How would Marines judge Colonel Jessep in the movie “A Few Good Men”?

A few good men can be summed up for Marines in the speech by Col. Jessup. You seriously need to watch it to get any of what I am about to say.

The climax of the movie, the famous minute and half “You can’t handle the truth” scene, is so loaded with theatrical and thematic nuggets of gold that it renders the rest of this great movie feel like a waste of time by comparison. I think that this movie it is a wonderful display of a subculture built on the mentalities of violence necessary for its success and survival, that is unable to coexist or to even be understood by the larger culture which birthed it. Full Metal Jacket and Rules of Engagement are also two great movies to get that experience.

The premise of the movie is based off the unintentional murder of a young Marine. The progress of the movie goes into a very deep story that eventually leads to one Marine’s death as a result of a secret disciplinary action, the “Code Red”. The Code Red was carried out by two junior Marines to forcibly improve one of their members. I even paused when I wrote murder. Murder wasn’t the intention, but the outcome. This is an extreme example and, of course, we don’t actually go this far in disciplining each other. We have at one time used various degrees of the off the books discipline, but never in my experience was physical violence part of that. Usually it means cleaning after you should have gone home or doing the platoons scut work. I want that much on the record.

In the end, Col. Jessup is arrested. The moral is fitting. Perhaps we can’t defend America if we have to give up our humanity to do it. What’s important though, is to see this from the Marine’s point of view. Really this may be the view of any warrior in a country like America. Sometimes we feel like we don’t belong anymore. There is a point when you have been in long enough you start to realize that it takes some very difficult choices to be a Marine. You have to first get over this moral problem of killing people and that is just the start of the journey.

Eventually you have to accept your role in life. Your very presence is something that, whether you fight or not, is meant to instill fear and demoralize anyone who would think about fighting the United States or harming its people from doing so. That is our purpose and to do so we have to be incredibly violent, scary men willing to do terrible things to people in order to protect that country, if only because of our reputation.

But this isn’t really acceptable behavior, not by normal people’s standards. In my answer to Under what, if any circumstances, is war morally justifiable? I touch on this (and actually reference this speech by Col. Jessup). My answer to that question was “A war is morally justifiable when the alternative to it is the destruction of your people or their way of life.” Someone didn’t like that answer. He asked me questions like:

“Are we one species, one world, one genus, yes or no?” and  “Just because their way of life is different?” and then decides “War is never morally justifiable, except when your very life, or the life of one of your children who are unable to defend themselves. War is deep rooted arrogance, greed, fear, nationalism and patriotism.  And wrong.  Just like Col Jessup.  The walls defenders should stand on should be around their own homes.  Not in some far off country.  That’s not defense, no matter how it’s painted.  It is either attack or revenge.”

This isn’t war. It’s self-defense. I don’t agree with him there. It is war, just one that isn’t done very well and lacking any real chance of defending the ones you love.

Yes, we are all the same species, however, we are not animals. We have cultures, religions, values, systems of law and different things that makes us enjoy life while add value to it. Each culture on Earth also enjoys the freedom to have all of these differently than anyone else. At the point that someone attacks not just me, not just my family, but other people like me, my country for example, then I am willing to make war on that person. This is a choice they made and the consequence of it. This is war, as a means of self-defense. But this is what you are missing, but the time that an enemy has already made their way to your homeland and endangered your family, they are already capable of inflicting ungodly amounts of harm on all the people around you.

Furthermore, if you are just a guy on a roof with a gun protecting yourself from whatever might be out there, you will lose. You will be outmaneuvered. You will be targeted. You will be killed and your family along with you. You’d be the most morally justified victim in history, but you would be dead nonetheless. This isn’t war, it’s a form of suicide. This is why we have armies. This is why we have the Marine Corps. This is why we fight wars at our enemies’ homeland and not our own. War must happen somewhere else if you don’t want your own people to suffer, and quite honestly and fairly I don’t want my people to suffer as much when there is the option to make war elsewhere. By the time someone is making war on you in your home it is already too late. That is why when we face a threat we handle it there.

Frankly, it is the reasoning of a person who calls out the military, or rather those willing to protect you and everyone else you know, as arrogant, ignorant warmongers [he did]. This is not only ungrateful to the fullest degree, but the reasoning of a coward who is too afraid to defend himself and his loved ones while resting comfortably and verbally attacking those rougher men who do.

Look. Whether you like to believe it or not, if you are using a computer that you own in a comfortable house, with internet connection, and you have the time to write your opinions, you are better off than at least 90% of the world. And many of those 90% would love to take from you what makes you happy and comfortable. A few are even organized enough to do it. The only real protection you have from that small bit of the world who are less fortunate, but more violent than yourself, are two oceans and a very large, very powerful military. Most of the world experiences war first-hand often. It is the most real condition that humanity has had since before recorded history began. To say that it is wrong because you don’t like it is childish, because there are so many others who, very happily would make war on you if given the opportunity.

Now, your statement that “only self defense is appropriate” is another subject altogether. You are a person who sleeps comfortably beneath the veil of security provided by rough men and women while declaring your position the moral high ground. This is absurd. You know good and well, as well as everyone who will ever read this, you will never be faced with an opportunity to need to defend yourself. You have a happy life. Be thankful.

While there are people of every country who swear to defend everyone in their country; the children, the beggars, the nurses, the teachers, the grandmothers, the prisoners, the firemen, the tall, the brown, people like you, and every single other person in their country, you say that it is rightonly to protect yourself and your immediate household. This isn’t morality. This is self-centered, selfish and cowardly. The fact that you refer to the people who are part of war as acting out of “arrogance, greed, fear” is incomprehensible. You have obviously spent a great deal of time justifying your position, without actually considering the reality of the world. So enjoy your moral high ground. It may be paved with gold, but it is really just a glorified pile of garbage.

This conversation goes on much more, especially later on when it is picked up by Feifei Wang, whom I am now a major fan of. Great job Faye. But I have already gone far enough off topic.

You see the conversation I had with the moral man is one that I have to think about all the time. People disagree with the war, or war in general or with civilians who die or with Marines and soldiers who lose and start to go into a place where they believe that the military is evil or unjust or wrong for existing. They forget that there are powers out there who very clearly want them to die and all that stops them is the idea that there are people out there who are well trained, well funded, highly motivated, vicious, angry and unforgiving enough to cross the entire planet to find them and kill them.

I’ve mentioned before that being a Marine is at times resenting the civilian population for not taking part in what we are experiencing. We do. We can’t talk about it, but we think about it on a cold night in a desert in some place no one you know can find on a map. We think about how we have tried to rationalize war in our minds, yet how the people we went to high school with are at college, or at the mall, or with their families and why is it that I am not? Why is it that I am here and they are safe and free and warm? Why is it that they are questioning me in doing this, or painting me as some sort of villain? What happened to the victory gardens or the war bonds of WWII? Does anyone really care that we are still here?

And then it all comes full circle. “Because I am willing. I want to go and fight so that my family doesn’t feel danger and so that my friends can be happy. I want to preserve my way of life for one more generation so that my kids can one day have the chances and opportunities I do. I am willing to stand on Col Jessup’s wall and do those things that moral men and polite people turn away from in polite conversation. And though no one will understand why or think about how there has to have been some other way, I am willing to do it.” That is why I always loved this movie, because no one really got what Jessup was saying. No one else really feels it.

To the common viewer who watches this movie in their comfortable living room Col Jessup is a barbarian. There is a darkness in him they can’t understand and fear ever being able to. He is a cold and vicious man willing to do anything for the mission. Marines who watch it always quietly smile and agree.

Was it wrong to order a young Marine to be beaten for his failures? Yes. Today he would probably just administratively separated, but that doesn’t make for good story. Whatever you viewpoints on Col. Jessup, be he right or wrong in his decision, I obviously view it as wrong, but I see where he was coming from, the film’s closing was correct in how it viewed the morality of the matter.


Thanks for reading. This is a post presented by the Quora blog Jon’s Deep Thoughts. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

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3 thoughts on “How would Marines judge Colonel Jessep in the movie “A Few Good Men”?

  1. I Don’t know how I surfed to this site but I really enjoyed the article.

    I have just one comment re: your paragraph:

    “Frankly, it is the reasoning of a person who calls out the military, or rather those willing to protect you and everyone else you know, as arrogant, ignorant warmongers [he did]. This is not only ungrateful to the fullest degree, but the reasoning of a coward who is too afraid to defend himself and his loved ones while resting comfortably and verbally attacking those rougher men who do”.

    In any setting, other than a courtroom, I;’d agree 100%.. But, as a member of JAG it was Cruise’s character’s duty to do whatever necessary (within the confines of legality) to vigorously represent his clients/’ interests (which, in a murder acusations would be staying alive) That includes bringing up the possibility that the blame lay somewhere than on his clients.

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