Hacksaw Ridge is an inspirational movie by director Mel Gibson that tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during World War II. Doss doesn’t believe in killing, but he sees all the other young men going into the army, so he enlists as a combat medic, famously going on to singlehandedly carry seventy-five wounded soldiers to safety during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. He consequently became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.
Desmond is a Seventh Day Adventist, a tradition that encourages nonviolence, including pacifism and vegetarianism. But not all Seventh Day Adventists refuse to fight. Desmond’s own father and brother chose to go to war because it seemed right to them. So why did Desmond feel compelled to make a different choice?
In the film, Desmond is haunted by two incidents from his childhood. Once he was wrestling with his brother, as children do, but he unthinkingly grabs a nearby brick and smashes his brother in the head with it. Desmond feels guilty and knows he “could have killed him.” We see him meditating on an illustration of the Caine and Abel story and its caption: “Thou shalt not kill.” His mother has taught him that killing is the “worst sin” a person can commit, and this incident reinforces the gravity of violence.
The second incident involves Desmond’s father. Traumatized by his experience in World War I, the man has become an abusive alcoholic. One night in a drunken rage, he threatens Desmond’s mother with a gun. Desmond leaps into action to protect his mother, taking the gun and aiming it at his father. He doesn’t shoot him, but he says he killed him “in my heart.” He has seen the experience of wartime killing on his father and learned his own potential for murder. After that, he promises God he would never again so much as touch a gun.
So Desmond’s pacifism is personal, not categorical. He doesn’t even call himself a conscientious objector. He says he is a “conscientious cooperator.” He doesn’t object to war per se. Desmond says he took the attack on Pearl Harbor “personally” and wants to do his “duty.” He can’t sit by and let other men “fight for me.” He wants to help the war effort. He just thinks that he personally can’t kill, because he has promised God he would not. He also has to be himself. “I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not,” he says.
Thus Hacksaw Ridge is more a movie about conscience than pacifism. This is a movie about sticking to your convictions even when others oppose you and think you are crazy or unrealistic. Desmond’s father tells him it is “impossible” that the war will “fit in with your ideas,” but Desmond must stay true to his beliefs and won’t try to be something he’s not.
The first half of the film follows Desmond as he enlists in the army, attends boot camp training, and then faces a court martial trial for refusing a direct order to fire a gun. During this period, the other soldiers assume that if he refuses to fight, then he must be a “coward.” His fellow soldiers say he is not a “real man,” though after he takes a beating and refuses to back down, they seem to have more respect for him (especially when he refuses to turn in the names of those who beat him).
Then comes the battle of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. Gibson directs the action with as much intensity as Spielberg brought to Saving Private Ryan, and as much blood and guts as his previous films The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto.
These initial battle scenes don’t glorify violence. They show it to be horrific, though they also help us understand the other soldiers’ willingness to kill. As much as I admired Desmond’s ideal of nonviolence in the first half of the film, after a few minutes in the battle scenes, I wished Desmond had a gun! As one character says, “After what we’ve been through, any sane man would be screaming for a gun.” Yet Desmond draws the opposite conclusion. Looking around at the destruction caused by guns, the carnage only reinforces his belief that guns can’t be the solution.
Desmond shows remarkable courage dodging bullets and bombs to take medical supplies to the wounded on the battlefield. After that first day, Desmond has more than one conversation where a fellow solider tells him they misjudged him. They thought he was a coward for refusing to fight, but now they see that he has as much courage as anyone else in the army, maybe more. One man who had formerly taunted Desmond now apologizes, telling him, “I didn’t know who you were,” calling back to Desmond’s idea of conscience as being true to your innermost self.
By detailing a pacifist’s willingness to risk his life on the battlefield to save his friends, Hacksaw Ridge responds to the main objections to pacifism: (1) pacifists are cowards; (2) those who refuse to fight passively benefit from others doing their fighting for them; and (3) nonviolence is unrealistic or ineffective. But Desmond never says pacifism is the only valid Christian option. And whenever he appeals to the Bible, the movie allows the other characters to give good replies. Desmond knows other people don’t agree with him; he feels personally called to refrain from killing, but he doesn’t condemn anyone else whose convictions are different.
Hacksaw Ridge portrays pacifism as a special calling—one that only works if some people have a different calling. Desmond would have died many times over if the other soldiers hadn’t killed for him. And many of those same soldiers would have died without his medical help. Here we have an image of the body of Christ. We all have different callings: some to fight and some to abstain from fighting.
Desmond’s role in the Body is also to be an inspiration. As his commander tells him, the other soldiers may not share his belief in nonviolence, but they believe in the power of his belief. They see him as a saint and his survival as a miracle.
And his example can inspire us, too, even if we never fight in a war. In his darkest moment on the battlefield, Desmond prays, asking God: “What is it You want of me?” The order to retreat has been given, but there are still many wounded on the field. Still unsure of himself, he says, “I can’t hear You.” But at that moment, he hears the voices of the wounded soldiers call for help, and he says, “Alright.” He goes to save them. Listening to the voice of the suffering, Desmond Doss heard God’s call to risk his own life to save theirs.
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith