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True Courage 2: Honour and Shame

I wonder what Doss’s courage looked like from the point of view of the injured men in his battalion?

Scores of soldiers were left for dead on that battle-field, clinging to their last moments of life, gritting their teeth as blood seeped from their wounds, holding onto memories of the families they left behind.

In their dark night of the soul, they would suddenly glimpse the skinny frame of a fellow soldier crawling through the mud towards them, pockets bulging with bandages and medicine, intent on saving, ‘one more’. It must have been the sight of unexpected redemption when all hope was lost, the revelation that they might actually cheat death itself, thanks to the bravery of the man they had once dismissed as a coward.

How the tables had turned.

Doss gave a profound summary [i],

"You can't always win, but when your buddies come to you and say they owe their life to me, what better reward can you get than that?”

After his endeavours on Hacksaw Ridge, news of Doss’s bravery spread throughout the army and the spines of many men were strengthened. Nobody dared question his courage any longer. Even when Doss himself was finally injured in battle, his legs shattered by the grenade he kicked out of the path of his fellow soldiers, his selfless courage prevailed.

As they carried him off the battle-field under intense fire, he saw another wounded soldier lying in the mud, so he instinctively rolled off the stretcher, crawled over to administer aid and insisted that his stretcher-bearers leave him in the mud to rescue the other man first.

Unfortunately for Doss, before help could return, he was shot in the arm by a sniper, so he rigged up a temporary splint using the butt of a rifle and crawled back down the escarpment unaided, with only one functioning limb.

Doss with his arm in plaster at a military hospital
Recovering at field base after being shot in Okinawa (Source: Desmond Doss Council)

In light of his heroic sacrifices, Doss became the first conscientious objector to receive the medal of honour, the most prestigious award for bravery in the US Armed forces. He didn’t like the term ‘conscientious objector’. When he first joined the army, he had asked his comrades to refer to him as a ‘conscientious co-operator’, but they refused.

After Okinawa, they simply called him a hero.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of Doss’s courage lies deep within this redemptive twist, for the steel that those men had witnessed in Doss on that battlefield in Okinawa wasn’t a rare glimpse of bravery or a one-off show of selfless insanity. Rather it was the natural culmination to a lifetime of courage, the finale to a story that had started years before.

As he crawled through hell to rescue every last man he would have been greeted by faces of utter shock, of delighted gratitude, of redeeming hope, yet truth be told, Doss had learned to go against the grain way before the faces of his comrades had appeared grateful. Back in Fort Jackson, his Captain, Jack Glover had complained to the Colonel that Doss was a coward and requested that he be transferred out, not just from his battalion, but from the whole army.

When asked later whether he had changed his mind, Glover said of Doss, [ii]

"He was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing."

Doss showed his true grit in standing by his convictions in the training ground long before he set out across the Pacific and it wasn’t just the fear of death that he conquered. There was another fear that was for some soldiers, even greater.

Fear of shame.

The culture of shame was rife in 1940s America as it is in any honour-shame culture today.

Many men were haunted by the thought of being labelled a coward and would overcome the fear of impending death to avoid the greater fear of being questioned by their own people.

Imagine catching sight of a finger pointing towards you at a party, years later, as one friend whispered to another, “He’s one of the cowards who didn’t defend us”.

To not fight was for many, a fate worse than death.

Yet Doss received all this shame for his decision not to bear arms, while still possessing the courage to go to war anyway. That’s a lose-lose situation, if ever there was one. The temptation to cave in must have seemed overwhelming, yet he never did fire a weapon.

As he later explained,

"I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble, because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again." [ii]

The man who denied himself worthy of honour in the training ground was the same man who denied himself worthy of life in the heat of battle to go back and find his injured comrades.

He’d already learned the lessons of sacrifice and obedience long before he went out onto that ridge, unarmed.

How did he do it?

For Doss, the motivation for his endeavours came not from preserving a reputation or from the desire to appear a hero. He risked all to save his men for one reason alone.


He loved God enough to surrender his life and status to the teachings of the Bible and he loved his brothers enough to go back for them when the order had come to retreat.

He even loved his enemy.

At one point, Doss had tried to treat a wounded Japanese soldier, but one of his fellow soldiers pointed a gun at him and said in no uncertain terms that if he bandaged the enemy, they would shoot him. Doss reluctantly obeyed but later on, one of the soldiers found an American bandage on another Japanese soldier.

Who heals an enemy soldier who is sent to kill them?

Maybe it’s something he read in his Bible.

Click here for the final post... True Courage 3: The hero's hero.


[i] Medal of Honour Recipient (1945).

[ii] “The Conscientious Objector” Documentary (2004), Directed by Terry Benedict


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