…With the Seventy-Seventh there marched perhaps the most unusual hero in the annals of American arms. His name was Pfc. Desmond Doss. He was a medic in the 307th Infantry. He was also a Seventh-Day Adventist…who shrank from even touching a weapon.” – Robert Leckie, Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II
In Mel Gibson’s 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss is discouraged from military service by his veteran dad. He can’t sit home while others fight for America, Desmond tells him with tender certainty, but he’ll carry only his medic’s kit into battle. “While everybody else is taking life, I’ll be saving it,” he declares.
…As a conscientious objector, on religious grounds he might have joined that corps of noncombatants who refused to serve their country on the battlefield. But Desmond Doss saw clearly that it was his duty to serve and that he, too, could risk his flesh for his country without taking the life of a brother human.” (Leckie)
His dad scoffs protectively: the army won’t fit such a round peg into its square holes. But Desmond is unmovable. “This’ll be my way to serve,” he says simply.
His dad’s not wrong: later a frustrated officer demands what would happen if all Americans felt as Desmond did. I don’t have answers to questions that big, Desmond replies. I only know what I’m called to do.
Desmond Doss was not, strictly speaking, a pacifist. He agreed with the Allies’ goals while holding the apparently contradictory belief that he himself must not kill. Rather than try to square that circle philosophically, he simply lived it out, walking into fire armed only with bandages, morphine, and rock-solid certainty that this was his personal role in the drama that was gripping the planet.
He walks into fire among comrades all bent on killing. He prays for them but doesn’t judge them. That’s their job. His job is different.
With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.” – Hacksaw Ridge
On the Maeda Escarpment on Okinawa, Desmond’s unit was ordered to retreat in the face of overwhelming enemy fire. In the film, the fellow he drags along with him is dead when they reach the cliff edge. He hovers in aching indecision, praying aloud. What do you want me to do? I can’t hear you.
At which point a distant voice groans “Medic!”
I believed God was to save our lives in some way….that God was going to do something – and He did.” – Desmond Doss
Desmond Doss spent the next five or six hours crawling back over the battlefield to carry out one man after another, constantly praying, “Lord, help me get one more.”
…Again and again he risked enemy fire to come to the side of stricken GIs, dressing their wounds and then dragging them to the edge of a cliff, where he fastened them to a rope sling of his own devising and lowered them to safety.” (Leckie)
The army estimated that he’d pulled out a hundred guys. He swore it could only be about fifty. They compromised at seventy-five. “All I want to say is I was just thankful the Lord was able to use me, and forget the number,” said Doss years later. “It’s not the number: It’s doing the best you can.”
Desmond Doss is congratulated by General George Marshall after being decorated with the Medal of Honor in October 1945; Desmond Doss in later years
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the small hero regrets that he’s been caught up in a world-splitting upheaval.
I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Here’s Peter Jackson’s film version of that scene.
All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.
It doesn’t have to be what everyone else is doing.
It doesn’t have to be what some outside authority says.
The thing you do doesn’t have to reflect on anyone else, and nobody else’s decision has to reflect on you. They have their role. You have yours.
You don’t have to determine the circumstances. In fact, you don’t get to determine the circumstances.
You do have to do what it takes, even if that means walking into fire without a gun.
You don’t have to answer all the big questions.
You only have to respond to whatever’s calling for you.
More to Read and See:
Robert Leckie, Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II
Frances M. Doss, Desmond Doss: Conscientious Objector
Documentary: Terry Benedict, The Conscientious Objector
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings