‘While everybody is taking life I’m going to be saving it.’
Society has much to learn from Mel Gibson’s inspiring masterpiece which explores the themes of life, death, service, courage and integrity, whilst shedding a whole new light on the principle of conscientious objection.
Hacksaw Ridge recounts the true story of US Army medic, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and his heroism in the bloody battle at Okinawa, an island south of Japan in 1945.
Doss was the only known American soldier in the Second World War to fight on the front lines without a weapon and the only conscientious objector to have ever been awarded the Medal of Honour for bravery in combat.
Later in the film we learn that Doss had promised God he would never touch a firearm again after wrestling a gun off his alcoholic father, then pointing it towards him, in order to protect his mother during a violent row. But Doss was no ordinary pacifist or conscientious objector. He describes himself as a conscientious ‘cooperator’ after voluntarily signing up so that he could serve his country as an army medic. He wanted to give his life for his men, and felt he could not sit at home whilst men risked their lives for him.
We soon witness the brutal treatment he receives on account of his beliefs during training. One night, he is so beaten, half of his pillow is soaked in blood. He is seen by his superiors as either mentally unstable or a coward, or both, and then punished when he does not give up his foolish dream. Nevertheless, Doss persists.
“Help me get one more”
The momentous peak of the film is reached at the battle of Okinawa when Doss sneaks across enemy lines, unarmed, and drags 75 injured soldiers, one by one off hacksaw ridge, lowering them to safety. Each time, exhausted and crippled with fatigue, he calls out “Please Lord, help me get one more”, and each time, he saves one more life.
To Doss, each human being on that battlefield is a sacred life with inherent dignity and value. Repeatedly, he puts his own life on the line to give each person a chance at survival, even some wounded enemy soldiers. After lowering his comrades to safety all through the night, the derision he once received transforms into the deepest and utmost respect for a man who showed bravery and compassion on an unprecedented scale.
The film highlights how those with a conscientious objection – who cannot knowingly contradict their moral principles in a given task – will be misunderstood and ridiculed by society. But the film also demonstrates that the morality underpinning these principles has the potential to inspire such individuals to the heights of bravery and compassion.
General Pharmaceutical Council
The lessons that Doss’ story teaches are timely as the film coincides with the proposal from the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) to remove all conscientious objection rights from pharmacists. At present, many pharmacists conscientiously object to providing embryocidal or abortifacient forms of birth control which may end the life of a living human embryo (such as ellaOne). The GPhC have made clear that referring patients to another pharmacist or provider (which in itself would not satisfy one’s conscientious objection) may well be insufficient to satisfy the new proposals. As a result, pharmacists with a conscientious objection will be unable to accept a job where they would have to work independently and will likely be forced out of the profession.
The GPhC are acting very much like Doss’ commanders during his training, where both he and his conscientious objection are seen as a nuisance and a burden, something to be snuffed out – quickly. Instead of trying to understand what would motivate a man to go into combat without any protection, or how his gifts could be used whilst maintaining his integrity, he is targeted and becomes enemy no.1. It is only later that his Captain tells him “all I saw was a skinny kid. I did not know what I saw. I’ve never been more wrong about anybody. Please forgive me.”
Please do respond to the GPhC’s consultation to uphold pharmacist’s right to conscientious objection.
The consultation closes on 7th March 2017.