Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Desmond Doss: Medal of Honor

Movies which present historical events may be entertaining, but we must examine them carefully. Such films often change details in order to make a more enjoyable plot.

The film Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of PFC Desmond Doss, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in saving the lives of American soldiers while risking his own life. While the film does change some details of Doss’s early life and childhood, it is largely accurate in its depiction of his military activity. As journalist Robert Cherry writes,

The film, directed by Mel Gibson, centers on the life of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist. His work in a Virginia defense plant exempted him from the draft during the Second World War. His patriotism, however, compelled Doss to join the Army, despite religious beliefs that would not allow him to carry a weapon. Doss explained, “Can’t stay here while all others in my community go and fight for me.” When asked by an enlistment officer why he wanted to join up, despite his unwillingness to fight, Doss answered, “While everyone else is taking lives, I will be saving them.”

Doss enlisted in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and eventually earned the rank of Private First Class. He was assigned to the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.

The events in which he would earn the Medal of Honor would take place between 29 April and 21 May, 1945. But before that, he faced many obstacles.

At every step, Doss faced administrative and social obstacles to becoming a combat medic. His commanding officer told his platoon, “Private Doss does not believe in violence, so don’t look to him to save you on the battlefield.” The hostilities he experienced intensified when one of the enlistees led a group of men to physically assault Doss, claiming, “I don’t think this is a case of religion, I think this is cowardice.” Doss, however, eventually gains enough respect from his comrades that he is able to finish his training and is sent to the battlefields of Okinawa.

The fighting on the Island of Okinawa happened near the end of the war. The Japanese were mounting their last major defensive efforts.

Doss’s unit attacked and fought its way up what the military records call “a jagged escarpment.” When they found themselves at the summit, a massive barrage of Japanese “artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire crashed into them.”

The records go on to say that many soldiers were wounded, and those not wounded quickly retreated. Robert Cherry details Doss’s bravery:

When his platoon is brutally counterattacked, forcing a retreat from Hacksaw Ridge, Doss decides to stay behind to help evacuate the wounded. Over the coming days, he single-handedly rescues 75 soldiers, including his commander. Each time he saves a man, Doss prays, “Dear Lord, help me save one more.” For his actions, Desmond Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The military documents note that, at one point, Doss crawled 200 yards forward from the line under heavy fire to bring back a wounded comrade.

At another point, he crawled so far forward that the was eight yards from the enemy line; he repeated this until he’d retrieved four wounded soldiers.

The actions of Desmond Doss attract attention, and a major Hollywood movie, seventy years after the fact, because of his selflessness, courage, and dedication to principles. As Robert Cherry notes, “this movie highlights the three core values that underpin the behavior of many” ordinary Americans: “patriotism, religion, and individual perseverance.”

These are uniting values: people of all races, religions, cultures, and languages embrace principles like these: “In the movie, we see how religious beliefs promote efforts to help others,” writes Cherry:

The vast majority of deeply religious individuals are focused on how to conduct their own lives in the service of family and community.

PFC Doss, as the military citation states, “unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist” wounded men. Desmond Doss had both principles and a selfless dedication to fulfilling those principles.

Some people doubted Doss; some even mocked him. But he simply worked to live out his beliefs as best he could.

The film also highlights individual perseverance: how the hero did not succumb to defeatism when confronted by obstacles; how he relied on his own initiative rather than becoming a victim by waiting passively for outside intervention.

There have been many brave women and men over the years who have dedicated themselves to doing the right thing. They don’t all agree on what, exactly, the right thing is. But they understand that it’s related to self-sacrifice, to defending innocent people from evil attacks, and to facing opposition bravely.

The Congressional Medal of Honor (CMOH) has been awarded over the years to women and men who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty.