David Aaron Gray

"Don't believe everything 
you hear on the radio"
- Charles Foster Kane

David Aaron Gray (Blog)

A FEW GOOD MEN: A Lesson in Moral Disengagement

Posted by davidaarongray on November 3, 2013 at 5:10 PM

"Unit, Corps, God, Country." Who could possibly forget that (now almost) cliche Marine Corps "code" from the 1992 classic, A Few Good Men.


But before signing up at your local Marine Recruitment office, I have a word of caution for all you would be warriors…intense and unforgettable though it may be, that "code," referenced several times throughout A Few Good Men, was simply one of many fictitious catchphrases originating from the creative mind of writer Aaron Sorkin.


The real Marine code is: "HONOR, COURAGE, COMMITMENT." Not very cinematic, maybe, but it has gotten the Corps through many a sticky situation and when combined with the acronym that forms the USMC 14 Traits of Leadership, "J.J. DID TIE BUCKLE," it becomes as unforgettable as Sorkin's version.


For those interested, here is the breakdown of that bizarre acronym:


1. Justice


2. Judgment


3. Dependability


4. Initiative


5. Decisiveness


6. Tact


7. Integrity


8. Enthusiasm


9. Bearing


10. Unselfishness


11. Courage


12. Knowledge


13. Loyalty


14. Endurance


Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure our beloved Corps would still have been victorious From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli if we changed the mnemonic device to something a little more "story like." Just spitballing, but here's a college try (come up with your own if you like):


Janitors Initiate Devious Unions, Then Instigate Extreme Debating Between Coworkers, Even Ladies, Just Kidding!

But let's not split hairs. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.


Enough tangents…let's dive right into the genius of the film, which can essentially be conveyed in one of the movie's lesser known exchanges:


Lt. Commander Galloway (Demi Moore):


This past February you received a cautionary memo from the Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, warning that the practice of enlisted men disciplining their own wasn’t to be condoned by officers.

Col. Jessup (and if you don't know who the actor was then stop reading right now and go watch the movie):


Well, I submit to you that whoever wrote that memo has never faced the working end of a Soviet-made Cuban AK-47 assault rifle.

The moral dilemma that Sorkin so delicately presents (yet leaves it to us to answer) is whether or not it is permissible to commit a crime under the pretext of "obeying orders."


Director, Rob Reiner expanded on this question in an interview with the NYTimes shortly after the film's debut:


Where do you draw the line between being loyal and following orders, and acting on your own when something is immoral or illegal. It's the same moral dilemma the world faced at Nuremberg, or Calley at My Lai. And it doesn't just apply to the military. We all live in corporate or business cultures. We're all subordinate to somebody else. We all have to make decisions about what's right and what's wrong.

The two defendants in the film, PFC Downey and Lance Corporal Dawson were given a direct order by their superior officer, Lt. Kendrick to discipline the victim (PFC Santiago) due mainly to the failure and insubordination on the part of Santiago - depicted in this scene:

Now, if two low ranking marines were given an order by their Lieutenant to discipline (in a nonlethal way) someone like Santiago, it is a tall task to accuse those marines of any blatant wrongdoing.


But, Sorkin's genius in A Few Good Men lies in two very important questions that combine to create the moral ambiguity that our society is confronted with everyday:


First, Sorkin elevates the banality of evil beyond the NCO level and up the chain of command, making the viewer unsure who is just executing a directive and who is actually acting under his own free will.


In the following scene, it appears that Lt. Kendrick may also just be following orders (and the consequences for not doing so are grave):

Yet, even when we learn who originated the "code red" that resulted in the death of PFC Santiago, Sorkin hits us with a much more challenging conundrum: Was Col. Jessup's order "to train the lad" itself wrong?


Back in 1945, no one was debating whether the slaughter of millions of innocent people was right or wrong. In that case, the challenge for the prosecution was to establish where (within the hierarchy of the Third Reich) the line was that separated true evil from blind loyalty to that evil.


A Few Good Men essentially does the opposite of Nuremberg. As we just saw, it is made very clear to the audience early in the film who is the originator of all orders at GITMO, including the one that kills Santiago.


Yet, despite Jessup's order to Kendrick (Sutherland) to make sure Santiago makes "4646 on his next Proficiency and Conduct Report," (using the threat of death as motivation), Sorkin tactfully isolates our condemnation to Kendrick through scenes like this which make him look like the same redneck, bible belt racist from a Time to Kill:

As much as we would like to blame the crime on Lt. Kendrick, it's obvious that his capability to disobey an order (regardless of moral ramifications) is just as limited as the two marines on trial for murder. In short, he's just a patsy:

Finally, in the iconic climax of the film, Sorkin uses Jessup's testimony as a medium through which to explicitly state "the truth" of society's moral dilemma that all of us are too afraid to handle.


Categories: Fun Film Facts

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