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Ethics and “A Few Good Men” Essay

The movie is about two marines indicted for the murder of a fellow marine in their platoon. Private First Class (PFC) William Santiago died because of lactic acidosis triggered by the assault inflicted by Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private Lowden Downey. This assault was the result of a direct order by the platoon commander Lieutenant Kendrick. The order was to train Santiago to respect the Code of the Marines and the chain of command. Private Santiago had broken this chain and written directly to the NIS asking for a transfer, in exchange for offering information about an illegal fence-line shooting. When Colonel Nathan Jessep, commander of the marines stationed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, learned of this letter, he ordered the “training” of Private Santiago.

In Guantanamo Bay, this “training” was referred to as “Code Red”, which was defined as the discipline of marines within the unit, by the unit, without involving the proper authorities – navy Jag Corp. When the navy learned of Private Santiago?s death, Dawson and Downey were placed under arrest, and moved to Washington DC to be court-martialed. After a thorough litigation by defense attorney, Lt. Danial Kaffee, the court found Colonel Jessep and Lt. Kendrik guilty of the murder of PFC Santiago because they ordered the ?Code Red?. Dawson and Downey were cleared of charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, but were found guilty of conduct unbecoming a marine, and were discharged from the Marine Corp.

6. Normative Ethical Question:

Did Dawson and Downey do the right thing by following the order?

Dawson and Downey’s actions were in strict accordance with the orders given to them by their platoon commander, and were thus justified.

The Marines believe, “You follow orders or people die.” This was primarily applicable during wartime when questioning an order can cause the lives of the marine and his fellow soldiers. Although reserved for wartime, the marines in their day-to-day military life practice this belief. So when time comes for the marines to go to war, the thought of questioning an order never crosses their mind regardless of the severity of the order. Following orders given by a superior officer is a part of the marine discipline, and breaking this discipline is not tolerated in armed forces.

The order given to Dawson and Downey was to “train” PFC Santiago. Santiago’s aggravated heart condition was the primary reason of his death, and Dawson and Downey having followed their order were unfortunate to find Santiago dead in the ‘training’ process. Had Santiago been physically fit, he would have in all likelihood, survived the ‘training.’

However on the charge of becoming a united states marine they were found guilty as charged. The reasoning for this is as follows:

Dawson and Downey should have ignored the “Code Red” ordered by Colonel Jessup, and should have reported him to the proper authorities at the navy Jag Corp.

The “training” also known as the “Code Red” was known to have harmful consequences. There were two examples of the severity of the “Code Red” shown in the movie: The first example was that of Private Bell, a soldier, getting nothing but water for a period of one week to keep him alive. The second example involved a soldier been given a “Code Red” for dropping a gun during a training exercise. His punishment was to put glue on his hands, and have his arm punched for about twenty minutes. Evidently, a “Code Red” in military parlance meant punishment in its higher degree.

PFC Santiago was known to be a weak person. Dawson and Downey ignoring the fact that PFC Santiago’s condition was deteriorating still followed Col. Jessup’s order for “Code Red” on Santiago. They should have been aware of the fact that “Code Red” would cause irreparable damage to PFC Santiago’s health; on humanitarian grounds, Dawson and Downey should have contacted the proper authorities at the navy Jag Corp for a fair assessment of the order. Looking at it from a different perspective, Dawson and Downey would have been morally right to have neglected the order given to them by their superior. However, they were bound to their duty; overriding their commanding officer’s orders would have placed their career at stake.

This case involves an ethical dilemma for the following reasons:

1. A murder has been committed. It is not acceptable to take a human life merely because this individual doesn’t get along with the rest of the company.

2. The investigation of the murder is hindered. It is not acceptable to lie about the cause of death in an effort to preserve public relations or personal esteem.

3. Cadets and officers lie under oath in court. It is unacceptable to lie in court. The military has determined that it is essential this case be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. A sub-group in the military can’t make its own rules of military morality.

PFC Santiago is treated as a means rather than being treated as an end.

The murder was immoral in every sense and those causing the murder should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. We further stipulate that it is unacceptable for a coverup of the murder. Colonel Nathan Jessup defends the practice of lying under an area of lying covered by Plato.

Plato gave support for some lies when he said: “It is the business of the rulers of the city, if it is anybody’s, to tell lies, deceiving both its enemies and its own citizens for the benefit of the city; and no one else must touch this privilege.”(1)

If using the Plato type justification for the coverup, Jessup and those around him have a deluded sense of their place in national security. Their actions are not for the preservation of military. Their actions and lies are for preservation of their own positions…

The responsibility of the commander to make sure his marines are prepared for any sort of danger from the enemy. Colonel Nathan Jessup claims that code red as a method of training for soldiers was the American way. He defends the practice as that which is indispensable to defend the country. This reminds me of Plato?s conception of warriors where there is no place for the weak or sick people.

The only difference between these two cases is that Plato would have not hesitated to propose euthanasia for such unproductive warriors. Colonel Jessup on the other hand proposed to train them by using force if necessary. . However, he uses intense form of punishment for the tiniest mistakes and flaws. So he cannot be justify such a punishment in the name of national security. But in today?s world such practices are detested and are against humanitarian grounds and any form of justification for their practice is barbaric.

Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) is a military officer who has covered up a murder. When he is in court on the witness stand, Nicholson, yells, “You want to know the truth? You want to know the truth? Well, you can’t handle the truth.” Nicholson’s testimony is that some military crimes must be covert for national security purposes. He implies that it is acceptable to murder one cadet who isn’t going along with the rest of the company. He states it is acceptable for him to lie about the incident under oath to protect the company involved as well as the military overall.

Kant declares: “A lie is a lie…whether it be told with good or bad intent…But if a lie does no harm to anyone and no one’s interests are affected by it, is it a lie? Certainly.”(2) Kant believes truthfulness is a duty, an “unconditional duty which holds in all circumstances.”(3) According to the categorical imperative, if there is even one case in which it is acceptable to lie and honesty can be overridden, then the perfect” status of the duty not to lie is compromised. Kant is most strident in not allowing for even a seemingly innocent lie, which could save a life instead of causing harm. He merely asserts that if something terrible happens it is not your fault. The terrible act is something wholly unjustified in the first place.(4)

Duty is often represented by Kant and his deontological views on lying. Kant tells us that it is never acceptable to lie, and places this on the level of a moral law, or a “categorical imperative.” He contends that lies always harm others–the individual or society. “To be truthful (honest) in all declarations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited by no expediency.”(5)

Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham also would not allow for the Jessup defense of the coverup. Bentham delivered a frothy lecture to England’s judges who were using their power and lying to the people. Bentham sees nothing more abhorrent than using lies and power to further one’s position….(6)

The justification for the behaviors is weak, with hundreds of years of morality, ethics, and laws written in opposition to Jessup’s rationale.

In the particular case of PFC Santiago, Colonel jessup seems to be aggravated by his appeal to the NIS and his breach of confidentiality of his unit. This brings us to the another moral debate. Was Santiago right in his decision to give false information of an illegal fence line shooting? We can make two speculations here. Either Santiago lied about the fence line shooting in a desperate attempt to get noticed by the authorities which could get him transferred for the information or he was mistaken about the shooting. This is to say that he did not realized that the mirror had engaged to fire first and Dawsen just retaliated in defence. Santiago can easily be forgiven for the latter.

However, in the former case, normatively he should not have done what he did. But that was the only practical thing he could do. Even though we can easily blame Santiago for lying, we should praise his attempt to break away from the blind acceptance of the principles which ruled the lives of other marines. Even though Santtiago was physically weaker than the rest of the Platoon he had the mental capacity to fight against the odds of the absurd life in which he was trying to survive. This reminds me of the mahabharatta where Lord Krishna taught the Pandavas that it is good to lie got the fight for the Good. (I know that Kant would not agree with me)

In A Few Good Men the debate is one of to whom is the ultimate duty owed and where does ‘the law’ fit into the equation? The soldiers facing court martial display their ultimate affiliation firmly?first and foremost their duty is to their marine corps; god and country are secondary to the bond between their comrades and this is the fulcrum of the film: are orders to be obeyed at all costs and where does the buck stop?

Professor Alfonso Gomez-Lobo quotes “Neither can military ethics properly exist without the concept of ordering. By ordering, I do not mean telling subordinates what to do. I refer, instead, to moral structuring and ethical priorities.” In the movie “A Few Good Men”, a Marine lance corporal tells his lawyers that the “code” is based upon “unit, corps, God, country.” He has it, of course, all wrong. In fact, many illegal activities or stupid mistakes in the military services are the result of leaders’ failures to order wisely and well.

The duty of a marine to follow the orders of a superior officer. The word duty here needs to be explained. It is the duty of the marine to fallow the orders of his superior officer if they are justified or legal. In Cuba however, disobeying an order implies to commit a crime. But since Code red is a practice discouraged by law, it is the duty of the marine to disobey such an order. An officer is always human and to equate him to be the ultimate legal authority is to make him invincible. It is this act of deception and blind faith that lets the powerful exploit.

When an institution demands complete faith in its principles, the individuals within the institution are dependent on it, strive to maintain it and become incapable of independent thinking. At times like these the ethical question crops us: which is more important? guiding principles of life or humans, code of honour or PFC Santiago.

As for the Platoons annoyance on Santiago’s betrayal for the unit and selfishness, I don’t think it is valid. It would have been a different case had there been some compassion for Santiago within his Unit. His friends beat him up as a part of following orders, to keep up their jobs. From this perspective, they too are selfish. The only difference is that Santiago is towards the receiving end of brutalities, and it is convenient for the rest of the Platoon who were comparably stronger to talk about the loyalty within the unit.

Interestingly, Lieutenant Kendrick too believe in the ‘proper authority of God or his commanding officer Colonel Nathan R Jessup’

Here we see that blind faith is associated with both God and the Colonel

Moreover, the Colonel starts associating himself with God who protects and punishes others and expects the respect of all. He thinks that he is the personification of certain unquestionable principles.

That the colonel lives by the rules and notions of the Marine Corps and doesn’t fully comprehend the world outside.

Both Dawson and Kaffee are good at what they do. That?s all they have in common. The contrast between the disciplined Dawson and the flippant Kaffee can be traced to their system of beliefs and their environment.

Dawson mentions that he joined the navy so that he could live by a code. He believes that he did his duty and did it well and was even ready to face its consequences, but not plead guilty. Here we see the romanticized version of the code of honor. He failed to realize that the real strength of character lies in his discretion to protect the weak and not train him to protect himself. He lives in the misconceptions where certain principles appear

Dawson is like a person who wants to be religious and associates himself with religious practices {no matter what they are} which gives him a sense of satisfaction.

Kaffee on the other hand has no delusions about the law. His only criterion is to solve his case as soon as possible with the best interest of his client at heart. He believes that a case is not won by the law but the lawyer. He seems to have lost his faith in all legal ethics due to the way law is practiced around him and he seems to be a part of the system too. Or in the least he has least to live with it.

Daniel Kaffee is a smart, flippant, good-looking young Navy lawyer. in his late 20’s, 15 months out of Harvard Law School, and a brilliant legal mind waiting for a courageous spirit to drive it. He is, at this point in his life, passionate about nothing … except maybe softball. His father was a renowned jurist, and Dan feels the burden of his father’s reputation. Indeed, his casual, tongue-in-cheek attitude to the law is his way of avoiding comparison with his father. You can’t fail if you don’t even try. However, he lived in the shadows of his father having no misconceptions regarding different facets of law. He does not believe in a romanticized version of his profession.

He did not believe his case to be a winner and first attempts to find an easy way out. Even though he sympathized with the state of his clients who were forced to carry out their orders, were blinded by the belief in false practices like ?Code Red?, he understood the politics associated with the case. His frustration is revealed when he emphasizes that ‘I think you will lose’ and ‘ it does not matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove..’

Despite these flaws he proves to be an excellent lawyer. This is because unlike the marines. He has learnt to question authority. He has not been conditioned by blind principles.

the lawyer defending the two marines in A Few Good Men has to consider whether he should go beyond the legal and ethical codes under which he is bound and accuse a witness on the stand of committing a crime for which the two marines are accused. He of course does and justice is done.

In conclusion, it is evident that Dawson and Downey performed their duty as was expected of them. On ethical grounds, they would have been better off notifying the appropriate authorities of the nature of the order and the circumstances in which the order was to be executed. However, as fellow marines under a commanding officer, they were compelled to follow orders without looking into the ethical or moral aspects of their actions. A marine?s discipline is taken very seriously by his commanding officers; however, this does not imply that discipline takes priority over the mental and physical health of a marine. Santiago?s heart condition was no secret. Despite this fact, he was given the ‘Code Red’ knowing fully well that he may not be able to take the pressure ? definitely, an unethical decision on the part of the authorities concerned.

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