Lt. Com. Galloway: Because they stand on a wall and say, “Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.”
I know it’s an odd choice. Yes, no one will deny it’s a quality film, and Cruise’s impersonation of Nicholson alone makes the movie priceless, but few would initially think of this movie as patriotic. Neither the writer, the director nor any of the actors are ever going to be on a who’s who of patriots (although the three lead actors might be on a who’s who of the mentally unhinged). Yet strangely for the most part this movie shows parts of what makes this nation great, namely the admirable and honorable nature or our armed services. (I also could go on about how this shows the beauty of our legal system, for all its flaws, but I’ll save that for a later film).
Specifically the idea that people join the armed services not because they can’t get jobs (which ignores the fact that your average enlisted man or woman is better educated than the average civilian, and doubly so for the officer corps…oh by the way, in case you’re an idiot who should never be allowed anywhere near the chain of command it’s pronounced “core” not “corpse”), or the violent brutes who just want to kill people, or whatever other lies and insults isolationists want to hurl on the military. No as it is made clear people join because they believe in their country, they believe that they can serve something greater than themselves, or as one of the accused Marines puts it when offered a deal to get out of his trial,
“We joined the Marines because we wanted to live our lives by a certain code, and we found it in the Corps. Now you’re asking us to sign a piece of paper that says we have no honor. You’re asking us to say we’re not Marines. If a court decides that what we did was wrong, then I’ll accept whatever punishment they give. But I believe I was right sir, I believe I did my job, and I will not dishonor myself, my unit, or the Corps so I can go home in six months… Sir.”
And I don’t know if it was intentional or not by the writers but even the movie’s villain, Nicholson’s Col. Jessup did what he did, initially, out of right intentions. He ordered what the movie calls a “Code Red” (although I think this is not really a term used by military personnel) or soldiers punishing their own for being screw-ups (minor beatings, hazing style humiliation, and in the case of the movie forcibly having your head shaved…oh the injustice, he inhumanity, someone call the UN Human Rights council). It’s a time honored tradition in military organizations and I’m sure still going on to this day although officially looked down upon…probably because it works in ensuring the cohesive workings of a military organization. And Jessup orders it because he wants to ensure that the Marines under his command are capable of doing their duty and defend the lives of Americans that they have sworn to protect.
“Maybe we as officers have a responsibility to this country to see to it that the men and women charged with its security are trained professionals. Yes, I’m certain that I read that somewhere once. And now I’m thinking, Col. Markinson, that your suggestion of transferring Santiago, while expeditious and certainly painless, might not be, in a matter of speaking, the American way. Santiago stays where he is. We’re gonna train the lad! […] We’re in the business of saving lives, Matthew. That’s a responsibility we have to take pretty seriously. And I believe that taking a Marine who’s not quite up to the job and shipping him off to another assignment, puts lives in danger.”
The man may be a complete jackass, as are many people, but he was right. The Marines have a duty to protect America, and as a Marine Colonel he has a duty to make sure every man under his command is able to do that. *
Hell, he even has a point, after his famous “you can’t handle the truth line”
“You can’t handle the truth! 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 a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to!”
Now what makes him the villain of the movie is that he says “We use words like ‘honor’, ‘code’, ‘loyalty’” but rather than living those words he only uses them. Rather than fessing up to the fact that he ordered the punishment when it all fell apart and probably just getting a slap on the wrist and losing his impending high profile promotion, he chooses to dishonorably let two men under his command take the blame for something he ordered. But the movie actually does make clear that the hypocrisy of those who hide behind these words is not the majority of the Marine Corp,
Kaffey: Oh, thanks, Jack. And I want to tell you that I think the whole fucking bunch of you are certifiably insane! This code of honor of yours makes me want to beat the shit out of something!
Capt. Ross: Don’t you dare lump me in with Jessup and Kendrick just because we wear the same uniform. I’m your friend and I’m telling you, I don’t think your clients belong in jail but I don’t get to make that decision! I represent the government of the United States without passion or prejudice and my client has a case! There you go.
Now some out there make this bizarre logical jump that if there is one bad apple in the military then all of them are bad. Others seem to suggest that just by wearing the uniform you are in a rank somehow higher than sainthood. The truth is there are assholes, criminals, and idiots in Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard. The truth is also that, unlike some nations, these dregs of civilization do not even constitute a fraction our armed services—they’re the few and far between exception and their presence does not taint the honor of those who serve a higher purpose (which you’ll notice all the people you hate in this movie are only out for themselves and don’t care who they hurt…okay with the exception of Sutherland’s character, that guy was just crazy).
Now, I have some issues with some of the more liberal overtones of this film, but we can leave those for another day.
Kaffee: You don’t need to wear a patch on your arm to have honor.
*The real villain of this movie is the doctor who through gross incompetence failed to diagnose early on that the victim suffered a serious and eventually fatal heart condition. Every action that led up to the character’s death was based on the fact the doctor said all of whining about medical problems were just that whining and not based in a medical reason, and he just needed to toughen up (although given that the victim was willing to sell out a fellow Marine to get his transfer by falsely accusing him of a crime, I can’t see why the other characters wouldn’t assume he was dishonorable and weak willed). But the fact is, that in the context of this film, if the doctor had done his job, no one else would have come close to crossing any lines as the kid would be have given a medical discharge and that would be that. But rather than own up to incompetence, the doctor falsely accused the two Marines of using a poison.