26 January 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

I had a chance to see Hacksaw Ridge last night. The film tells the story of the first conscientious objector to receive the USA's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss was born in Lynchburg, Virginia. From his Seventh Day Adventist mother, young Desmond absorbs Christian training and compassion. His father, an alcoholic veteran of World War I, wants neither of his sons to give in to the post-Pearl Harbor fever of military enlistment, but they both go. Desmond's twist, however, is his categorical refusal to pick up a gun and take human life.

Somehow the Army doesn't follow Desmond's logic of combat service without a weapon, and the new private is greeted with ridicule, hazing, a psychiatric evaluation, and, eventually, the brig. In one scene, Army captain Glover visits the conscientious objector before Doss's court-martial for refusing an order to pick up a rifle. Glover reaches over and picks up Doss's Bible.
Glover: I believe in this book as much as any man. And just like any man, I wrestle with my conscience. But what do you do when everything you value in this world is under attack?
Doss: I don't know, sir. I ain't got answers to questions that big. But I also feel that my values are under attack.
The court martial ends by confirming Doss's right to serve as a combat medic without bearing arms. A few brief scenes later, we are at Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, at the foot of Desmond Doss's own bloody Calvary Road. And the big questions keep coming -- especially, how does Doss understand his own situation, presumably shielded from Japanese bullets by the constant firing of his own buddies all around him, even as he himself concentrates on saving lives within his personal vow of purity?

The battle scenes stayed with me in my mind's eye long after the last frame on the screen -- extraordinarily detailed, grossly bloody, fiery, sudden, confusing, loud, systematically and relentlessly cruel. In tiny little hollows of improvised shelter, Doss whipped tourniquets around limbs, jabbed morphine, slapped bandages, and dragged wounded soldiers to the edge of the ridge before returning for more -- but the scale of the battle dwarfed the small episodes of his personal service. After a couple of very long cycles of this grinding, unsentimental violence, we see the full stature of Doss's achievements begin to dawn on the rest of his company.

Although I'm recommending this film, I'm not writing a review here -- for that, you can go here (positive) and here (less positive). Here's some background information on how the film came to be made. Here are just a couple more thoughts.

First, take a look at this site: Hacksaw Ridge Resource Website. At first the site looks like standard-issue evangelical machismo, and probably 95% of it is. (Look at the fulsome blurbs on this page, for example.) This site is probably not calibrated to reach the average young Quaker! Nevertheless, it's not hard to find references to the fact that Doss did not let patriots or the military do his thinking for him. His heroism is lauded, and part of that courage is resisting conformity. That resistance remains in (relatively) plain sight. I hope that those who use this material for propaganda purposes remain true to Doss's own priorities: God and country, but God first. It will not be easy: some of the blurbs seem to confuse or even contradict that order.

My second thought comes from that exchange between Glover and Doss, when the detainee confesses, "I ain't got answers to questions that big." No one young person alone, at the very knife-edge of any existential national crisis, would be likely to have big answers. And Glover, older and equally Bible-centered, didn't have them either. When I turned eighteen, a newly-convinced pacifist in an atheist family, neither did I. And I didn't know anyone who could help me. This reinforces my conviction in the vital relationship between evangelism and the peace testimony. They serve and reinforce each other! This relationship may not be a priority for the evangelical-machismo crowd, but I hope that somehow Hacksaw Ridge can be a new resource for uniting evangelism and peace.



In our Quaker yearly meeting, January has been Peace Month. Here are the resources that have been circulated among our churches; and here is our conscientious objection page.

Video on conscientious objection in Russia (with available English subtitles).

How Russia's conservative movement broke through online.

New interpretive center at the Levi Coffin House, Fountain City, Indiana.

Five in final stretch for Google Lunar X-Prize.

How Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space and launched a software revolution.



I probably had this audio for 30 years before I realized that this also had been recorded as a video. It was my first Champion Jack Dupree album, and my only King Curtis album, period. I probably played the oxide off this cassette over the years. What a joy it was to find that the video of this whole concert could be found online. Note Aretha Franklin in the audience.

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