In Israel, I am a member of a synagogue with a large cadre of volunteers. The volunteers serve in many different capacities, each calling upon their unique talents to strengthen the infrastructure of the congregational community. One person may help with organizing the prayer service, another may focus on taking care of members who have suffered the loss of a loved one, another may be in charge of building repairs, and so on. There is a clear recognition that people are different and contribute in different ways to the overall health and wellbeing of the community.
This mindset exists in the military as well both here in Israel and in America. Different units specialize in different areas, and bring their specific expertise to the table. However, in Hacksaw Ridge, the true story of Desmond Doss’s experience in World War II, the soldiers in one unit do not fully comprehend or appreciate the fact that one soldier operates under a different set of givens than the others and contributes to the greater good in his own idiosyncratic way.
Desmond Doss is a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon in war, even within his own combat unit. He wants to serve as a medic and save lives, not end them. His fellow soldiers view him as an unreliable ally and coward and they make his adjustment to the military miserable.
A military court prepares to court martial him for disobedience, but at the proceeding they change their view of Desmond when he explains his perspective on the war and on his personal vision of military service: “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, I took it personal. Everyone I knew was on fire to join up, including me. Why, I had a job in a defense plant and I could’ve taken a deferment, but that ain’t right. It isn’t right that other men should fight and die, that I would just be sitting at home safe. I need to serve. I got the energy and the passion to serve as a medic, right in the middle with the other guys. No less danger, just… while everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it. With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me to wanna put a little bit of it back together.”
In the crucible of battle on Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond’s comrades change their view of him. The Japanese attack ferociously and many Americans die and become wounded. Time and time again, Desmond is there to tend to his fellow soldiers and help them get to safety. Against all odds, he rescues 75 men. Later Desmond becomes the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Desmond remains true to his principles and becomes a hero, an invaluable member of his brigade. His commanding officer, Captain Glover, asks Desmond to forgive him for misjudging him: “All I saw was a skinny kid. I didn’t know who you were. You’ve done more than any other man could’ve done in the service of his country. Now, I’ve never been more wrong about someone in my life, and I hope one day you can forgive me.”
Misjudging someone is at the core of Hacksaw Ridge. The inability to see another’s perspective almost prevents Desmond from serving his country. Consider how many more lives would have been lost without his intervention.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us: “judge every man favorably.” It is important to give every person the benefit of the doubt. Always try to see the good in the other. Moreover, the Talmud teaches us: “Anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven” (Shabbat 127b). Hacksaw Ridge reminds us that those who see life differently from us may teach us by example how to lead a life of virtue and meaning.