How Make Difficult Decisions: Advice From Alvin York

I was reading a fascinating book about the life of Alvin York, who is credited with saving over 80 men during his career as an American soldier. In this comic strip I adapt some of the lessons from that book to help you make difficult decisions in your everyday life.

“alvin york” is a man who made difficult decisions in life. He was born on the 25th of December 1887, and died on the 22nd of November 1964.

Alvin York soldier in full uniform.

On the morning of October 8, 1918, Corporal Alvin C. York led his squad of soldiers into the thick underbrush and murky fog of the Argonne Forest. His regiment’s mission had been to charge down Hill 223 and over an open plain towards the Decauville Railroad. Their goal was to cut off the Germans’ supply line in order to force them to surrender. The plain, however, had been encircled by machine gun nests, and the Americans were besieged as they made their way across, the gunfire falling them in a manner that York compared to how mowing machines back home slashed through dense grass. York’s troop was hemmed down and utterly isolated. Other forces would be easily overwhelmed by a German pincer assault if they couldn’t stop the steady bombardment of fire and advance.

Captain E.C.B. Danforth, the commander of York’s Company G, ordered three of his squads to try to get behind German lines and launch an assault from behind. After losing seven men, 17 soldiers — four noncommissioned officers, including York, and thirteen privates – went into the mist and forests in pursuit of the enemy.

The first thing they came across were two stretcher carriers who bolted when they saw the Americans. York and the others pursued the fleeing guys, who led them directly to a camp of Germans who were peacefully having their breakfast. The Americans had discovered a Prussian encampment, which included reinforcements ready for action. The Germans dropped their plates, put up their hands, and surrendered after being caught completely off guard by the enemy behind the frontlines. A German commander screamed to the machine gunners at the front to spin around and begin fire on the Americans as York and the others rushed to round up their new POWs. Six people were murdered and three others were injured in a matter of seconds. The three other noncoms were among those killed, leaving Corporal York in charge.

While the other seven privates sought cover, York continued to shoot at the Germans, one by one taking out the German machine gunners. York would knock down a soldier with a single shot as soon as he peeked his head up above the gun emplacements.

York had no desire to assassinate the guys. “That’s enough now!” he cried after each round. Quit your jobs and come down!” However, none of the Germans accepted his offer, forcing the corporal to remain silent in one position after another.

York, though, was still in peril. In a bayonet charge, a line of six Germans sprang out of the trees. York pulled his sidearm, a Colt.45, to mount a defense when his rifle ammo ran out. York shot down the last guy in the line first, then worked his way to the front, leveling each German with a single bullet, remembering a principle he learnt from his duck hunting days: taking out the one in the back rather than the leader caught the group off guard. Of course, this strategy enabled the first guy in line to get dangerously close to the corporal, but with just a yard between them, York eliminated the last German with his last shot.


When the corporal returned his attention to his 7 privates and 20 POWs, he discovered that one of the latter had been shooting at him from behind the entire time! York had his soldiers disarm the would-be assassin and arrange the Germans for a march. As the troop moved closer to the front lines, York encountered a Prussian platoon commander and then a battalion commander, both of whom he quickly added to his prisoner list. Because of the dense woodland, firing, and overall disarray of the day, these German officials felt York and his privates were only the advance guard of a much bigger force. “Oh, I have a-plenty!” York confidently said when the battalion commander inquired how many troops he had.

As they added additional POWs to their retinue and proceeded to make their way to the front, York had the German battalion commander blow his whistle to signify a cease-fire, preventing the Prussians from shooting on them. York had to be sure to cry out to his fellow doughboys as he reached the American lines, letting them know that this big line of Germans was in fact under American control!

York handed up his captives to the regimental headquarters. York had practically single-handedly killed 20 enemy soldiers, silenced 35 machine guns, captured 3 commanders and 129 enlisted men, and broken up a battalion that was preparing to launch a counterattack against the Americans on Hill 223. “Well, York, I hear you’ve captured the entire damn German Army,” General Julian R. Lindsey said as he led the POWs to division headquarters. York answered, “No, sir.” “I only managed to get 132 of them.”

York was promoted to sergeant and received 40 of the highest military honors a soldier can get on either continent, including the Medal of Honor. York was dubbed the “greatest civilian-soldier of the war” by General “Blackjack” Pershing when he bestowed the Distinguished Service Cross on him.

York’s boldness, confidence, and determination are unquestionably inspiring. What makes it even more remarkable is what one would find if they rummaged through his military file — a piece of paper that read: “Desires release as a conscientious objector.”

One of the most decorated American fighters of WWI had no desire to be a fighter in the first place.

How Alvin C. York chose between his religious views opposing war and his desire to serve his nation may serve as a model for all men grappling with life’s most difficult issues.

York’s Choice

Alvin C. York was born on December 13, 1887, in Pall Mall, Tennessee’s lovely Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf, a little outpost of civilization nestled away in the magnificent Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf. York grew up in a modest two-room cottage surrounded by hickory and oak-covered mountains with eleven brothers and sisters. The children’s mother was a tough but loving backwoodswoman, and their father was a nice, hardworking, honest farmer and blacksmith who made a small but adequate livelihood in the country. Alvin had just a few months of formal education and spent much of his childhood at his father’s side, learning his trade at the forge and accompanying him on nightly hunting forays with the family’s hounds.


York’s father died when he was 24, and Alvin became the new leader of the family when his two elder brothers married and went away. He accepted his obligation to care for his mother and eight surviving siblings, and he worked to support them by farming, smithing, and constructing roads. York, however, acquired some rebellious new tendencies without his father’s watchful and loving supervision. He began to smoke, gamble, curse, and drink, sipping bottles of moonshine with a new group of tough acquaintances. He spent much of his week at run-down saloons, where he often got into fights with other guests. He was arrested and charged with unlawfully selling guns and killing a neighbor’s turkeys for amusement. He disgraced his family by shooting up a tree outside the local church during a service and staggering drunk and belligerently through a neighborhood picnic. He was obnoxious, impolite, and irritable, and although being 29, he had no possibilities for marriage. York’s mother counseled him to alter his ways and waited for him to return home after another round of cavorting each night, hoping for him to get his life back on track and fearful that his next fight might be his last.

York was astonished to find his mother seated in a rocking rocker by the fire late one night when he walked in intoxicated through the entrance of the family cabin. He had no idea she remained up all night waiting for him, and he had never seen her up so late. “Alvin, when are you going to be a man like your father and grandfather?” she questioned quietly as she turned to her son and locked her attention on him. Mother York had begged with her errant son to alter his ways for years, but she had never been so forthright — never before invoked the examples of his ancestors, the men with whom he shared blood. York’s father had never smoked, drank, or cursed in his life. He’d been a cornerstone in the neighborhood, with a superb reputation for total honesty and fairness among his neighbors. His granddad was similarly recognized for always doing the right thing.

York was brought to a halt by his mother’s simple but cutting query. He was struck by the sudden, deep realization of how selfish and irresponsible he had been, how much money, time, and trust he had wasted, how empty he felt, and how far he had departed from the man he wished to be, from the man his father would have been proud of, as he thought of these two upright men and his rich heritage of manhood, and then of his three years of drifting. He collapsed to his knees and sobbed into his mother’s lap. She started to weep as well; it was the first time York had seen his mother cry.

“Mother,” Alvin continued, “I swear to you tonight that I will never drink another drop of alcohol for the rest of my life.” I’m never going to smoke or chew again. I’m never going to gamble again. I will never fight or curse again. “I shall live the life that God has planned for me.” Alvin York had started a new chapter in his life soon after midnight on New Year’s Day, 1915.


York confessed his sins and was rescued in a revival meeting weeks later, determined to follow the straight and narrow. With conversion enthusiasm, he plunged himself into his new Christian religion, keeping his commitment to clean up his life, read the Bible as frequently as he could, and admonishing his neighbors to live more holy lives. He joined a new church, the Church of Christ in Christian Union, and quickly rose through the ranks to become an elder, song leader, and Sunday school instructor.

Alvin York’s life was coming together brilliantly. His religion gave him direction, he became engaged to the most beautiful and chaste lady in the valley, and he supported his family by working hard at farming, blacksmithing, and other occupations. On Saturdays, he went hunting with his hounds and competing in shooting competitions with the other men in town, and on Sundays, he sang hymns from the pew. He’d never felt more optimistic or satisfied in his life, and he looked forward to a long life of uncomplicated tranquility and purpose with his friends and family.

The outside world, however, abruptly intruded on the pastoral serenity of the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf on June 5, 1917. York saw a little red postcard in his mailbox asking him to register with his local draft board. The war had arrived to rural Tennessee, and Alvin York had been drafted to fight “out there.”

York’s heart and mind were ripped apart almost instantly. He saw himself as a patriotic American who wanted to fulfill his obligations. His church, on the other hand, was opposed to violence and war. How could he possibly expect to bring these opposing beliefs together?

York went to see his preacher and buddy, Rosier Pile. He stated to his mentor that his aversion to serving stemmed from a fear of fighting, dying, or even leaving his fiancée and the pleasant life he’d built in the valley. The crux of the matter was his faith: “I’ve been converted to the gospel of peace and love, as well as the principle of ‘Do good for evil.’” Fight! Assassinate! I’ve never murdered anybody, even on my worst days, and I’m not about to start now. I abandoned all of those raunchy activities in favor of religion, which provided me with a great deal of peace and satisfaction. I became a member of the church and accepted its beliefs without question. ‘Thou must not kill,’ says the Bible, and I believe in it. That is so clear that even a kid could comprehend it. There’s no avoiding or escaping it.” York had promised his mother, God, and himself that he would never fight again. Could he keep his word to his mother, God, and himself? Was it possible to be a decent citizen and a good Christian at the same time? He spoke with Pile about it for the next hour, and then every day after that. And he thought about it alone, spending hours in the woods, praying, meditating, and studying his scriptures.

York knew he had to fill out and return the draft card regardless of his decision, so he scrawled “I don’t want to fight” across it and returned it in. He and Pile sent a letter to the county draft board stating his request to be spared from duty due to religious reasons. The board refused his petition, claiming that the Church of Christ in Christian Union lacked an official doctrine or proclamation on nonviolence or war, except from its reading of Scripture. York appealed to the district court, but was rejected down once again.


York had no other option but to ship out – he wasn’t the kind to run away from his troubles, and he didn’t want the authorities to cause turmoil in his community by forcibly removing him. He accepted the notion of becoming a soldier and, when the call to duty came, he boarded a train to Georgia for basic training. With no other option, he was resolved to carry his own weight while maintaining his ideals to the best of his ability. York accepted the training wholeheartedly and without complaint, despite the fact that his fellow troops were drinking, smoking, cussing, and going AWOL in droves. He didn’t object to them having a good time, and he gained their respect by demonstrating his razor-sharp marksmanship, which he had refined growing up in Pall Mall, as well as his deft understanding of weapons, which he had learnt at his father’s blacksmith shop.

While York attempted to focus on the work at hand, he quickly discovered that the most difficult choice of his life was far from over. Pile and his mother had continued to strive to secure him an exemption from duty while he had opted to discontinue the cause. The War Department sent York documents certifying his status as a conscientious objector; all he had to do was sign them and return home.

York, on the other hand, felt that hearing the decision of publicly adopting the label of conscientious objector spelt out like that for the first time gave him pause. Was it truly the best choice to leave the service? York’s chasm between his dedication to his nation and his commitment to his religion widened up once again, and he was at a loss for what to do.

York spent the next three weeks deliberating about the subject and praying for guidance, but the answer remained frustratingly elusive. In his mind, he went through the possibilities again and again, but instead of clarity, he felt more and more wrapped up in knots.

As basic training came to an end, the pressure to make a definitive choice became stronger and more inescapable. He chose to share his inner anguish with Captain Danforth, his company commander, and Major Gonzalo Edward Buxton, his battalion commander, who was also a fervent Christian. Buxton saw York’s honest desire to make the best decision possible, so he set a date for the men to meet and attempt to sort out the problem as best they could.

York finished his prayer, stood up from his knees, and proceeded from his barracks to the major’s quarters a few nights later. York, Buxton, and Danforth sat on camp stools inside a minimally furnished room, their Bibles on their laps lighted by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. “I don’t want to address this topic as a battalion commander discussing it with an officer and a private,” Buxton said at the outset. As three American citizens engaged in a shared cause, I’d want to discuss it. I appreciate any sincere religious belief, and I’m here to speak about it with you one-on-one.” Then came a serious conversation in which Buxton and York swapped questions and Bible texts back and forth:


Buxton: Why don’t you want to go to war?

Major, I belong to a faith that does not believe in warring and killing. York:

Buxton: What kind of church creed do you follow that states this?

York: The Bible is the one creed, which I embrace as God’s inspired message and ultimate authority for all mankind.

Buxton: What in the Bible do you see that opposes war?

“Thou must not kill,” the Bible states.

Buxton: Do you believe everything in the Bible as thoroughly as you accept the sixth commandment—every line, every word?

Yes, sir, I do. York:

Buxton: Can you tell me about Luke 22? “Let him who has no sword sell his cloak and purchase one.”

“If a guy smites you on one cheek, turn the other to him,” York advises.

“For my kingdom is not of this world,” Buxton says, “but if it were of this world, my people would fight.”

“Those who live by the sword must die by the sword,” says York.

“Render unto Caesar’s the things that are Caesar’s,” Buxton says. When the rights of our earthly government are challenged, we must fight for them. Christians owe their leaders a debt of gratitude.

York mentioned Jesus replacing the high priest’s ear that Peter had slashed off. Buxton retaliated by portraying a wrathful Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple.

It continued on like this for more than an hour. But, far from feeling like he’d received an answer, York was more perplexed than ever as the conversation came to an end. As he stood up to go, he said a brief prayer and shook hands with the major. He told Buxton, “I’d want some time to think about it.” “In the meanwhile, I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing and trying to be a good soldier,” he says.

The major said, “Take as much time as you want and come to me whenever you need to.” Then Buxton sent York out with a copy of The History of the United States, advising him to study up on the lives of founding fathers who had coupled religion with a fierce patriotism. York returned to his barracks and collapsed on a cot, pondering the previous night’s debate. He searched his heart for an answer for the hundredth time. But, like on every previous night, neither way revealed itself to be the correct one.

York continued to toss about the idea of becoming a conscientious objector or enlisting as a soldier, but found it difficult to come to a decision at a place where there was continual commotion and interruptions. So he requested for and was granted a ten-day leave, and returned home to the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf and its much-needed tranquility.

York talked with Pastor Pile again as soon as he returned, going through all of the verses Buxton had mentioned during their conversation. He also spoke with his mother and fiancée and prayed with them. Despite this, his fog of befuddlement did not dissipate. His urge to make a choice became intense and all-consuming as his leave time drew shorter and shorter.


York eventually resolved to seek his solution in full seclusion. He went through the mountains to a favorite site, a rock ledge between two rocks that provided a panoramic view of the valley and its flowing river. It was here that he had often pondered his faith and future, and it was here that he was resolved to find a definitive answer to his query. He questioned if God might use conflict for a greater good — as a violent means to a more peaceful goal — as he analyzed the texts that appeared to condone or condemn worldly bloodshed under a canopy of trees and blue sky. Could conflict be a means for achieving peace?

York spent the whole day pondering and praying, sometimes quietly and sometimes publicly. He made himself a fire as the sun fell and the stars shone brilliantly in the sky, and he continued to pray to God to teach him the way. Alvin York finally received his answer as he peered into the limitless night sky:

“As I prayed alone there, a great peace came over me and a great calm came over me, and I gained my assurance.” He heard my plea and came down the mountain to meet me. Of course, I didn’t see Him, but he was there all the same. I had a feeling he was around. He saw that I didn’t want to be a warrior or a killer, that I didn’t want to go to war to harm anybody. Nonetheless, I wanted to do what my nation required of me. I wanted to serve both God and my nation. All of this was clear to him. He knew I had been bothered and worried, not because I was fearful, but because I placed Him first, even before my nation, and I just wanted to do what pleased Him.”

As a result, He felt sorry for me and provided me with the confidence I needed. I didn’t really comprehend anything. I couldn’t comprehend how He could allow me to go to battle and even murder without holding it against me. I didn’t even want to know what was going on. It was enough for me knowing it was His will. So, at long last, I started to see the light. I began to realize that no matter what a guy is obliged to do, he will remain a virtuous man as long as he is right in his own spirit. I knew I’d have to go to battle. I knew I’d be safe from danger as long as I trusted in Him, and that He wouldn’t let even a single hair on my head be damaged.”

York climbed down from the mountain and said a prayer of thankfulness as the sun rose over the valley. He returned home to gather his belongings and prepare for his return to Georgia and, from there, the European battlefields.


How to Apply Alvin C. York’s Story to Your Own Life as a Decision-Making Pattern

Military soldier Alvin York portrait sitting in chair.

Alvin York was a devout Christian who needed to make a religious choice. But try to look at the larger pattern of how he wrestled with his query in order to find a solution, putting aside the particular of his beliefs and his predicament. Not all men will share York’s religious beliefs, and many will be forced to choose between their religion and their citizenship. When confronted with life’s difficult, heavy problems, however, all men may profit from following the same pattern of finding answers. I’m not talking about decisions that can be made by making a list of advantages and disadvantages, such as which vehicle to purchase or what major to pursue (which may seem important at the moment, but doesn’t always effect your future as much as you think it would).

Rather, I’m referring about the problems that have far-reaching implications, the ones that rip you apart — challenging situations in which making a choice seems both frightening and practically impossible. You got your girlfriend pregnant, and now you’re debating whether to abort the kid, adopt it, or keep it? Should you quit medical school and start your own company? Should you end your comatose wife’s life? Is your girlfriend “the one,” and if so, should you propose to her? Should you join the military or continue your education?

When you’re presented with a large issue and don’t know what to do, York’s pattern of discovery may help you figure it out:

1. Make a list of your motivations.

York had to make sure he really grasped the motives that had led to the issue in the first place and were pulling him towards each alternative before he could even contemplate what he needed to do. He knew he wasn’t afraid of violence, and he didn’t discover that he dreaded being murdered or regretted having to leave his former life behind when he searched inside. He could honestly argue that it was a question of his religion clashing with his patriotism.

We often invent fallacious justifications for choosing specific solutions. When we’re genuinely anxious about failing our parents, we argue that a course isn’t viable. We cherry-pick a religious rationale as a reason for not doing something when we’re actually afraid to do it or can’t take taking responsibility for our choices. However, before we can pick amongst several possibilities, we must first comprehend and evaluate why we chose those courses in the first place.

2. Seek counsel from others.

The first thing York did was seek advice from his pastor and mentor about his situation. However, if he had stopped there, with the guy who led the church that taught that war was evil, his viewpoint would not have been particularly balanced. Instead, he spoke about it with Major Buxton, a guy who had managed to combine his religion with a successful military career. York was able to see both sides of the coin as a result of this.


When looking for a solution to a tough topic, attempt to learn as much as you can about the circumstance and your possibilities. You want to be as well-informed as possible while making your selection. Inquiring for input from friends, family, and mentors is a component of this “research” phase. They may have an angle to offer that you hadn’t considered, and they may help you view your alternatives and beliefs in a new light. All the better if you can locate someone to speak to who has been in a similar circumstance. Other people can’t tell you what to do (and you shouldn’t let them – York finally made the choice on his own), but they can help you comprehend the benefits and drawbacks of your option, as well as what other people would do if they were in your situation.

3. Take some time to think about the question.

The second component of the information-gathering step, in addition to asking people for assistance, is to examine the subject as thoroughly as possible. This might include reading your scriptures, like York did, as well as biographies of individuals who have faced similar challenges. You could wish to read a philosophical treatise or research the location you’re considering relocating to. If you’re dealing with a medical issue, this will include not just speaking with your doctor, but also seeking a second opinion and maybe reviewing research articles on the matter. Make a concerted effort to obtain all pertinent facts so that you can make an educated conclusion.

4. Think on what you’ve learnt.

York walked into the woods for hours, pondering what he had learned and what others had shared with him. Do the same. Take time to consider what you’ve learned as you obtain as much information as possible about your many possibilities. What makes you feel empty and befuddled when you read anything or chat to someone? What causes your thoughts to light up or your heart to swell?

5. Make your choice by praying or meditating in solitude.

York was no clearer about what to do after months of talking it over, wondering, researching, and praying than when his draft card first came in the mail. This is a common occurrence while making major choices. While the research stage of the procedure may likely improve your knowledge, it will not certainly flash the correct solution in neon lights. As a result, individuals often get trapped in the information-gathering phase, thinking that simply talking to one more person would suddenly make everything apparent, but yet scared to ultimately pull the trigger.

The research process, however, must come to a conclusion after you’ve properly explored the topic from all angles. Now is the moment to make a choice.

When you’re ready to accept your response, follow York’s lead and seek to a spot of peace and isolation where you won’t be disturbed and can be alone with your thoughts. Nature’s serenity makes for an ideal location.


If you’re not a theist, at least not one who believes in God-man communication, then spend some time alone contemplating on your choice and attempting to figure out what you really feel is the best course of action.

If you’re a believer, you’ve undoubtedly been praying for guidance and wisdom all along. Now is the moment to make a sincere request to God to show you the way. Unlike York, I think that instead of asking the open-ended question, “What should I do?” you should make your own decision based on your research and reflection, and then give it to God for confirmation or rejection. Do you have a feeling of calm and certainty in your heart as York did, or do you have a numbness or dullness in your heart and continue to be perplexed?

Whether you seek an answer to your question via meditation or prayer, I think you’ll know you’re on the correct track when your heart and head are in sync. Each of them may lead a guy astray on their own. When they’re aligned, though, you’ve typically figured out what you’re looking for.

6. Take a step forward with confidence.

It’s worth noting that, despite York’s inspiring summit experience, he still had reservations about his choice on occasion. Indeed, as soon as he returned to boot camp, he began to question if he was doing the right thing, and he even received another letter enquiring about his desire for CO rank — talk about temptation to reopen the matter! When he arrived in Europe and had to do bayonet training on dummies, he wondered whether he could truly do the same to another guy. York, on the other hand, didn’t allow his misgivings get in the way of completing his job; he would pray and ponder on the response he had previously gotten before going on. Rather than living in a condition of uncertainty and merely getting by, he proceeded to boldly embrace his decision and try to be the greatest soldier he could be. A guy who once claimed, “I don’t want to fight,” became a war hero and a leader of other soldiers through his tenacity.

Even if you are very certain of your choice, you will still have doubts about it, just as York did. That is very typical. But you can’t back out of your choice and continue to straddle the line, always wondering “what if?” Fence-sitters wind up with one half of oneself down one route and the other half down the other; they fail to advance and lose out on the advantages of traveling entirely down either path. Instead, when you’re in question, go back on the decision-making process you went through to get to where you are now; if the circumstances under which you made your decision haven’t altered drastically, trust that you made the proper decision and continue ahead. That’s why this method is so powerful: rather than making a significant decision on the spur of the moment, you can always go back and know you did all you could to make the greatest option possible, and you can continue to accept that decision and live with confidence.


Even if you are very certain of your choice, you will still have doubts about it, just as York did. That is very typical. But you can’t back out of your choice and continue to straddle the line, always wondering “what if?” Fence-sitters wind up with one half of oneself down one route and the other half down the other; they fail to advance and lose out on the advantages of traveling entirely down either path. Instead, when you’re in question, go back on the decision-making process you went through to get to where you are now; if the circumstances under which you made your decision haven’t altered drastically, trust that you made the proper decision and continue ahead. That’s why this method is so powerful: rather than making a significant decision on the spur of the moment, you can always go back and know you did all you could to make the greatest option possible, and you can continue to accept that decision and live with confidence.


John Perry’s Sgt. York: His Life and Legacy



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