Can You Handle the Truth?

Simple question: Is Colonel Jessup right?

And then a not-so-simple question? Why?



21 thoughts on “Can You Handle the Truth?

  1. Stefan Jovanovich October 12, 2014 / 6:54 am

    It’s a movie with a script by Aaron Sorkin. The truth is that it has no relation to reality, present or historical, except in Hollywood.

    • The Lamp October 12, 2014 / 9:44 am

      I like Aaron, I went to high school with him. He was a really nice guy back then, a bit of a stoner, but we all were :-).

      • Stefan Jovanovich October 13, 2014 / 4:00 am

        As I said….
        We take our culture from the movies and have ever since the magic lantern show was invented. Almost everyone talks their own book, including people who have lots of fruit salad on their chests, and complains about the grosses.

        • The Lamp October 13, 2014 / 9:11 am

          Would that qualify someone to be a “Professional Pain in the Ass”?

          • Stefan Jovanovich October 13, 2014 / 2:27 pm

            As Jack Benny said when threatened by the robber, “I’m thinking.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2014 / 12:34 pm

      Not true. I hear this all the time from some people in the military. Oh, sure, they say, the Code Red was wrong, but the basic point — you don’t want to know what we do to protect you, and we discard your assessment of our behavior as worthless because you’ve never been there — is made time and again.

  2. Lyle Smith October 12, 2014 / 7:59 am

    I guess we’re not supposed to opine on the facts in the play/film, which I’ve forgotten, but the overreaching statement about what soldiers/people must do on the wall in places we don’t like to bring up at parties. Colonel Jessup gets the big picture right, I think. If you want to maintain your existence and way of life, you’re going to have to stand up for it at some point, because there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with how you’re living your life. Standing up for your existence and way of life means you will, without question, have to kill and mutilate certain people.

    That said, you have to also follow the rule of law, which Colonel Jessup ran afoul of. He couldn’t handle the truth of the law. The problem with following the rule of law though is that it can change because people don’t agree with what the law is, and there are different laws in different places. So deciding how to act can be quite problematic. Just look at the people who call for the prosecution of U.S. soldiers and airmen for killing or mutilating Afghan, Iraqi, Pakistani, Libyan, Yemeni, Somali, and now Syrian civilians. Are they war criminals? Some people say yes, some no. Our military now has combat lawyers to try and cover their asses, because of this.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2014 / 12:32 pm

      Well, we’ve had cases like that over the last dozen years. By the US military is very clear about its rules of engagement and will try violations of it. It has convicted personnel charged with violating the RoE, which is grounded in international law. However, it would not turn those charged with such transgressions to international courts of law.

      • Lyle Smith October 12, 2014 / 3:24 pm

        You’re right about that. I was just thinking about the times where our soldiers and airmen follow the rules of engagement and are still called war criminals, or like how Israelis soldiers recently fighting in Gaza have been internationally pilloried.

        I see now you were thinking of Jessup’s idea that only the military can determine what is lawful and what isn’t. Thankfully, he’s wrong about that.

        • Mark October 14, 2014 / 12:23 pm

          I’m one of the few people who has never seen the movie, and I have no idea what “code red” means, but since we’re abstracting from that it doesn’t matter I agree with you Lyle when you say “Colonel Jessup gets the big picture right, I think.”

          But I guess it depends on what we see as the big picture we think he’s commenting on. Fully abstracted what he’s saying isn’t about the military at all. Honor and loyalty apply outside the military, the fact that we usually have these debates over the military simply shows how it has been obscured from us in the rest of life. I’d say that at its most general level what he’s saying applies to any conflicts of loyalty. What he’s saying is that people wish to pretend they don’t exist or that they’re easy to arbitrate when they happen. Neither laws, regulations, or even social mores change this fact. No law can do them justice. That is why we have discretion in a judge, but even that won’t mean you won’t get thrown in jail for doing the right thing. There is an arbitrariness about enforcement, and in any case neither laws, regulations, nor social mores are absolute.

          The late Alisdair MacIntyre, one of the premier historians of moral philosophy said that more has been written about moral conflict in the last 50 years or so than since Aristotle’s time until now. That is revealing. In my opinion, it isn’t that Aristotle didn’t get it or write about it, I think he did. It’s just that during its reception in the West it wasn’t on anyone’s radar and they didn’t pay much attention to it until now. I would say the fact that no theoretical attention got paid to it for millennia, and the strong desire people have in believing critical things are morally fairly simple combine to make reality denial a feature of life for many. This despite the fact loyalty conflicts are an inescapable feature of life. Truth is stranger than fiction. If we take that to be Nicholson’s point, as I do, he does get the big picture right.

          I can hear people say “you mean morality is relative?” The answer is no. But the fact is that it is more dependent on contextual reality than many of us are willing to admit. More than the rules can allow. And those in positions to ignore it will and do, and they’ll throw stones at others without the luxury of ignorance of those “in the arena”. That part of Nicholson’s monologue is certainly correct.

          Eric Felten, in “Loyalty: The Vexing Virtue”, a book that broaches the subject of the unique ignorance many of us labor under about loyalty and conflict, wrote this: “It is the failure of those who think themselves the moral conscience of society’s refusal to acknowledge the possibility of moral conflict that makes the experience of it the more agonizing and intense.” It is so true.
          Many times people

  3. Bob Huddleston October 12, 2014 / 9:11 am

    The problem with the movie is that Jessup violated the first commandment of a soldier: he failed to protect his men. *That8 was the truth he could not face.

    • John Foskett October 12, 2014 / 10:56 am

      Exactly. Jessup’s a fraud or simply a psychotic, in my view. He decided that a guy in his unit didn’t measure up to his idea of a Marine and resorted to self-help. Using the “guardian at the front line” routine was a load of night soil. That front line is intended to protect a democratic way of life under the rule of law (military law included) and not to allow a commissar to order stupid “disciplining assaults”. There was no gray area in the subject matter of the movie.

  4. Will Hickox October 12, 2014 / 10:36 am

    I don’t think you’re being entirely serious with this poll (shocking!), but I’ll bite. Jessup is wrong. There is a moral code that goes hand in hand with Unit, Corps, Country. Standing on a wall with a gun doesn’t give one a pass to act brutally (and I say this as a veteran). If there are no standards of ethical behavior behind the wall, even toward the despised among us (like poor Willie Santiago), then we have nothing worth defending.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 12, 2014 / 11:23 am

      But let’s take out the specific context (the code red). Is Jessup right? Mind you, I’ve heard people basically use this speech or a variant of it to justify actions that we might question. There is something of the “only we at the front get to judge” that I’ve heard at various times.

      • John Foskett October 12, 2014 / 11:39 am

        On a much higher level than was involved here (a unit commander’s permission for troops under his command to exercise locker room justice), he’s wrong. Ultimately it’s a democracy in which the three branches of government, primarily the executive, are in charge and in which the rule of law prevails. If there are to be Dresdens or Hiroshimas or a crossing of the Yalu, so be it, but they can’t be ordered on the whim of a narrowly-trained officer who has myopia for anything which ranges beyond the military objective. In fact, being on the front line is a disqualification for making the correct judgments. General Buck D. Turgidson and Colonel Bat Guano come to mind..

  5. Will Hickox October 12, 2014 / 10:37 am

    Now imagine Steve Jobs in the witness stand being interrogated on the working conditions in the Chinese factories that produce all the Apple products making our Western lives so convenient.

  6. TF Smith October 12, 2014 / 8:15 pm

    Ordering a blanket party is a violation of everything command loyalty, up and down the chain, is all about.

    And any commissioned officer who disagrees with the UCMJ and policy on any subject from the C-in-C has a simple remedy.

    It is very simple, actually. Extraordinarily simple, in fact.

    And I hope the ROTC staff at ASU is better than this, Dr. Simpson.


  7. Al Mackey October 13, 2014 / 9:09 am

    Jessup was a psychopath, which, from what I’ve been reading lately, makes him eminently qualified to be a CEO of a major corporation. Here’s the thing, though. If you have to hide it, falsify records, and lie to an investigator about it, then it’s the wrong thing to do. If you don’t want it splashed across the front page of the Washington Post or the New York Times, then you probably shouldn’t do it. Jessup, though, thought he was invincible. Nixon famously said, “If the President does it, then it can’t be illegal.” Jessup thought along those lines, that if he did it, it couldn’t be the wrong thing to do, but he ignored little things like the fact that he had to hide it and lie to investigators about it because what did they know? This isn’t an attitude that’s confined to some military people. This is an attitude you’ll see elsewhere in America also, where people in some positions get to believe the rules don’t apply to them. Look at football players. It’s true the military has to keep some things secret, but that deals with methods that would hurt our operational capability if the enemy knew how we did them. Embarrassment isn’t the same thing. The international courts issue is separate. That’s a question of national sovereignty and is decided by the President, not by the military.

  8. Matt McKeon October 13, 2014 / 6:53 pm

    The film was in the late 90s, really peacetime. Jessup wasn’t guarding democracy, he was stationed at Gitmo, a back water at that time. He’s just self important, and so clueless he loses it in an open courtroom after he’s basically got away with an accidental death.

    He’s a clown, not a monster, guilty of being a dick and failing to cover up an accident. A true monster is like Dick Cheney, promoting or condoning all sorts of brutality and corruption, insulated by power, getting his juice and justification from fear. Cheney never gets called to account by democratic institutions, he’ll never see the inside of a courtroom. He is responsible for the death of thousands and sleeps well on a bed of money. Cheney’s message is: whether you know what I do in the name of protecting the United States, or not, and whether you approve or not, is as irrelevant as whether my tactics were effective or not.

  9. Matt McKeon October 13, 2014 / 7:08 pm

    As far as people not really wanting to know what goes on in the name of “protecting” them, its mostly true. Being secretly or not so secretly glad the police are getting scarier or more trigger happy, as long as the right people are being shot or scared is an American tradition.

    We’re killed thousands of people by bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m sure they were blown to bits per regulation, mostly, and if not, it was an honest mistake. But nobody cares about dead Afghanis. And nobody cares if anyone does care.

    • Mark October 14, 2014 / 8:59 pm

      But I don’t think issue is about protection per se, or law, or war. Look, you think the same thing doesn’t happen among do-gooders? Widen your view. See how Congress forced the car companies to put in air bags over their engineers objections because our fearless leaders said they were only protecting profits or some such, and then how many kids and small adults got decapitated. Oops. What do you think those folks said after the fact? I’ll bet you can guess. Some version of it was necessary and we’re better off despite the problems anyway, otherwise known as the “can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” argument? Ding ding ding. Nicholson’s speech is interesting and relevant because of it’s wider application, not because of the military, or war, or industrialism, or democracy. It has to do with conflicts of loyalty, which are present throughout life, and the reality-denial that follows in its wake.

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