Seventy-three years ago today, on October 12, 1945, President Harry S. Truman awarded Private First Class (then-Corporal) Desmond T. Doss the Medal of Honor for his heroic efforts during his service in the Pacific theater of World War II. He was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.
Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist. When he entered the military as a conscientious objector, he did so with the convictions that his faith required that he take a sabbath and that, under the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” he must never touch a weapon to kill another man, even in war.
The deeply-rooted, American value of religious liberty protected Doss’s beliefs. Rights of conscience have been considered a component of religious freedom since the origins of this nation. Indeed, from the time of the Colonies, the government has exempted conscientious objectors from service or from the bearing of arms.
When Doss entered the service during World War II, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 protected those “subject to combatant training and service . . . who, by reason of religious training and belief, [were] conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.”
The Act thus enabled Doss to participate in the war to the extent he believed his faith permitted. As his biography states, “He believed his duty was to obey God and serve his country. But it had to be in that order.”
While serving as a medic, Doss continually carried the wounded to safety during battle in the Philippines, Guam, and Japan, all without using any weapons. In Okinawa, Japan, Doss saved the lives of 75 men over the course of a single day. American soldiers had faced an unexpected counterattack by the Japanese and were ordered to retreat. Only one-third of the soldiers were able to escape from the counterattack. Despite the order to retreat, Doss remained, and he took each of the 75 men, one by one, off of the battlefield to safety.
Doss’s feats in Okinawa were detailed in his Medal of Honor Citation and were the subject of the award-winning 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge, which Doss’s son said represents his father faithfully.
Thomas W. Bennett and Joseph G. LaPointe Jr. were also conscientious objectors, and they posthumously received the Medal of Honor for their acts of valor in the Vietnam War.
These men are proof that we do not accomplish freedom by boxing conscientious objectors or religious expression out of military service or the public square.
As Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone once said, “liberty of conscience” is “vital . . to the integrity of man’s moral and spiritual nature,” and “nothing short of the self-preservation of the state should warrant its violation.” Even then, “it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.”
By defending the rights of conscience, we enable individuals like Doss, Bennett, and LaPointe to contribute, in accordance with their beliefs, towards the common good and the preservation of our country.