This was not my initial choice for March, but my son came storming out of his room earlier this month having just heard from a friend of his in the US that now that his friend was 18 he was obliged to register for Selective Service. This was such an alien concept to my son that he just naturally assumed this was another short-sighted, nefarious plot by Trump to undermine American democracy. I tried to talk him down by explaining that this was simply a process whereby young men were required to sign up with the authorities so they would be “on file” if a crisis arose and a “draft” became necessary to randomly select a certain additional number of individuals that were needed by the armed services to augment its volunteer ranks. He was not impressed.
My riposte was that democracy was not a “free ride.” That the benefits, freedoms and opportunities that accrue to him as a citizen of one the most exemplary democracies in the western world were hard won and may, in the future, have to be hard won all over again. In fact, I suggested, if I had my druthers, I would argue that everyone — male and female — leaving high school in Canada should be required to complete a mandatory stint in the in armed forces. Not necessarily — or at least not specifically — to learn how to wage war, but rather to learn what it means to “serve” the democracy which grants you such expansive and varied opportunities to flourish throughout your lifetime. To learn discipline and restraint. To learn how to overcome obstacles and challenges. To grow and mature a little, beyond the security of the your parents’ house and the school yard for a change. To realize that a person can survive — even flourish — without continual, unfettered access to social media. But mostly to begin to try to understand that democracy, like all good things, comes at a cost and, sooner or later, you’ve got to pay the piper.
Which brings us back to Hacksaw Ridge, which essentially poses the question: How does an individual reconcile his or her personal conscience and autonomy with the need to protect the system — in a manner which flies in the face of those personal beliefs — that gives that individual the opportunity to even entertain such considerations in the first place? What, when all is said and done, does it mean to stand alone against the values of one’s community? To be a “patriotic” pacifist? And, of course, there is no easy answer. There are legal answers. And there are moral answers. And political answers. And religious answers. And constitutional answers. Individual answers and community answers. The difficulty is that there is a single question, but a multitude of differing — and often time equally compelling, though fundamentally antithetical — answers.
And thus the movie unfolds within the classic trope of the righteous hero pushing up against the unmoved, unenlightened reality of human existence. And the movie is definitely trope heavy. There’s the trials of individual morality in the face of organized “group think.” There’s love conquers all. Good versus evil. Faith triumphs over reason. Etcetera. And our likeable, affable, every man hero, plods through, Hollywood-style and Sergeant York-like (though sans rifle), to eventual spiritual redemption and personal vindication.
For my money, however, perhaps the most interesting trope / sub-plot was the hero’s father’s struggle to come to terms with his own “survivor’s guilt,” and what we would now define as PTSD, at having watched his closest friends killed along side him in the first world war. He’d spent his lifetime attempting to come to terms — unsuccessfully — with trying to find any sort of meaning behind his friends’ ultimate sacrifice. But he just can’t seem to think of it as anything more than slaughter, and he’s completely crushed by the thought of his own sons going off in 1942 to make the same sacrifices all over again.
As usual I was eager to hear my son’s take-away on things. “So how is a democracy supposed to reconcile the need to protect the fundamental rights of a person to pursue the dictates of his or her moral conscience and still compel them to undertake an action, which may be fundamentally at odds with that conscience, but that ultimately serves the greater good of the entire democratic community,” I asked him when the movie was over? “If everyone was as concerned with the dictates of their own personal conscience and salvation as our protagonist was, democracy would descend into anarchy, wouldn’t it?”
“Well, that’s hardly an issue then, is it?” he shot back. “Considering how few people out there ever seem to find themselves struggling with their conscience to begin with.”
Touché, I thought. Maybe something of a sweeping generalization, but perhaps not too far off the mark. Still, when pushed, he admitted that, if anything, the movie did reinforce for him how important it is to try to be as true to your ideals as possible.
“But regardless,” he insisted emphatically, and not for the first time, “war is stupid.” Which is also true, I conceded. Though perhaps only true in the same vein that, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is the worst form of government. Except, that is, for all the others.