Just before Memorial Day, I wrote a post critiquing the movie A Few Good Men. I basically said that the Jack Nicholson character, Col. Nathan Jessup, was a strawman designed to make the audience dislike him, and how it might be the result of an agenda to get the American people against their brothers-in-arms. I also remarked that we, the American people, seem to have fallen prey to that very agenda.
I was quite proud of the post. Still am. But, always wanting a larger perspective, I sent the link to Marine Lt. Col. Karl “KJ” Johnson and asked him to give me his thoughts. You might remember KJ from his previous post on the death of Osama Bin Laden. He’s not only a Marine, but he’s super smart, very funny, and one heck of a good writer.
It took him a while to respond (defending the very concepts of liberty and freedom can be time consuming, you know…) but I’m glad he did. I asked for his permission to post his thoughts in full, and he graciously agreed.
Please take some time to not only read but offer your comments and feedback to KJ. He’s trying to get back into writing, so your kind words or words of critique can be an immense blessing to him.
But if I were you, I’d keep them mostly positive…you don’t want to piss off a guy who knows his way around a Marine helicopter. Just sayin’.
Movies, The Military and A Marine’s Thoughts
By Lt. Col. Karl “KJ” Johnson
I agree: we can’t handle the truth. We don’t want to handle the truth; we’d prefer to continue insulating ourselves from reality. But you cannot ignore Colonel Jessup; he demands…no, he commands our attention. I find this interesting because A Few Good Men came just a few months after I accepted a commission to be an officer in the Marine Corps. I was stationed in Quantico, VA (just outside of Washington DC) going through TBS (The Basic School) which is entry-level training for officers and where we learn how to be an officer of Marines. A lot of folks were excited about the release of this film, but after seeing it I questioned my peers’ excitement. I would tell them “hey, guys, this doesn’t really cast us in such good light.” I mean, I know Jack Nicholson makes any role cool and that he was long overdue playing a Marine, but really? The appeal to this film is that much of what Col. Jessup says is true. There are so many out there who take for granted the freedoms that they are afforded all the while disparaging the means by which they are afforded those freedoms. That argument really resonates with many in the military. Want to see a comical version of this? Take a couple of minutes and watch this before reading on: Daily Show (Yes, it’s funny…but watch the whole thing.)
Yeah, wish we had someone designated to protect free speech….but I digress. Much of what Jessup says is true. The problem with this caricature (and that’s what it is) is that it’s unrealistic. There’s no way a full-bird colonel, someone with over 22 years of service, would have gotten involved in something like this. It’s too far below his level. I would argue that it’s actually in the realm of the absurd. It would have been more realistic that Jack Bauer, er, Keifer Sutherland’s character would have ordered the code red (also called a “blanket party”) and maybe Jessup would have tried to cover it up to protect “his boy”. So I don’t quite right him off as an arrogant jerk, but an unrealistic caricature. Additionally, there are differences between the Marines and the Navy as was highlight by the lunch scene in Gitmo…it would not be unbelievable to conceive of a scene in which a junior officer fails to observe proper military decorum and falls into the familiar too much. Add to that the always present rivalry between the Navy and the Marine Corps, Jessup was not out of line to correct Cruise’s character…but that got lost in the “caricature-izing” of Jessup. But as Jason noted, he is a bit of a bully; they do exist in the Marine Corps (sadly).
But I also don’t see him as a straw man for the government. Maybe it’s me being “on the inside”, but I see the military as a tool of the government. I guess I consider the government as the representative body of elected officials and the military as a volunteer career force that simply implements/supports/enforces policy. The government has multiple tools: diplomatic, informational, military, economic, etc. (a good way to remember that is DIME…but there are others as well). So I’d disagree on that premise/basis and subsequently I don’t see it as greed. If anything, Jessup would be guilty of “losing the forest through the trees” and using the ends to justify the means. He’s decided that, due to his experience and near-total authority, that he’s above the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It’s a classic case of power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. His intentions are not actually that bad: he wants to protect unit cohesion and camaraderie while preserving the standards of his “beloved Corps”. Whether or not you agree with his diagnosis of the problem, we can all agree that he prescribes an entirely unjust and unfair solution to this “problem” within one of his subordinate units.
I find that the movie places us in a moral dilemma. We buy into Jessup slightly because we admire his dedication and commitment to our country; he sees what many do not see: the daily threats to our national security. And he stares those threats down. He’s a real American hero. But he steps over the line by assuming a role that he’s not been given, by wielding authority that he’s not been granted. It’s hard to get past the admirable qualities and see the error. You see, unlike enlisted personnel who sign contracts, officers serve “at the leisure of the President,” and Jessup would have done well to have remembered that. We can be relieved and dismissed from our careers in a heartbeat. We are given clearly defined roles and Jessup stepped outside of his role and over-extended his authority. Officers are held to a higher standard for a good reason…we control and influence a lot. But none of that diminishes that great things that Jessup has likely done over the course of his highly decorated career. He’s still a hero, but he’s now a disgraced hero. So no need to invoke politics; invoking ethics is enough to “de-throne” Jessup. And the rest of the Marines in the chain of command who were complicit.
So I don’t think the movie has an agenda against the military and I don’t think that the movie-makers are trying to lump all blood shed into one pile. I think they did a decent job of placing these elements in tension to put us in a spot in which we’re not quite sure how to react. We know what he’s done is wrong, but we still want to admire him a bit. Maybe I’m naive and missed that, but I prefer to give the film makers the benefit of the doubt in that they’re more interested in a good moral dilemma than political agenda. Of course, in light of this recent article, there may also be something to that as well. But I don’t see enough in the film to make that determination.
But movie critiquing aside, I agree with Jason’s closing point. Agree or disagree with Just Theory; support “the war” or protest “the war”; pacifist or war-monger; let’s support our men and women in the Armed Forces and thank them for their sacrifice. Let’s not repeat the horrific mistreatment and abuses heaped upon those who returned from Vietnam. That was a travesty of epic proportions. My dad lived through that, and it was incredibly short-sighted of those who sought peace and disagreed with national policy. Rail against policy and policy-makers, not the servants who exist solely to implement/support/enforce polify…whether or not they agree with it (remember, not everyone who serves agrees with policy…but we’ve sworn an oath, and it’s an oath we take seriously). So thank a servicemember the next time you him/her, it means a lot more to us than you can ever realize. When I returned to United States soil for the first time after seven months in Afghanistan last December, the line of supporters cheering for me, hugging me and shaking my hand in the Dallas airport moved me to tears. And it still does just thinking about it. And it made re-entry into normal life a lot easier. And that’s the truth!