An overview of the film “A Few Good Men”

“A Few Good Men,” film

“A Few Good Men,” released in 1992, portrays the culture of the Marine Corps and presents the ethical dilemma of following orders and when to do the right thing. The motion picture is in the historical setting of a Marine barracks in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in 1992, commonly referred to as Gitmo (Columbia Pictures). Throughout the viewing, there were several apparent misrepresentations and lies, options for taking the easy way out at another person’s expense, ethical behaviours, and dilemmas presented. I will provide an overview of the film, how some of the ethical and moral dilemmas came to light, the stakeholders impacted, and the consequences and responsibilities of the key stakeholders.

After presenting the groundwork will shift to the organizational culture, the impacts of making ethical decisions, the prescriptive approach, and identify the moral disengagement mechanisms.

The conclusion will address the actions and lack of efforts by leaders and their role throughout the film

The main storyline begins with two Marines who carry out a “Code Red” attack. Ordered by their commanding officer, Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson, and Private First Class Louden Downey engaged a “Code Red,” which is an illegal hazing attack. This time, the attack went wrong, resulting in the death of Private First-Class William T Santiago. When performing the “Code Red,” Santiago suffered from lactic acidosis triggered by the attack by being gagged with a rag, his hands taped behind his back, and feet taped together (Columbia Pictures). Once they noticed bleeding, the officers claimed to have called for an ambulance. Once charged with this crime, they are assigned Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a Naval attorney, to represent them. Kaffee’s character represents a sub storyline depicting a young, inexperienced, and quick to negotiate a plea to avoid taking a case to trial while maintaining a reputation for closing cases, whether right or wrong and carefree about the real issues at hand. Given the nature of this case, the commanding officer intended to have Kaffee plea this case out and not go to court. The character evolves from a lax and entitled individual in a position due to his deceased father’s influence to an engaged attorney willing to risk his very own career to do the right thing. During the motion picture, the case unfolds, and Kaffee is challenged by another military attorney Galloway and later co-counsel, only to seek the truth in the case and learns to represent his clients.

Kaffee’s most significant obstacle was to learn the truth, build a case, and break down the cultural characteristics of the Marine Corps top field leader, Colonel Jessup. The basis of Kaffee’s defence strategy stemmed from the two marine officers, Dawson and Downey, were merely following the orders from their commanding officer and had no reasonable option to disobey or challenge the orders. The reason the commanding officer was providing the orders, referred to as “Code Red,” was to teach the young and slow soldier how to be a real Marine. Despite Santiago’s attempts to be moved off the base in exchange for testimony for wrongdoings on the base, Jessup felt some threat by just signing the papers to move him. During an instruction from Jessup, Kendrick ordered the entire troops not to touch Santiago, and almost immediately following, he went the barracks of Dawson and Downey and gave them strict orders of a Code Red on Santiago, which was contrary to the earlier statement to the entire platoon. Murdering anyone was not the intention of The Code Red. Its actual purpose was to teaching and helping the deficient soldier to adjust and live up to the expectations of the Corps. The Code Red assignment is like many military rules and laws that dictate to subordinates how they will perform a task or follow orders ( source). These two marines, along with all the marines, following the direct orders, were under the mindset that the responsibility of their actions when following orders would fall back on the commanding officer. During Kaffee’s investigation and discovery interview, Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) provided information to coverup what truly happened, and his right-hand leaders also followed. During the trial, the marines did not break the numerous aspects of the Code of Conduct they were to adhere to at no cost. These two officers were not willing to take a plea, as by taking the plea, they would implicate their superior officers of wrongdoings. During the final witnesses, Kaffee, against advice from the Naval Internal Affairs co-counsel, was advised not to accuse a high-ranking officer and he could be court-martialed, but also advised, that if he were to attempt to get the witness to incriminate them-self, then he should be in the clear. The anticipation in the final questioning had many viewers on edge waiting to hear of Colonel Jessup would admit to ordering the Code Red, even though he previously denied ever saying this and resulted in the loss of Santiago. By this admittance and his statement that protecting the sanctity of the military goes beyond the law, Jessup and Kendrick were apprehended, and charges brought for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Not that you have a basic overview of the motion picture, I will examine some of the ethical and moral dilemmas presented. The main ethical dilemmas came to light when Jessup ordered the Code Red, triggering two marines to initiate a learning exercise resulting in death. The reason the order was made stems from Santiago wanting to get off of the base and attempted to leverage information regarding a shooting into enemy territory.

The ethical dilemma presented is how Jessup handled the situation. Instead of addressing the issue immediately and communicating the concern with Santiago, he ordered a Code Red to teach Santiago to learn to respect authority and to act like a marine. After the Death of Santiago, Jessup and his right-hand men, Kendrick and Markinson, clearly lied about the Code Red, advised Kaffee that Santiago was going to be shipped back home, and then falsified documents to cover his tracks. These actions became apparent once Kaffee was able to investigate and document deficiencies in the facts and that a flight that was mentioned was not even on a flight schedule. Another ethical issue presented is by Kaffee and his lackadaisical approach to handling the case. He was willing to represent his clients and to make a plea without even listening to or investigating the entire case. This ethical concern was presented when Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) challenged Kaffee and influenced him to take an active role, or she would. As an attorney, holding the fate of a client in your hands and knowing you are just trying to close the case without due diligence is ethically wrong. Allowing poor actors to continue to get away with wrongdoings at the expense of others is also ethically wrong. The third set of circumstances presenting poor ethical and moral behavior is the actions of Captain Matthew A. Markinson. Markinson went AWOL when the trial began and later surfaced to provide information to Kaffee. Markinson agreed to testify for the defense. The ethical and moral issues came into play when he dressed in his full marine blues, polished his weapon, and took his own life to protect the secrets of the Marine Corp, yet leaving the accused officers on trial at the mercy of the jury. The suicide shows moral disengagement when he selfishly takes his own life knowing the life of two fellow soldiers are also in question, and he did not live up to his promise to testify, rather than dishonoring the Marine Corp Colonel Jessup.

The Marine Corps has a rich history of tradition and loyalty to the Corps.

The Corps, like may military organizations, are led by a top-down leadership approach, or a chain of commands coming from the top-ranking leaders through all the ranks down to the low levels (Trevino & Nelson 2017). A Marine’s loyalty is to protect their code listed in the order of “Unit, Corps, God, and Country” (Columbia Pictures). The marines follow a deontological theory of ethics. This theory is based on the Greek root of duty and science (Deontology). This theory holds the normative theories regarding choices are morally required. This is clearly demonstrated in the motion picture when the two officers are commanded to initiate a Code Red with Santiago as the victim. The two officers deemed this as their duty and responsibility to the end and did not second guess their morals while carrying out the assignment. With the Deontological approach and its application to the motion picture, there is also alignment with a study performed by Stanley Milgram of Yale, commonly referred to as the Milgram Experiment (Hopper 2019). This experiment results show that the majority of good, normal, harmless people will inflict pain on another person if they believe they have no choice in the matter and are acting to please the person in command (Hopper 2019).

As with the Milgram Experiment, the film identified several stakeholders and each group was faced with responsibilities and consequences. The stakeholders in the film includes the accused officers who unintentionally murdered a man while following the orders of their superior officer. At the end of the film, one of the accused made a statement acknowledging that what they did was wrong and was able to see beyond their pledge of loyalty, The plaintiff attorney, Captain Jack Ross, had a responsibility to present all the known and documented facts of the case to bring justice to the accused while the consequences of poorly prosecuting the accused, may cause distrust on the legal system. Kaffee was responsible for investigating and presenting his case to protect his clients and playing every card in the deck, even down to taking the risk of being disbarred had he not pushed Jessup to tell the truth. Jessup had the ultimate responsibility to lead the Marine Platoon and protect the American people. The consequence of the character taking the responsibility to lead to Jessup’s absolute power and lead putting fear into his soldiers and imposed the ideas that the unit, Corps, God, and country was the guiding code as long as they followed as he instructed. Other stakeholders include the United Stated legal system responsible for maintaining a system of justice with the consequences of not protecting this sanctity, could lead to distrust in the government and an uproar of citizens.

Additional consequences could be showing lack of unity and weakness…providing other countries to threaten our freedom,


Next, the moral disengagements used throughout the film were abundant.

Jessup used many statements that diffused his responsibility as a leader. The most notable statement of a witness, Jessup stated the following:

“You have the luxury of not knowing what I know,” and the statement justifying the death of “Santiago probably saved lives…and my existence also saves lives” (Sorkin 1991)

By these statements, he is diffusing the responsibility for each action for the greater good of the country. The most obvious were his loud tone in the courtroom, not following the courtroom procedures, blatant outcries and yelling in the courtroom, foul language, and even badgering the defense attorney Kaffee.

Besides the diffusions, the character of Jessup represented each of the three aspects of “The Dark Triad,” which include Machavelism, Narcissism, Psychopathy (Jacobson 2019). Most identifiable is Jessup’s Machiavellianistic leadership style, which was the idea that “the ends justify the means” (Mintz 2018). The most notable testimony in the film is when Jessup states, “you want the truth, you can’t handle the truth” is a diffusion tactic as Jessup believes he is sacrificing some loyalty to the Marine Corp by sharing information of what happened (Sorkin 1991). This diffusion or intimidation ultimately lead to Jessup self-incrimination.

The outcomes of this film may have been depicted differently if the characters were guided by the Letter of the Law over the Spirit of the Law. If Jessup would have followed the rules and enforced the rules as outlined by the Corps, the outcome come of this story would have been significantly altered.

First, the illegal Code Red would have never taken place removing the storyline. If a mishap were to take place under Jessups’ command, following the Letter of the Law would have caused the situation to be handled differently with the prime example being the climatic scene when he was on the stand. If he would have followed courtroom procedures and mannerisms, he would have just answered the questions and not demonstrated his ‘loose cannon and grenade’ type persona. The fact that he was following the Spirit of the Law allowed the character to take matters into his own hands…and caused him to slide down the slippery slope of poor decision-making.

Despite this film being based on a true story, the motion picture was created for entertainment purposes. While there is comedy injected into the storyline, there are many small ethical decisions made and psychological theories woven into the plot. To be a Marine, one has to devote their life to follow the Marine Code.

Regardless of their loyalty, a person making a decision should still be held accountable for making their own cognitive decisions.

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