Fear, Aristotle said, is the expectation of evil.
In pre-historic times—long before Aristotle—a certain fear arose among early human beings regarding which actions “ought not” to be done. Consciousness arose, not from an external source, but from the ethical awakening that the killing of another human being is wrong. The consequence of the first parricide generates a psychic storm. Guilt emerges.
This Memorial Day is a good time to retell a story of how courage and faith overcame fear and parricide in shaping the ethics of WWII combat medic and hero, Corporal Desmond Doss.
Born in 1919 and a teenager during the Great Depression, Doss experienced a string of violent family incidents with his father. But Desmond’s first contact with his own capacity for evil happened when he fought and nearly killed his brother. The horror of taking a life deeply affected young Desmond causing him to tremble with fear as he pondered the biblical story of Cain killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). The words of the eternal law “thou shalt not kill,” groaned as the pre-historic guilt tore into his conscience.
Conscience is the accusatory voice of reason. We experience it when struggling to decide “what is the right thing to do?” Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the great French philosopher and mathematician, described conscience as that interior place where one discovers that his “whole duty lies in thinking as [one] ought.” Conscience requires each of us to seek and find the truth, not what we prefer or what is socially acceptable. Conscience also tells what ought not to be done. This is the core of ethics: deciding what constitutes the true, authentic, real and greater good in the situation.
After the December 7, 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the United States finally entered World War II. Tens of thousands of young Americans, including Doss, lined up to serve.
Time gives us distance from the intense evil of the Axis Powers the Allies were up against in the European and Pacific theaters. The Rape of Nanking, had already revealed to the world how Japanese leaders had systematically numbed the consciences of their soldiers and trained them to to see the enemy as subhuman. In his Analysis of The Personality of Adolph Hitler, psychologist and Harvard professor Henry Murray, reported that Hitler suffered frequent “nightmares” from “a bad conscience…” and described his aim as wanting “nothing so much as to arrive at a state where he can commit crimes without guilt feelings.” As the war progressed, desperate Japanese leaders taught their soldiers to invoke the “divine wind” and sacrilize suicide in the kamikazi attacks.
Raised a Seventh Day Adventist Doss believed in the principle of non-violence, so Doss was offered “4-F” status, which meant that he could avoid military service as a conscientious objector. But, Doss refused the 4-F believing the war was just and it would be “an honor to serve [his] country.”
Finding the possibility to act within that paradox required prayer and planning. Doss asked, “what ought I to do?” between these two competing goods of God and Country.
Doss carefully staked out his position as a “conscientious cooperator” rather than a conscientious objector, asking to be a medic so that he did not have to carry a weapon, and could still do his duty on the Sabbath (doing good is allowed every day, he rightly reasoned).
Because he would not carry a weapon, the desire to serve as a conscientious cooperator earned Doss the ire of officers and his fellow soldiers. Initially assigned to a rifle company, he was shunned and ridiculed, slandered, even subjected to physical violence, and often called “coward.”
Doss remained steadfast—he “wanted to save life instead of taking life”—so he was eventually reassigned to the medical corps and attached to an infantry regiment in the Pacific theater. Doss insisted on going into combat with nothing to protect him other than the shield of his faith.
Captain Jack Glover, Doss’s commanding officer, initially tried to reassign Doss to a different unit. Yet, after witnessing Doss in the heat of battle, and being the beneficiary of his courage, Glover remarked, “[Doss] was one of the bravest persons alive, and then to have him end up saving my life was the irony of the whole thing.”
In the ferocious battle of Okinawa, Doss saved over 75 men and even rendered aid to wounded enemy soldiers. Years later, Japanese soldiers reported that their weapons jammed or missed when they tried to kill Doss.
For his gallantry in action, Desmond T. Doss, received the Medal of Honor on October 12, 1945 from President Harry S. Truman. He was only 26 years old
The injuries Doss sustained in battle had a devastating impact on him. He spent nearly six years in the hospital upon returning from the war, and lost a lung and five ribs to tuberculosis. Doss’ actions are all the more remarkable given his physical courage in the face of enemy fire paled in comparison to the moral courage he showed in defense of his conscience.
Now, a personal story…forty years later.
In January 1985, I was a 26-year-old infantry captain when a special group of veterans was invited to our post. I was assigned to escort Desmond and his wife, Dorothy, a remarkable woman who cared for and supported the family as a nurse when Desmond’s wartime injuries prevented him from working. She graciously offered me a copy of the book, The Unlikeliest Hero, about Desmond. I still have it.
Desmond could not hear very well, so Dorothy remained at his side throughout the visit, repeating my answers to his questions. In particular, I remember Desmond asking me if I attended church. “Yes,” I replied, “I’m Catholic.”
Desmond became quiet. My identity triggered a memory. Then, he relayed a brief anecdote, “One of the medal of honor recipients in our group was a Catholic. He got drunk the night before we were to receive our medals from President Truman.”
At that moment, my own conscience trembled. All I could think was how much I needed to better attend to the principles and practices of my own faith. Desmond’s virtue was a stark contrast to my vices; his courage was a roaring fire against my flickering flame.
For Desmond, ethics mattered in all actions, not just the great exploits (like those of his fellow Medal of Honor recipient) but the small ones, too (like getting drunk the night before receiving the country’s highest award from the President).
I met the man, Desmond Doss. You should too.
This Memorial Day, take time to read Doss’ Medal of Honor citation. Learn invaluable lessons about fear, faith, fortitude and conscience from this “Unlikeliest Hero.” Gather your team to watch Mel Gibson’s biographical WWII film, Hacksaw Ridge, which is about Desmond Doss. Gain a window into the soul of a man whose conscience revealed his great character. After the movie, ask your team to discuss their reactions, reflections and views.
Corporal Desmond T. Doss is, I believe, the greatest Medal of Honor recipient in our nation’s history.
In the midst of fear and great difficulty, Desmond Doss was not only willing to face the enemy unarmed, but he was also willing to standup to his fellow soldiers, too. By listening to his conscience and refusing to change his principles, Desmond changed those around him for the good.
Fear never had a chance against that kind of faith.
Click here for a suggested guide to your discussions.
Peter C. DeMarco is a longtime supporter and former board member of Elevate Rochester, and the author of the forthcoming book, The Good Will Leader. His company Priority Thinking®, provides leadership coaching, organizational development and ethics education programs to leaders, businesses, health care groups, universities, and non-profits.t