A Few Good Men


A Few Good Men is a fictionalized courtroom drama movie that was nominated for four Oscars. The movie stars Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Demi Moore, Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, and Kevin Pollack. In this intense thriller, Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Cruise), a Navy lawyer defends two Marines who murdered another Marine. Col. Nathan Jessup (Nicholson) is the base commander of all Marines at Guantanamo Bay.

SPOILER ALERT: This blog reveals information about the film A Few Good Men. I highly recommend seeing this film before reading the blog although it is not necessary to understand the points I make. The movie by Rob Reiner  is based on the play by Aaron Sorkin. The movie takes place in 1992 so Guantanamo Bay did not have as much of the negative attitudes as it does now. The movie focuses on the base’s role in opposition to Communist Cuba. Jessup mentions that he “eat[s] breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill him.”

The defendants claim that PFC Santiago, the victim, was given a “CODE RED”. CODE REDs do not exist in today’s military, but in the movie it is an unsanctioned marine training tool that extends from bullying to torturing a marine who is hurting his company. The brutality of it is so bad that the movie emphasizes that they are explicitly banned. It is designed to “train him to think of his unit before himself. To respect the code.” For example, one marine is given a CODE RED because he dropped his gun only once. Later that night, the men in his company tied him down and “poured glue on his hands…and it worked too.” CODE RED’s are not an approved method of disciplining marines, but the movie argues that they usually work.

The victim in the movie, William Santiago, was a screw-up. At Guantanamo Bay, screw-ups aren’t tolerated, especially by Col. Nathan Jessup (Nicholson). Santiago wanted to leave Gitmo because clearly based on how many times he messed up this was not his calling. Jessup would not let him leave though. He was committed at all costs to make Santiago into a good marine so that he could defend the nation. Jessup ordered two marines (the defendants) to gag Santiago and shavee his hair as a punishment for being a bad Marine. Santiago ended up accidentally dying from suffocating on the rag used to gag him.

The central theme is honor. Yet, the definitions of honor accepted by each person are so outstandingly conflicting that the movie analyzes what honor is and at what cost is honor worth obtaining. To the lawyers, honor is a punch line. To the marines at Gitmo it is a necessity to survive. To the commanding officer, Colonel Jessup, it is authorization for the strong to exploit the weak so that in his mind he can protect Americans. Lieutenant Kendrick (Sutherland) uses honor as a cover for bigotry and pride.

The climax of the film is an exchange between the aggressive young Lieutenant Kaffee, and the veteran base commander Colonel Jessup, who had given the CODE RED order that resulted in a man’s death, and tried to cover up that he had given the order. The climax of the movie, resulting in the famous phrase “you can’t handle the truth” and Jessup admitting to ordering the CODE RED makes the viewer question whether Jessup is truly making the utilitarian argument in defending the nation at all costs.

Col. Jessup: You want answers? Tom Cruise (Kaffee): I think I’m entitled. Jack Nicholson (Col. Jessup): You want answers?

Kaffee: I want the truth!

Col. Jessup: You can’t handle the truth! …

Col. Jessup: Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Whose gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have more responsibility here than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. I know deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you don’t want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punch line. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I prefer you said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand to post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

The fact of the movie is this: a weak young man (however deplorable personally) was killed to ensure a “code” and to instill in him “honor.” Yet, somewhere, there is a disconnect between real honor, and that honor demonstrated by Jessup. Jessup has the honor of a bully. He helps his friends, and sticks it to his enemies. Meanwhile, real honor, as one of the accused soldiers notes at the end of the film, is defending those who are too weak to defend themselves. It is to behave admirably and justly, not simply to follow one’s orders, no matter what their cost.

Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) giving his famous "You Can't Handle the Truth" testimony

Jessup argues that while he might be “grotesque” he is necessary to defend the nation. He sees no other way to defend the nation except to force every man into an able-bodied defender of it. To him, there is giving CODE REDs or there is watching the nation fall apart. But these two options are the same thing. He believes the nation is indefensible without ordering these brutalities against his own troops, yet our values oppose CODE REDs. If the nation adopted the same values as Jessup it would cease to exist as we know it.

The underlying connection that the movie seems to portray is that the country needs people like Jessup as long as the masses are ignorant to these people. The people would like to believe that a virtuous person is in power, but I think Jessup would classify himself as a Machiavellian leader using strategic amoralism. I believe that he is wrong and his actions do not serve the purpose of the people, but from his perspective, they do.

The antithesis leader in the movie is Lt. Col. Mathew Markinson. At first, you see him as a follower of Jessup who assists in ordering the CODE RED and the cover up afterwards. Later, he switches sides and tells Kaffee about what happened at Gitmo, only to sadly commit suicide because he is unable to live with his past actions. His character offers a unique perspective on an issue we discussed in class. To what extent do soldiers have to follow orders? Unlike the situation in which soldiers are commanded to kill unarmed opposing combatants or civilians, the CODE RED is a training technique used on our own soldiers.

The fact that Jessup believes that he is defending the country while committing these crimes brings to mind the Dirty Hands problem. Jessup is a true patriot in his eyes. For years, he has selflessly served his country and probably seen many atrocities committed on the battlefield. It is therefore understandable that he would want to make his marines into the best marines possible. Just because he has a good reason does not make his actions excusable. Jessup begins to defend the nation as a piece of land, not as a country with principles. These principles prevent us from murdering our own marines, even at the cost of saving more lives.

Lastly,  after Jessup is convicted, he says to Kaffee, “You have no idea how to defend a nation. All you did was weaken a country today, Kaffee. That’s all you did. You put people’s lives in danger.” According to Jessup, justice would be allowing him off because he keeps the country stronger. Truthfully, Jessup is probably right, but what costs do his leadership come with? This makes me think about other sacrifices we make to defend the nation such as the Patriot Act. Similar to CODE REDs, the personal freedom the Patriot Act forces us to give up does not meet the benefits of it.

The ending of the movie brings out many of the themes. If you still have not seen the movie, the following gives away the ending. The two defendants are acquitted from the murder charges, but are dishonorably discharged from the Marines for “conduct unbefitting a Marine.” They realize that while they were not technically responsible for the death of Santiago, they did not act in the honorable manner of a Marine because they followed an order they should not have followed. They “needed to fight for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. [They] needed to fight for Willy.” Here, the movie adopts the Hobbesian argument that when the leader places his followers in harms way they should revolt, or in the Marines case refuse to follow the order. But is this unrealistic for someone to ask when most people follow orders?

CODE REDs do not exist today in the same context that the movie portrays them. While this is extremely relieving, the problems that the CODE REDs presented still do exist.

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One Comment on “A Few Good Men”

  1. sbyr Says:

    I haven’t seen A Few Good Men, but I think I’ve gotten general idea of the film from your post. My understanding is that in the film “code reds”, though potentially physically harmful, aim to make marines stronger and fit to defend the nation. Col. Nathan Jessup’s order and the two marines’ subsequent actions are certainly morally wrong; however, when code reds are executed correctly Jessup feels they have the ultimate positive effect of saving lives. Your description of William Santiago as a screw-up and the consequent hazing incident reminded me of Private Pyle in the movie Full Metal Jacket. After Pyle is caught with a donut and the platoon is forced to do pushups, the platoon beats him with soap during the night. Following this incident, Pyle’s performance improves although he also has a mental breakdown. So basically, in regards to the problem of dirty hands, Jessup argues that code reds are ultimately for the greater good and necessary as they create soldiers capable of defending the nation. This is a very interesting case of the dirty hands problem. One counter argument is that these code reds are unnecessary and actually have little effect on the marines’ abilities.

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