Valor Above & Beyond   1 comment

Brad and I were rooting for Hacksaw Ridge to win just about every Academy Award last night because, aside from its superb acting and stunning cinematography, it provides a thoughtful treatment of the wartime role of a famous conscientious objector. We knew Moonlight would win — weren’t even surprised by the “mistake” at the end — because Hollywood liked its messages better, but we both still say “Hollywood is full of immoral idiots who are drunk on the PC koolaid.”

Enough said on that topic!

Desmond Doss InfographicMy father was a conscientious objector in World War 2, but he was just past the draft age in 1942 and already in the Merchant Marines when FDR nationalized that service for the war effort. He could have used his CO status to ask for a release from service, but he stayed on to support his country even if he didn’t support killing other people in a war. Unlike Desmond Doss, Dad was not a pacifist. He would have picked up a gun if the ship he was on had been invaded by enemy forces who were shooting and killing the crew. He just never had to make that decision. Dad was a cook, so he didn’t become famous and probably wouldn’t have wanted to be anyway. Of course, I think the subject of Gibson’s film might not have wanted to be famous either, but he did some amazing things, so he deserved the credit.

 

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. They were all wrong! 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 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.

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 that left him completely deaf for 12 years until cochlear implants restored some semblance of hearing. Through it all, he raised a family on his Virginia farm and died at the age of 87, barely a decade ago.

Though he never fired a shot, Desmond Doss shines as one of the best exemplars of General Douglas MacArthur’s remark, “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

I am not as anti-war as some of my fellow libertarians are. I believe that sometimes war is inevitable and to not stand against those who oppose you might even be evil. World War 2 was one of those wars. However, I completely support the conscientious objection standard. It’s not something you hear a lot about these days because we have a volunteer military. If someone objects to war in general, a particular war, or to killing another human being … or just has things they’d rather be doing … they can simply choose to do something else or they can voluntarily serve in a non-combat role. In Doss’s day, conscription to the front lines was the norm. Qualifying as a conscientious objector took quite a lot of effort and Doss had qualified. Further, he qualified for a deferment because of his work in the shipyards. This was similar to my dad working in the Merchant Marines. At 27, the Army really couldn’t touch Dad, but he was still free to volunteer. He chose to remain in the Merchant Marines because it was in support of the war effort, but not in a direct combat role.

Doss actually declined a double deferment and volunteered to serve in the front lines, which prompted military authorities to void his conscientious objector status, but he still refused to touch a gun.

My 18-year-old son signed up for selective service a few weeks ago, not because he plans to ever join the military but because he is required to do so by the law. He and I have been discussing what it means to be a conscientious objector. It may never come about that he needs to ask for a deferment, but many people who support a volunteer military make an exception if a nation’s freedom, legitimate security interests, or very existence are at stake, and the more we poke other nations, the more likely we are to set off a big war that meets those criteria and the day such a war is announced, my son will file his objector paperwork.

By the way, America’s freedom, legitimate security interests or very existence were not at stake when Doss volunteered; that would come later when the Nazis began patrolling of the East Coast of the United States with submarines. While we now know that the Nazis were doing horrible thing that required a response, neither Germany or Japan were actually threatening to invade the United States.

Back to the topic. I don’t make a conscription exception. There’s never any excuse to force people to become killers. If a war is truly justified, men will rise to fight it. My son would take up arms if North Korea invaded Alaska … though maybe not if they invaded Hawaii, but probably if they invaded California since that is his sister’s current base of operation. He’s not a pacifist either. Unlike Doss, he has (still-evolving) standards for when he would kill another human being. His standard is higher than the President of the United States told him “the vital interests of the United States are at stake” in a war on the other side of an ocean against a country that hasn’t got the means to invade the United States mainland. The government shouldn’t force anyone to kill others in violation of their conscience … which is what you’re choosing to do if you take a combat role in a war. If government truly thinks a war is worthwhile, it needs to make a case for why people should volunteer to die or kill in it. Let’s remember that Americans were mostly conscientious objectors until Japan attacked Hawaii and then many of them changed their minds and volunteered for military service.

The conscientious objector says to authority, “You haven’t made your case for why I should violate my conscience.” Although I would be persuaded by a whole lot less than my Dad or Doss were, I respect that stance because of my dad, who sailed through mined waters on unarmed ships that were occasionally strafed by enemy aircraft to bring needed supplies to those who, willingly or unwillingly, took up arms against some of the worst regimes on the planet. Anyone who equates those actions 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 found this passage from 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.

Doss got some recognition for his efforts because of what he did in Okinawa, but many of these others are unsung heroes for being willing to put your unarmed ass on the line in a defensible war for the sake of your fellow citizens.

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  1. Reblogged this on Let me give YOU the Moe-down.

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