doss’s 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division were driven off the ridge by a furious Japanese counter-attack, and wounded G.I.s were stranded atop it. Doss remained with the wounded, and, according to his Medal of Honor citation refused to seek cover, carrying them, one by one, to the edge of the ridge in the face of enemy fire, some of them from behind enemy lines. He lowered each man on a rope-supported litter he improvised on the spot, using double bowline knots he had learned as a youngster and tying the makeshift litter to a tree stump to serve as an anchor. Every wounded man was lowered to a safe spot 35 feet below the ridge top by the 145 pound medic. Finally, Doss came down the ridge himself, incredibly, unharmed.
He was not so lucky after engaging in additional rescue efforts over the next two weeks. Doss was wounded by shrapnel from a grenade, and refused to call for medical assistance for five hours, rather than have another medic risk gunfire to help him. As Doss was finally being carried off on a stretcher, he saw a soldier whose wounds looked worse than his, leaped off the litter, and directed those who had been carrying him to help the other soldier. Then Doss was hit by Japanese fire, sustaining a compound arm fracture. He bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint— the closest he ever came to handling a weapon—and crawled 300 yards to an aid station.
President Harry S. Truman presented Desmond Doss with the Medal of Honor on Oct. 12, 1945. The citation credited him with saving 75 soldiers on that ridge. Doss, modest as always, told reporters that the number was probably closer to 50.
Doss’s refusal to carry a rifle was based on morality rather than ethics. From an ethical perspective, (and legal as well), he was as responsible for killing enemy soldiers as if he had pulled the trigger himself. In the movie, he is shown taking several actions that essentially killed human beings, like kicking a live hand grenade into a group of the enemy (this is how the film showed him being wounded), and at one point dragging a wounded soldier to the ridge as the soldier killed pursuing Japanese using a machine gun. I don’t know if those scenes are accurate. The movie also notes that during the battle of Okinawa, Doss broke what he believed was the moral directive to observe the Sabbath.
Of course, as is especially clear from the carnage and chaos on the ridge as the movie portrays it, a single stray bullet or shell could ended Doss’s heroics before they began. That’s moral luck, and the perverse reality of war that made my WWII veteran father (who is also in the Ethics Alarms Hall of Heroes), a regular visitor to the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall to honor his comrades who did not live to receive their honors. He always said that the only difference between him and them was pure luck.
There is no longer a competition for Best Ethics Movie Of The Year. The credentials of “Hackshaw Ridge” are deep and complex. Even its production tells a tale of redemption, for the film represents a return from perdition for Mel Gibson, who had been shunned by the Hollywood community for anti-Semitism and domestic abuse. From the depths of his own sins, he delivered one of the most inspiring movies Hollywood has made in decades about real heroism in wartime and religious faith.
Once upon a time, Hollywood regularly gave us such popular art to build the values of our children and give them real-life role models who displayed military bravery, with Oscar honored movies Like “Sergeant York.” Today there is almost no one active in Hollywood who served in the combat with the Armed Services, and increasingly moviegoers identify less with decorated veterans like Doss and my father than they do with dragon-riding elves. At least Desmond Doss has finally received the measure of screen immortality that was due him, though it didn’t happen while he was alive to accept our applause.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still applaud him, however, or honor him by telling his story as long as civilization survives.
I still don’t understand how he did it!