The courtroom is silent as the old military man gathers himself. Every eye is on him. He is either a courageous hero or a misguided fool.
The courtroom is silent as the young lawyer stands waiting. Every eye is on him. He is either a courageous hero or a misguided fool.
Finally, the old military man speaks.
"Have I made myself clear?"
“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can 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 my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.
“You don’t want the truth because, deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you 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 punchline. 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 that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand at post.
“Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.”
If you’ve seen the film A Few Good Men, or read the exceptional play by Aaron Sorkin upon which the film is based, you know that in the end Col. Nathan Jessup is not only a misguided fool but a pernicious bully, and we cheer when he is removed from the courtroom, guilty of an innocent man’s blood. In the end, he is the villain – the straw man that represents our government and its blind ambition, greed and callousness.
But the question, as I sit here typing before Memorial Day, is are we right to cheer for Jessup’s downfall?
Sure, in the movie, he’s an arrogant jerk who thinks he owns the world. Even in the speech I’ve quoted above, he references his belief that he provides “the blanket of freedom” under which we all live. We’re set up from the get-go to dislike this man – in fact, it reminds me of something David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay on David Lynch. Wallace said, and I’m paraphrasing, that most movies come with a built-in morality that’s designed to mirror the audiences perceptions. The more accurately a movie diagnoses the audiences moral convictions and panders to them, the more popular the movie will turn out to be.
Wallace’s point is that the movies we love best are the ones that manipulate us the most. And in A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin manipulate us with the best of them, most compellingly so in our disgust for Col. Jessup.
Now, I won’t bother to parse the politics of either Mr. Reiner or Mr. Sorkin, because I don’t believe they are the issue here. What I guess is bothering me this Friday of the Memorial Day weekend, is that we as the American audience can ever be swayed to dislike a solider at all.
Sure, there are those who enter into our voluntary military out of a misguided notion that they’ll be able to make better use of their socio- or psychopathic tendencies, but those soldiers are, I’ve been told more than once, quickly identified and rendered unfit for service. And while I’m aware that any large bureaucracy will have its inherent corruptions, I believe sincerely that the majority of the U.S. Armed Forces membership is comprised of good and noble men and women who sign their lives away a piece at a time to do those things which keep us free.
Those things which neither you nor I as civilians have the wherewithal to do.
In A Few Good Men we are led to revile Col. Jessup because he lives by the idea that his existence is meant to keep the American people free, and that means blood sometimes has to be shed. While the blood shed in the movie is the blood of an innocent Marine, we’re led to revile Jessup for being willing to shed blood at all. We’re led to the pacifistic notion that we can solve our problems without guns.
And while I wish that were true, all I need do is head on over to CNN.com and read the latest story from Kandahar or Kabul to realize that we do indeed live in a world that requires men with guns to protect us. We, the homebound many, are dependent upon the armed few. We, the clean civilians, are made free by the blood-covered soldiers who serve at our behest, which is the ultimate irony of A Few Good Men:
We hate Nathan Jessup for being willing to kill, but he’s only willing to kill because we the people have commissioned him to do so on our own behalf. Our dislike for Jessup is really a perverse self-loathing projected onto him, an unconscious rejection of the cost of our self-righteous contentedness.
I remember the first time I really thought about the relationship between the American people and the American soldier. I was in fifth grade, and we took a FOCUS trip to Washington D.C., a bunch of geeky intellectual kids cut loose on the nation’s capitol. One of our stops was the National Mall, and I somehow ended up at the Vietnam Memorial. Something about those thousands of tiny names cut deeply into the black granite made me stand still. While other memorials were to individuals, or were oblique statues meant to represent many people, this monument stood out because of the stunning care it took to display each and every name to the seeing eye.
I didn’t know how to articulate this of course, but it resonated with me: here, for all to see, was the human cost of war. Not abstractions or slogans or jargon, but the actual flesh and blood price for freedom. I remember just standing there, moved to tears, looking for a name I might recognize. I didn’t know anyone on the wall, but I felt as if I should.
And when I came across a man, dressed in tattered Army greens, who just stared at a single panel of the wall, at a single name, I knew that whatever price the men and women on that wall paid was far greater than any I was willing to pay. I knew, in my heart, that what they had seen and done and felt and remembered was burden that should be mine to carry, but one which I willingly shifted to their shoulders, not caring if the weight was too much.
It’s sort of like how a lot of people see the Cross of Christ. But I’ll leave that for another time.
I guess I just want us all to remember, as we grill out this weekend, or whenever we feel compelled to make smart remarks when we read of some military exercise gone wrong (or in the case of Osama Bin Laden, gone right), that we are not talking about abstractions. We’re not even talking about the fictional “bad guys” like Nathan Jessup, whom we can pretentiously hate without having to really think about it.
We’re discussing men and women, sons and daughters, who are willing to bear the price of bloodshed so that we may be free. They bear by proxy the blood that is on our hands.
Let’s make sure we take some time this weekend to be grateful.
And if we can’t be grateful, then let’s at least agree to shut up and give honor by not spewing dishonor.
It’s the very least we can do.