The movie, A Few Good Men is a courtroom drama, revolving around the trials of Lance Corporal Dawson, and Private Downey, who end up killing a fellow marine, Private Santiago while administering an extrajudicial punishment called ‘Code Red’. The two marines are charged with murder, however, they register a plea of not-guilty, stating that they were following orders given to them by their superiors, Colonel Nathan Jessup and their Lieutenant, Jonathan Kendrick. Both Jessup and Kendrick deny having given out such orders, do not initially acknowledge the existence of ‘Code Red’ and claim that Santiago was set to be transferred out of the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, right before his death.
The movie ends with the Defense, led by Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee and Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway, proving that Code Red orders do exist, and that Colonel Jessup ordered the two Marines to carry out a Code Red on Santiago. Jessup is arrested, and the Marines are cleared of the charge of Murder. They are however found guilty of ‘conduct unbecoming a United States Marine’ and are dishonorably discharged.
The movie presents two major ethical issues to the viewer, both of which have interesting implications and demand some investigation:
1. Colonel Nathan Jessup’s justification of a Code Red
While this is a comparatively smaller issue, it does deserve some explanation, given that it results most directly from the iconic speech that Nathan delivers near the end of the movie.
“You can’t handle the truth!” Jessup shouts at Kaffee, right before confessing to having ordered a Code Red. Jessup gives a moving speech in which he explains the burden of his responsibility. According to him, each decision that he makes is responsible for saving lives. While civilians might use words like ‘honor’ and ‘code’ as “punch-lines”, Jessup and the United States Marine consider them to be a “backbone of a life spent defending lives”. He believes that such a responsibility exonerates him from the questioning of those very people whom he protects, even if some of the actions he committed or ordered assume a seemingly unethical nature.
This presents an ethical dilemma – should men of Jessup’s stature be actually allowed to commit unethical acts, such as ordering a Code Red, in view of the greater good?
The answer, in my belief, is a definite no. Stan Lee gave us one of the most important pieces of knowledge through the unlikely medium of a superhero comic – ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.
It is understandable that honor is a central ideal for the Marines, and that a rigid chain of command is an essential feature in such an organization. But then it is the responsibility of men like Jessup to use the power at their disposal wisely and efficiently. This efficient handling manifests itself in understanding the moral and ethical basis of each decision that they make – essentially by asking themselves, ‘At what cost is honor worth obtaining?’ In the movie,...