Can a pacifist conscientious objector join the military and participate in a war while still being true to his or her principles? The film Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, attempts to answer this question. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, the film tells the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and pacifist who nevertheless volunteers for the US Army during World War II, serving as a medic (spoiler alert).

Doss’s pacifist convictions arise through a combination of religious principle and personal anguish. As a child, his family is caught in its own cycle of violence. His father, traumatised by his own participation in the World War I, deals with his anger by physically abusing his wife and two young children. Mimicking their father’s violence, Desmond and his brother Hal get in a fight, ending only when Desmond nearly kills his younger brother by hitting him on the head with a brick.

Desmond is shaken by the incident, and seems to take in his mother’s teaching about the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”. Yet his father responds to the near death of his younger son by threatening to beat the elder.

Later, as a young man, Doss finds his father menacing his mother with a gun. Doss manages to take the gun from his father and threatens to kill him. Recoiling at the thought of himself as a murderer, however, he renounces violence and vows never to take up a gun again.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, both brothers enlist in the army, against the wishes of their father. As Doss later explains, they felt a duty to their country. During his training, however, his unit discovers that he is a conscientious objector when he refuses to pick up his rifle. Unsure how to deal with this oddity, the unit’s officers try to drum him out of the army, first by declaring him mentally unfit, then by encouraging the other soldiers to beat him, and ultimately by attempting to court martial him. Doss perseveres, however, and is shipped off to the Pacific with his unit.

For the rest of the film we see Doss’s unit attempt to take a ridge (“Hacksaw Ridge”) held by the Japanese on the island of Okinawa. Previous units had been repelled by the Japanese, and Doss’s unit takes heavy casualties too. After a particularly devastating Japanese counterattack, Doss stays on top of the ridge while the rest of the unit escapes down its slope, and he manages to rescue 75 wounded soldiers by sliding them down the slope with a rope. (This feat earned Doss the Medal of Honor.) Joined by reinforcements, the Americans defeat the Japanese and take the ridge.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection