I recently had the chance to re-watch Mel Gibson’s acclaimed 2016 blockbuster film, Hacksaw Ridge with a small group of fellow young adult Catholic men. For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a big-screen adaption of the true story of WWII hero Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to earn the Medal of Honor in the United States Army. Doss is unwilling to carry a gun, owing to his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs and a prior experience with his drunken father, yet still wishes to serve his county even when faced with tremendous pressure to carry a gun or drop out of the Military. Doss is sent to Okinawa, where he partakes in the last two attempts to take Hacksaw Ridge, which were as violent and gruesome as any battles in the war. He braves the enemy fire during the fights and even risks his life to stay behind to help the wounded following an order to retreat, calling upon God for help. In the end, he saved the lives of 75 of his fellow soldiers, including his own sergeant.
What stood out to me as I watched the film was that even in the bloodiest of battle scenes (or even especially in the bloodiest of battle scenes), I found within myself a sense of desire to be there. To be a part of it. Not to get killed, not to see my friends be slaughtered all around me, but to have the chance to really lay my life down in courageous sacrifice. To run into enemy fire to save my comrade’s life, and in the bigger picture, fight for my country and family and all those I love back home. There’s something there that really speaks to the masculine soul. And I know I was not alone, as evidenced by the occasional sniffle from the other guys in the room or need to “wipe dust out of my eye.”
There are attempts in our modern culture to label that desire we men all felt watching that film as merely a perverted and sick desire towards violence. Indeed, the vast majority of violence in the world today and through history was perpetrated by men. Yet, this “desire” is not at its core towards violence for the sake of violence. It can often be, tragically, perverted into a pure wicked wish for violence, but that is not its identity at its core. In fact, I believe attempts to stifle this desire in boys are attempts to stifle something that God put there.
What is this desire? In our heart-of-hearts, men wish more than all to adorn the virtue of courage, especially with regards to laying down our lives in sacrifice. My continual thought throughout the film was God, if I had the chance to display one tenth of the bravery and courage of Private Doss, I would consider mine a life well lived. But nevertheless, I felt a sense of fearful despair that I will never get the chance to display such valor in my life, where the hardest obstacle I might face is a final exam or a work project due date.
Of course there are men today who are called to the same type of self-sacrifice as Private Doss. Even in our own country, with the recent terrorist attacks and murderous shooters, a man might find himself called to lay down his life in an instant. Thus, we all must be prepared for this possibility. Yet, most men in this day and age will never have to make the split second decision to risk death to save a friend or family member.
But then I got to thinking. What’s harder? To make the instantaneous decision to act valiantly, or to make that decision and then stick with it for the rest of your life? Indeed, for those of us called to the married life, our decision to love will not be a one-time choice, but rather a choice that must be made again and again, day after day, month after month, and year after year. The “enemy” that we will face will be time and our own human weakness. There will be nothing easy about always choosing to place our wives and children before us. There will be nothing easy about giving up our time and many activities that we might like to do. But in the end, sacrificing ourselves is the only thing that will ever truly make us happy, because it is what we were created for.
What we men can rest assured of is this. God is calling us to sacrifice. Though we may not have that one grandiose, instantaneous, self-sacrificial moment that everyone looks at and praises us for, we will be called to lay down our lives day after day. And one thing that is for certain is that we will never be able to do it without his help. Surely, though, some of God’s best assistance can come from merely turning our gaze upon the crucifix, upon the greatest image of what it means to be a man, and upon he who laid down everything for love of us.
– Woody Ridenour