The Conscientious Objector

I just watched this documentary about Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist hero from my childhood.

And I felt split. My heart warmed to his story but my head said that if more people were pacifists like Doss, the world would be worse. Judaism holds pacifism to be immoral. You may not stand by while the blood of your neighbor is shed (and much of the time, the only way you can prevent this bloodshed is by killing the aggressors).

Desmond Doss said he grew up to observe the Ten Commandments. He believed that the sixth commandment was “Do not kill.”

But the sixth commandment is not “Do not kill.” That’s how it is usually taught in Seventh-Day Adventism and much of Christianity but that is a false interpretation of the Hebrew. The commandment is do not murder. There is moral killing and there is immoral killing. Immoral killing is murder.

Desmond Doss got a hard time when he joined the Army. The documentary makes you want to take Doss’s side but my head takes the Army’s side. An Army can’t function if people refuse to pick up guns and to use them. So I side with the Army in its battle with Doss.

One of Doss’s commanding officers was a Jew who told him that obligations to the Army supercede the Sabbath, which is a Jewish attitude. You can’t operate an Army and give soldiers the Sabbath off and exempt them from carrying a weapon if their conscience is too tender.

A major attack on Okinawa was delayed so that Doss could do his Sabbath morning devotionals. That’s not something the most observant Jew would do — hold up an attack so he could say his prayers.

In these regards, Judaism has different priorities than Adventism. You could say it is more pragmatic. Judaism is primarily a this-worldly religion. What happens here matters intensely. Adventism is primarily an other-worldly religion. says about The Conscientious Objector: “It’s 1945, World War II. The Place, Okinawa. The Scene, an impregnable 400-foot high cliff-AKA Hacksaw Ridge. The Engagement, a battle so fierce the odds of survival were 1 in 10. The Act, Medic Pfc. Desmond T. Doss braved intense enemy fire to rescue 75 wounded GI’s over the precipice. The Story, Infantrymen who once ridiculed and scoffed at Desmond’s simple faith and refusal to carry a weapon-now owed their lives to him. Director Terry Benedict tells Desmond’s incredible story through the eyes of the men who witnessed this humble man’s heroic acts. Winning the respect of his fellow soldiers, they recommended him for the highest honor America can bestow on one of her sons -The Medal of Honor.”

According to Wikipedia: “Desmond Thomas Doss (February 7, 1919 – March 23, 2006) was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor and one of only three so honored (the others are Thomas W. Bennett and Joseph G. LaPointe, Jr.). He was a Corporal (Private First Class at the time of his Medal of Honor heroics) in the U.S. Army assigned to the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. He died the same day as another Medal of Honor recipient, David Bleak.
“Desmond Doss refused to kill, or carry a weapon into combat, because of his personal beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist. He thus became a medic, and by serving in the Pacific theatre of World War II helped his country by saving the lives of his comrades, while also adhering to his religious convictions. Shortly before leaving the Army, Desmond was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
His Medal of Honor was earned by the risks he took to save the lives of many comrades.”

An SDA soldier emails me: “Mr. Ford, I just saw your commentary on the Desmond Doss documentary. I felt that it was a very grounding experience. I was preparing a presentation on Desmond Doss for a class. I mainly saw the man’s incredible heroism and then I saw your take on it. Frankly, I agree with your views. I personally am a Seventh-Day Adventist. I am also a soldier. I carry a rifle and I would use it without hesitation. I have not yet been deployed so I have not had to do so. However, I did a lot of soul-searching before joining the Army and talked to the Army about the meaning of orders. I wanted to be able to kill with a clean conscience when necessary and to be able to refuse to kill if I did not feel that it was justified. I have heard too many stories of soldiers who killed innocent people and tried to justify it by saying that they were just following orders. I am comfortable with my choices and ready to kill or to heal depending on the situation. I think that too many people do not do this soul-searching and are not truly ready to kill even if they are able to do it. I recently read an article in which a high ranking officer made this point and spoke about the psychological damage soldiers take when they only think about their actions after the fact. Desmond Doss was in a very difficult situation because he was very patriotic but also believed very strongly that the Bible said “Thou Shalt not Kill” He did the best he could to fulfill both obligations completely and did an outstanding job. You can not deny his heroism even if it was all due to a poor translation of a phrase in the Torah.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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