A war movie about a pacifist.
It almost sounds like a comedy. When you see Desmond Doss enter the scene as a young man, he seems like a goof, and you wonder what kind of idiot is going to join the army and refuse to carry a rifle. Is this like Gomer Pyle?
You almost might think that this is going to be a movie about how some coward or idiot is going to be finally set straight by America’s might.
What you get is the opposite. A Christian committed to his church’s teachings of nonviolence enlists in the army to help the American cause, not to kill, but to keep from dying. He feels solidarity with the soldiers, though he will not engage in killing.
It seems impossible. Stupid, even. Right? But Doss’s presence in boot camp deconstructs all of those narratives. Each of the characters embodies one of the flaws of pro-war mentalities: the exhibitionism of the human body (torn to bits), the pornography of finding enjoyment in the profane, the physical brutality, the psychological bullying, the firearm pathology, the disinterest in marriage, the lack of room for those who are different, the quickness to judge others.
In a move difficult to pull off, the protagonist ends up heroic not by changing, but by remaining who he is. His values do not change. But they are certainly shaken, from the day he is assaulted by his own unit to the day he is wounded and dragged from the hell of the battlefield. His beliefs and values are tested, but so are the assumptions of those around him.
Doss’s presence lays bare the false pretenses of our excuses for war, as well as for his obligation to carry and use a gun if he is to help his country.
“They’re stinking’ animals,” says a minor character, remarking about the Japanese. Of course, we were invading their island. Because they bombed us? And why did they bomb us? Because we placed sanctions on them as a prelude to war. And are they not just like you, until an ideology came along that they turned to? Could you have stopped the ideology if you had not been so obsessed with empire yourself? War is an ideology.
“What’s it like?” someone asks a soldier who just got back from the ridge.
“A hacksaw.” He might as well be talking about war itself. Not only do you understand why Doss would want to forego a rifle and stick strictly to healing, you can understand why, in all the absurdity, it can feel like the only moral option. Blowing humans to smithereens is what everyone else is up to. Who is healing?
And so we see that short bit, one that easily can get any from us, in which Doss finds a wounded Japanese soldier and tends to his wounds. Actions like that stop wars.
When the Japanese are defeated, we see them so unafraid of death that they are willing to toss grenades in their surrender. A captain commits seppuku and is beheaded. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. The way Doss is injured stood out to me also. He swats away a grenade thrown at his comrades. Now, this in turn causes the death of the Japanese who surrendered. But his goal was not to harm them, but to prevent harm, deflecting a weapon that had already been “fired,” so to speak. The surrendered soldiers died quite directly by their own hand, and especially justly in the way that they cheapened peaceful submission by dishonoring the very concept of surrender.
You see all the blood, all the gore you would want to see, if that’s what you were looking for. There is nothing sanitized about the chaos. In other words, this is no movie for the passive. Hacksaw Ridge confronts the violence for what it is. This is war. This is what it looks like. If they’re doing it, you’re doing it. What you don’t have any natural right to say is that a man who charges into it without the intent to continue it isn’t possibly a hero.
Just as Jesus descended to earth and ascended, for our sakes, Doss ascended to Hacksaw Ridge, descending the wounded.
“Please, Lord. Help me get one more. Help me get one more.”
Don’t you dare call a man like that a coward. Stay true to good convictions, even if your culture hates them.
Stay true to what you believe in. Even when what you believe in goes to war.