A meme has been making the rounds on the Internet. It seems extremely powerful and says what many Americans do in support of our troops. With a picture of Jack Nicholson playing the fictional Colonel Nathan Roy Jessup, the meme says:
“You can’t handle the truth. Son we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be defended by men with guns… I have a greater possibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for [Private] 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 a 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 your post.”
This is posted by many as a way to defend Marines and service men from insincere attacks. This is a noble intention but it can only do so when divorced from its context in the movie, which makes an argument that is far different. In the movie, Col. Jessup is called to testify in the death of Private Willie Santiago. The Marines charged in his death claimed they were given an order called a “Code Red,” which was denied by his superiors. This speech is given during the dramatic courtroom scene when the young lawyer played by Tom Cruise gets Jack Nicholson’s character to admit he gave the order for hazing that killed Santiago. The jury is dismissed and the colonel is arrested for his crime.
The movie gives us more hints as to their real point. One of the assistant lawyers forcibly assigned as co-counsel can’t stand his defendants because they picked on a Marine that was weaker than them. After the Marines are acquitted on almost all charges except for conduct unbecoming a Marine, one of them says to the other, “we are supposed to fight for people who can’t protect themselves. We should have fought for Willie [Santiago.]” In short, the very point of the powerful scene with Colonel Jessup is that the manner in which we defend the country is just as important as being successful in that defense. And that Jessup’s speech was used to defend hazing, bullying, and ultimately murder or at least manslaughter.
Philosophically, this is a very important distinction. As a former Marine turned military analyst, I have appreciation for the strategic considerations, dishonest criticisms on American service men and women, and have personal experience with unprofessional conduct. For example, I defended American actions in Syria after international groups condemned American actions but did little to stop the continuing abuses and war crimes of the Assad regime. I argued that the US has an obligation to use proportionality to try and minimize civilian casualties, but any civilian casualties are counted as a war crime against those using human shields or abusing neutral sites, not against the striking power.
Yet the rules of war have changed from common sense application of moral codes that apply in the heat of battle to excessively legalistic notions that nitpick to such a degree that America is attacked despite their being legally and morally superior to their opponents, and taking great pains to avoid civilian casualties.
Even though there are many dishonest attacks from the media and international organizations with anti-American bias, the worship of characters like Jessup overlook real flaws in military culture. There are a variety of occupations and cultures in the military that reflect the honor of their members. But there are some branches and units that have sick cultures. OpsLens continues to report on the nude picture scandal in the Marine Corps. In toxic cultures their NCOs enjoy inflicting pain and the people generally value toxic masculinity and naked women over core values like honor, courage and commitment. These are relatively small samples that don’t reflect the wider culture of the military, but it should stress caution against carelessly repeating memes that sound nice on their own but really defend immoral actions.
Morality in warfare is a deep topic. How soldiers act, moral strategy, and other aspects can affect the lives or inflict the deaths of millions. That is why it is important to carefully consider the proper way to conduct warfare that defends America’s interests, doesn’t expose our soldiers to needless risks, but also doesn’t betray American values through questionable behaviors on the battlefield.
It is a delicate balance to figure out the best course, but overwrought memes that wrench a quote out of context to suggest the exact opposite of the movie’s intent is not the way to figure it out. Please don’t post or share memes of Colonel Jessup when trying to defend the military because he was not one of the few good men. Hazing remains wrong and immoral…despite attempts to justify it.