For A Higher Power: From Hacksaw Ridge to Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali arrives at federal court in Houston for his trial on a charge of refusing to be inducted into the Army.
Muhammad Ali arrives at federal court in Houston for his trial on a charge of refusing to be inducted into the Army.

What does it take for someone to stand for what they believe in? What does it take for someone to sacrifice for what they believe in? What does it take for someone to literally sacrifice their liberty, their very life for their faith?  In the film, Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss enlists in the army and is faced with these questions right from the get-go. Muhammad Ali is faced with these questions in the prime of his fighting career, and thousands of others have faced these questions for centuries.

When I think of the term ‘conscientious objector’, Vietnam and the young men who refused to join the conflict immediately crowd the imagination.  Images of long haired hippies, in tie-die tee-shirts, ‘turning on, tuning in, and dropping out’ [1] in the streets of San Francisco and New York City in the late ‘60s, holding peace signs an decrying the evils of the War, are synonymous with the term.

Hacksaw Ridge

The 2016 Academy Award Winning feature film, Hacksaw Ridge, portrays the life of a conscientious objector that could not be farther from that image. Desmond Doss was working at a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, [2]. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in December of 1941 he was determined to serve in the military, yet would not compromise his faith as a Seventh-day Adventist.  This meant adhering to two commandments that would cause him great difficulty. He would not kill, and he would observe the Sabbath. Consequently he refused to carry a weapon, let alone fire one, and requested a pass to attend church on Saturday.

Pfc. Doss’ beliefs put him on a collision course not only with his fellow soldiers, but with his superiors as well. says they ‘ostracized him, bullied him, called him awful names, and cursed at him’ [3]. In the film, he is put on trial and is about to be court martialled for insubordination.  It is only through his father’s intervention, a World War I veteran, and a letter from the father’s former superior officer, that the charges against Doss is dismissed. His actions were protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Doss soon proves himself with acts of bravery and kindness and selflessness, like treating the blisters on his fellow soldiers’ feet, and sharing his canteen with those suffering from heat stroke [4].

Doss is deployed to the South Pacific and sees action on the islands of Guam, Leyte and Okinawa. By May of 1945 the men of Doss’ division were on Okinawa, attempting to take the Maeda Escarpment, a daunting clifflike structure the men dubbed ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.  The Battle of Okinawa is described as one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater, [5] and the fighting at Hacksaw Ridge was no exception. Under intense enemy fire Doss’ again put his faith in action. After storming the rock-face the Americans were faced with a fierce counterattack and were forced to retreat down the vertical face of the ridge. But here again, answering a higher power, Doss disobeyed orders and charged back into the firefight [6]. [He] crawled from wounded to wounded, dressing their injuries and dragging them to the cliff’s edge, where they could be lowered to medics below. Hit by grenade fragments…Doss refused to endanger another medic and dressed his own wounds. He continued to help those in need, even when a Japanese tank approached. When another enemy bullet shattered his arm, Doss patched it up and crawled 300 yards through enemy fire and explosions rather than expose anyone else to further danger’ [7].  His exploits resulted in at least 75 lives saved.  That day was May 5th, 1945, a Saturday. For his actions that day Doss was awarded Congressional Medal of Honour, the U.S.  highest honor for bravery under fire.

Who is a Conscientious Objector?

The website of the Selective Service System of the United States says ‘[a] conscientious objector is one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles.’

There are two types of service available to conscientious objectors.

  • The person who is opposed to any form of military service will be assigned to alternative service…
  • The person whose beliefs allow him to serve in the military but in a noncombatant capacity will serve in the Armed Forces but will not be assigned training or duties that include using weapons.

The Selective Service System, [8].

Conscientious Objectors in the Past

Encyclopedia Britannica says that conscientious objection to military service has existed for centuries, since the beginning of the ‘Christian era’. [9]. It developed as a ‘doctrine’ of the Mennonites in Europe during the 16th century, and among the ‘Society of Friends’ (the Quakers) in England in the 17th Century, and the Church of the Brethren and of the Dukhobors in Russia in the 18th century.

In the United States, since the Civil War and the enactment of conscript laws, some form of alternate service has been granted to those unwilling to bear arms, [10]. In 1940 conscientious objector status, ‘including some form of service unrelated to and not controlled by the military, was granted, but solely on the basis of membership in a recognized pacifistic religious sect. Objections of a philosophical, political, or personal moral nature were not considered valid reasons for refusing military service.’

During World War II Great Britain granted several exemptions from military service and since 1960 several European countries, including France, Belgium, Sweden, The Netherlands, East and West Germany granted Objector status on a variety of religious, philosophical and moral grounds.

Muhammad Ali

No discourse on conscientious objectors can be complete without discussing Muhammad Ali, probably the best-known Objector of all.

Cassius Clay shot to fame after winning the gold medal for boxing in the Rome Olympics of 1960. In a British television interview in 1971, he relates an incident that occurred just three days after winning the medal. He goes into a restaurant in his racially segregated hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, with the gold medal around his neck, and expects to be served. He’s told that ‘we don’t serve negroes’. ‘I said, “I don’t eat them neither…I’m the Olympic gold medal winner, three days ago I fought for this country in Rome, I won the gold medal, and I’m gonna eat!’…Anyway they put me out, and I had to leave that restaurant, in my hometown, where I went to church and served in their Christianity, and my Daddy fought in all the wars. Just won the gold medal and couldn’t eat downtown. I said something’s wrong…’ [11].

Less than four years later, in February of 1964, he fought ‘the Bear’, Sonny Liston, for the heavyweight championship of the world. Liston could not continue after the sixth round. The day after his victory, Clay declared his conversion to Islam and introduced the world to the personae that billions of people around the world would come to know as Muhammad Ali.

A mere two years later, at 24 and in the prime of his boxing career, Ali was drafted into the U.S. Army. He filed for conscientious objector status and refused to go to Vietnam, based on his religious beliefs as a Muslim.

‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, some darker people, some poor hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?  They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they never put dogs on me, they never robbed me of my nationality, raped and killed my mother and father…shoot them for what, why’m I gonna shoot them, them poor little black people? Little babies and children, women, how’m I gonna shot them poor people? Just take me to jail!’ [12].

Conscientious objector status was denied Ali in 1967 and he was sentenced to five years in prison. He remained out of prison while his case was appealed. He was however denied the ability to make an income from his profession. He was unable to fight in the United States, and was not allowed to leave the country.  The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned in 1971.

In its ruling of ‘Marsellus CLAY, Jr. also known as Muhammad Ali, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES,’ the decision stated, in part:

In order to qualify for classification as a conscientious objector, a registrant must satisfy three basic tests. He must show that he is conscientiously opposed to war in any form. Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437, 91 S.Ct. 828, 28 L.Ed.2d 168. He must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief, as the term has been construed in our decisions. United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733; Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333, 90 S.Ct. 1792, 26 L.Ed.2d 308. And he must show that this objection is sincere. Witmer v. United States, 348 U.S. 375, 75 S.Ct. 392, 99 L.Ed. 428. In applying these tests, the Selective Service System must be concerned with the registrant as an individual, not with its own interpretation of the dogma of the religious sect, if any, to which he may belong. United States v. Seeger, supra; Gillette v. United States, supra; Williams v. United States, 5 Cir., 216 F.2d 350, 352.

In this Court the Government has now fully conceded that the petitioner’s beliefs are based upon ‘religious training and belief,’ as defined in United States v. Seeger, supra: ‘There is no dispute that petitioner’s professed beliefs were founded on basic tenets of the Muslim religion, as he understood them, and derived in substantial part from his devotion to Allah as the Supreme Being. Thus, under this Court’s decision in United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733, his claim unquestionably was within the ‘religious training and belief’ clause of the exemption provision.’ 4 This concession is clearly correct. For the record shows that the petitioner’s beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them. They are surely no less religiously based than those of the three registrants before this Court in Seeger. See also Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333, 90 S.Ct. 1792, 26 L.Ed.2d 308. [13].

Ali would return to the ring that year and fight Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden for the championship. Years later, slowed considerably by Parkinson’s, Ali became a figure beloved around the world.  Who can forget the magical moment at the opening ceremonies at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Ali, hand trembling from the disease, slowly lit the Olympic torch?

Other Notable Conscientious Objectors

The life of a conscience objector—men (primarily, men) who are willing to sacrifice for their beliefs, many of which are religious beliefs– does not always have a happy ending.

Ben Salmon

Ben Salmon was a writer and observant Catholic who refused induction into the U.S. army as a matter of conscience during World War I. He ‘rejected the “Just War Theory”. He believed no war could be just. He said he would not cooperate in any way with the war machine’ [14].

He was arrested, court-martialled, and sentenced to death by the military.  While in prison he wrote an open letter to then president Woodrow Wilson.

“Religious objectors are such through their faith in God. They believe the best way to preserve the nation’s honor is to avoid dishonoring God; the best way to conquer an enemy is to treat him as God prescribes. The religious objector helps his country more in one hour than a regiment of military men could in a hundred years, for God holds the destiny of nations in the palm of His hand. To serve Him is to ensure the country’s future. . .”

He was later admitted to the St. Elizbeth Hospital in Washington D.C., in the wing for the criminally insane. His actions were supposedly considered insane since most observant Catholics did sign up for military service. In November 1920, he was released thanks to a Catholic priest and the American Civil Liberties Union. He would die less than twelve years later, in poverty, at age 43.

Tom Atlee

Tom Atlee, brother of British Prime minister, Clement Atlee (1945-1951), was a ‘devoted Christian’ and, says his grand daughter, Cath Atlee, ‘believed that war could never be the Christian answer to any dispute – he was prepared to suffer for what he believed in.’  [15]. During World War I He was denied conscientious objector status and court-martialed in 1917. He spent a year in prison, three months of which was with hard labour. He was never able to ‘fully’ practice in his chosen field of architecture.

Franz Jägerstätter

Franz Jägerstätter was the sexton of a parish church in Austria during the 1930s. He opposed the Nazi regime. After being inducted into the German army he refused to serve.

A letter he wrote in prison reads:

“Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything Possible to make life here easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal Kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there. Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal Kingdom. But with this difference: we need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons–and the foremost among these is prayer…. Through prayer, we continually implore new grace from God, since without God’s help and grace it would be impossible for us to preserve the Faith and be true to His commandments….

“Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for Those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love” [16].

(This letter, according to The Society of Archbishop Justus, a group of Anglican computer scientists,  [17],   found its way into a book, In Solitary Witness, about German Catholics response to Adolf Hitler. The book, in turn, reportedly influenced Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst famous for leaking the study on American decision making in Vietnam, which became known as the Pentagon Papers.)

Imprisoned in Linz and Berlin, Jägerstätter was convicted in a military trial and beheaded on August 9th, 1943.

 Final Thoughts

This discussion is in no way intended to compare Desmond Doss and Muhammad Ali. Doss’ faith grew out of his background as a devout Seventh-day Adventist. Ali’s faith in Islam was in part driven the rejection meted out to him by an unjust society, a society that claimed Christianity as its own, while rejecting him as a human being. Moreover Ali, for many years, was for many the face of an entire religion and race, a singular representative of hundreds of millions of people, a position which he accepted.

For the other men in this piece their Christian faith forbade them to engage in a conflict they believed that was at odds with their beliefs.  What does this say about faith–religious faith–that can be both so loving, brimming with empathy and sacrifice, and at the same time be espoused by those brimming with hate and enmity? This does not just apply to Christianity, but, I’ll argue, to practically any belief system.

No, I’m not in any way comparing the impact of these men on society, nor am I comparing the sacrifice of one vs. the other. I am addressing the idea of faith, and the strength of character that a strong unshakeable faith can instill in a human being.

Faith that keeps you grounded in a set of core beliefs will protect you from passing fads, whether philosophical, political, cultural. The danger lies in the basic principles on which your faith is based, and how you interpret them. Ultimately that’s an individual responsibility, a responsibility to understand and accept the core principles on which your faith is based, and the courage to stand for, and ultimately sacrifice for those principles.

© 2017, Weldon Turner, All Rights Reserved

Next Month: The Luxury of Atheism


Muhammad Ali arrives at federal court in Houston for his trial on a charge of refusing to be inducted into the Army.

Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

Collection: Bettmann

Date created: 19 June, 1967

Source: Bettmann

Editorial license secured.


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[13] The Legal Information Institute and Cornell University, accessed, March 25th, 2017

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[15] The Guardian,, accessed, March 25, 2017

[16] The Society of Archbishop Justus,, accessed, March 25, 2017.

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2 thoughts on “For A Higher Power: From Hacksaw Ridge to Muhammad Ali”

  1. Very interesting as always. Thank you, I didn’t know the details of Muhammad Ali’s protest.
    I do know there’s a lot of battles in the bible so it’s a bit difficult to square with being a objector. I understand where they’re coming from, I’m glad I never was put in that position.

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