“You’re not going to be by my damn side if you don’t have a gun,” so said commanding officer Jack Glover to Private Desmond Doss.
As, a conscientious objector in World War II, Doss refused to carry a weapon. Despite being offered special status to avoid military service, he signed up, determined to serve his country, but by saving lives, rather than taking them. As you may expect, in the United States army, he was an object of ridicule. He endured harassment, abuse, death threats, and an attempted court martial. Yet he did not relent of his avowed intent to serve his country on the battlefield.
5 May 1945, at the battle of Okinawa, Doss’ infantry division was subject to a vicious Japanese counterattack. The order came to retreat from the top of Hacksaw Ridge. Under intense bombardment, Doss defied the order. Instead, crawling to avoid fire from mortars and rifles, he dragged wounded comrades, one by one, from the battlefield, and lowered them on a rope, down the Ridge, to safety. In 12 hours, he rescued 75 men, including his commanding officer Jack Glover. He saved life, after life, after life, with no regard for the risk to his own. He was unrelenting.
It’s a compelling and true story, so compelling in fact, that Mel Gibson has made a rather good film of it. But what is it that gives someone the courage to risk losing their life, to endure sufferings and setbacks, or to face failure after failure without relenting?
I was struggling to answer this question, so I turned to a great oracle of wisdom: my sister. She gave me one word: belief. Belief in the importance of your cause, and belief that your actions, if not achieving it, will make some progress towards it. Belief is the nourishment of relentlessness.
What drove Gandhi to forsake a life as a middle class lawyer for one of hardship and hunger strikes that ultimately led to his assassination? His belief in a religiously plural, independent India. What drove the young Nelson Mandela to lead a campaign of defiance against the Apartheid government, knowing that he would face arrest and a possible death penalty? His belief in – as he put it – a democratic and free society in which all persons could live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. What even drove Mao Tsedong to march 3,700 miles crossing 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges, losing 76,000 of his 80,000 troops and abandoning his new-born daughter along the way? His belief he could achieve communist revolution in China.
But what of Desmond Doss? He wasn’t a powerful leader for a just or revolutionary cause. But he had a firm belief, a belief more transcendent perhaps more brilliant than Gandhi’s, Mandela’s, or Mao’s. You see, Doss was a devout Christian. After each wounded man he brought to safety, he prayed, “One more, Lord, please help me get one more”. Like his
Lord, Jesus, Doss believed in showing the love of God by being willing to sacrifice his life, that others might live. He was no fool to risk his life, which he could not keep, for a God who he could not lose.