Desmond Doss, an American World War II conscientious objector, was thrust back into popular consciousness after his portrayal by Andrew Garfield in the recent film Hacksaw Ridge. The film tells the story of Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who refused to take up arms or kill the enemy on account of his belief in the sanctity of human life. Despite this, Doss went on to receive the Medal of Honor after working as a medic, notably saving the lives of 75 of his comrades facing down heavy fire at Hacksaw Ridge – an escarpment on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The interest renewed in Doss’ story through this film is significant due to understandings of gender changes, because it is a story inherently linked to issues of masculinity in war.
America, still fixated by the traditional interpretations of masculinity, war and patriotism, was not kind to its conscientious objectors. They were perceived to be deficient in their masculinity and considered cowards in the face of one of the toughest regimes in human history. Some 500 conscientious objectors were even used as human guinea pigs − such was their standing. Doss himself came under scrutiny for his decision not to fight. Terry Benedict, who documented Doss’ actions in The Conscientious Objector, claims that taunting of Doss within the 77th Infantry Division “started out as harassment and then it became abusive.” Doss’ commanding officer even attempted to have him transferred off the Division (Doss would go on to save his life at Hacksaw Ridge). His comrades were believers in the orthodox interpretation of what it meant to be brave, and what it meant to be a man in an all-male environment.
Doss’ heroism went some way to readdressing the draconic belief that death in battle, or at least taking up arms and slaying the enemy, was the ultimate manifestation of valour and bravery. His superior officer now acknowledges Doss to have been “one of the bravest persons alive.” Yet even when his recognition with honours is considered, it would perhaps be premature to suggest that Doss’ example led to a wider re-evaluation of what bravery and honour means in the masculine context. It would take the emergence of women’s equality movements and interactions with other intellectual and social movements for the male psyche to eschew traditional beliefs in what it meant to be a man. Even today we encounter men who follow in Doss’ footsteps, proving themselves to be just as ‘manly’ and brave as their brawnier peers whilst not engaging in traditional masculine behaviours.