Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Conscientious Objector

On Veterans Day, let's remember that they also serve who do not fight ...

The most courageous man in the history of warfare may be someone you never heard of. I certainly had never heard of him until I discovered the excellent documentary film called simply The Conscientious Objector.

That's right, Desmond T. Doss was a Conscientious Objector during World War II, and the acts of bravery he performed in his service as a combat medic made him the only C.O. ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

To really get this story you should visit the website desmonddoss.com, or better yet, see the film, which is available through Netflix. Director Terry Benedict has done a magnificent job of telling the story with quiet emotional power, easily rivaling the best work of Ken Burns. He filmed extensive interviews with Doss just a few years before his death in 2006. He also filmed other friends and survivors who had served with him, and even got a few of them to accompany Doss on a visit to Okinawa, back to the very ground they had struggled to take from the Japanese near the end of the war.

The short version of this tale is that Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist with an aversion to violence that dated back to his childhood, when a dispute between his father and uncle put him in mind of Cain killing Abel -- a story he had never been able to comprehend. "How could a brother do such a thing?" he wondered. From the day he had to hide his father's pistol he swore he would never again touch a weapon. And he never did.

When WWII came along he was offered a deferment on religious grounds, but declined. Instead he volunteered to serve as what he called "a conscientious co-operator." He thought he could be a medic and help to save lives instead of taking them. But though the army accepted him they did not accept his conditions. His commanders expected him to take weapons training and to carry a sidearm once he was in the field, medic or not. Time and again he refused even to touch a gun it if was handed to him.

Almost more problematic was his effort to honor his chosen Sabbath every Saturday, when according to his precepts he was not supposed to work. Sometimes he was allowed and sometimes he wasn't. Always he had to pay, in having to do all the worst jobs on Sundays, and in the derision of his fellow soldiers. Once he was threatened with a court martial, but by then he had an established precedent in his record, a tacit agreement that his beliefs were to be honored, and that he would not have to carry arms.

Everything changed when Doss's unit finally went into action in the South Pacific. He quickly came to be known as the man who would never leave a wounded soldier untended, regardless of the risk to his own safety. This behavior culminated at "Hacksaw Ridge," the highest ground on the island of Okinawa, where horrific fighting went on for day after day.

When an all-out assault left only about one third of his unit able to retreat under their own power, Doss stayed behind with the dead and wounded atop the plateau. One by one he found the survivors, dressed their wounds as best he could, and dragged them single-handed for as much as a hundred yards or more to the edge of the cliff, where he finally lowered them by rope to those waiting down below. He continued this for twelve hours, under constant fire from the enemy. Praying the whole time, he said that he kept repeating, "Just let me get one more, Lord," and when he had done that, "Just one more ..." In the end he had personally rescued 75 of them.

But he wasn't done yet. In subsequent action he was severely wounded himself -- and even then it was in the act of throwing aside a grenade before it exploded, saving more lives. After spending five hours waiting for stretcher bearers to carry him off the field, he gave up his stretcher to a more seriously wounded man. Then he was hit again. This time he made a splint for his own shattered left arm from a rifle butt and crawled to safety, finally saving himself.

I'm getting choked up again just remembering all this. Some of the other guys in his unit, the same ones who had been saved by Doss after earlier ridiculing him, were feeling the same way. A Bronze or Silver Star was not enough for this man. They submitted his name for the Medal of Honor.

Harry Truman, who awarded the medal in a newsreel of the time, is supposed to have said this was a greater honor to him than becoming President. Doss was headline news, a genuine and unprecedented kind of hero. There was even a comic book version of his story, which became the inspiration for director Benedict's making of the film many years later.

Alas, honoring the hero is one thing, and caring for him is another. Doss was 100% disabled as the result of his service. Besides his damaged arm, and legs filled with shrapnel, he lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted in Okinawa. Then the army doctors made things worse by giving him an overdose of antibiotics that left him completely deaf. At the time of the documentary, in 2002, he could only hear somewhat with the aid of a cochlear implant.

For years he declined offers from Hollywood to make movies about him. He preferred to live out his days in peace and quiet on his small farm in the backwoods. Over time he was all but forgotten. But it's not too late to remember him now.

Desmond T. Doss. A man who simply lived his simple faith, and made it count.

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