The Conscientious Objector

Blackfive, one of the military blogs I follow to try to understand that perspective on the war in Iraq, mentions today the passing of Desmond Doss, 87, who won theMedal of Honor for his World War II service in the Pacific. What was unique about Desmond Doss and his recognition for bravery: He was a noncombatant, having enlisted in the Army as what he called a “conscientious cooperator” because of his pacifist beliefs. He served as a medic.

Before Doss ever saw a battlefield, he had to overcome the hostility of his officers and fellow recruits. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist, and refused to train on Saturdays. He declined to carry weapons. He was a vegetarian. Accounts of his service note that he was ridiculed and harassed by other soldiers; the brass, meantime, tried to throw him out of the Army as unfit for service, a move he resisted.

Eventually, Doss’s unit shipped out to the Pacific and wound up fighting on Guam, in the Philippines, and finally, in April and May 1945, on Okinawa. His Medal of Honor citation tells the story:


“Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April-21 May 1945. Entered service at: Lynchburg, Va. Birth: Lynchburg, Va. G.O. No.: 97, 1 November 1945. Citation: He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. …”

There’s more, actually, about his own wounding. Doss’s tale is told in a book (“Unlikeliest Hero,” 1967) and a documentary (“The Conscientious Objector,” 2004). The Seventh-Day Adventists have reported a theatrical film based on his story is in production.

The religious component to the tale is not to be downplayed. This guy had a lifelong conviction that taking life, of any kind, was wrong; it was a belief intertwinted with his view of the Ten Commandments and his living relationship with his god. One of the stories about Doss on Okinawa has him calling his unit together and praying before the assault on a cliff; his unit was said to have suffered no casualties in the ensuing attack — and the believers hold that fact out as proof of a god extending a hand of protection over those devoutly seeking aid. Of course, I’ve got no problem believing Doss was devout, that his faith was sincere and suffused his whole being; on the other hand I have a little problem conceiving of a god who extends a hand of protection in the midst of a rain of violence, chaos, cruelty and death in which many, many other prayers go unanswered; unless, of course, the god is Zeus, Poseidson, Apollo, or Athena.

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2 Replies to “The Conscientious Objector”

  1. It’s ironic, how some people hold their faith (i.e., a belief despite lack of evidence to support it) so fervently it becomes, for them knowledge. The truly faithful know there is a chance, however small, that they are wrong, if only slightly; they choose not to believe that scenario will come to pass. This kind of faith imbues its practitioners with a certain humility, which affords them a dignity, which commands the respect of even non-believers.

  2. Yeah, I’ve known the kind of people you’re talking about. A couple of my priest uncles and some of their
    fellow clergy struck me this way, and I always had a lot of admiration for both their devotion to their calling and the way the refrained from trying to sell
    me on their beliefs except by the example they set (which was pretty powerful). I get the feeling that
    this Doss fellow, the heroic medic, was that kind, too.

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