22 years ago this weekend, a new movie got a splashy nationwide release, two months before it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. I happened to be living in Washington D.C. at the time, and happened to attend the opening weekend of the film with a couple of friends who had only recently been decommissioned from the United States Marines, where they’d served with honor in the first Gulf War. After seeing A Few Good Men, we absconded to a bar and, over too many drinks, had a lot of laughs talking about aspects of military culture and the film. I thought about that night yesterday, not because of the anniversary, but because of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of a report that blatantly indicts the Central Intelligence Agency for lying and incompetence in the case of some Guantanamo detainees.
This week (some) Americans are revisiting the question: why do we torture, when we know it’s one, wrong, and two, ineffective? Your usual pundit subjects have offered their usual opinions, some of the same ones you’ve been reading now since Abu Ghraib, more than a decade ago. I want to offer one reason that you haven’t often heard: military officers are, like the rest of us, influenced by movies and TV shows. That’s not a problem in and of itself, or if it is, it’s an insurmountable one; there is no world where people aren’t affected by what they see on screens. The tragic problem in the case of the tortured Guantanamo inmates lies in the choice of media.
Almost eight years ago, Jane Mayer, as part of her research into the C.I.A.’s Guantanamo program which was eventually published as “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals”, wrote a piece for the New Yorker about how she believed that the TV show 24 was fomenting real-life torture. She quoted showrunner Joel Surnow: “We’ve had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, ‘You don’t realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.’” She also quoted U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, who
“always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by 24, which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, ‘The kids see it, and say, “If torture is wrong, what about 24?” He continued, ‘The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.’ Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, ‘Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.’ Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: ‘Whatever it takes.'”
It’s a funny thing. We don’t really let stars play just anyone. Even Meryl Streep can’t play an idiot. We accept certain men playing Presidents partly because they’ve worked their way up from playing lawyers and generals and executives. We accept Jodie Foster as a serial-killer hunter partly because we know of her off-screen life as a mad assassin’s obsession. And we accepted Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on 24 partly because, in A Few Good Men, he played a good soldier who both took questionable orders and ordered others to take extreme, violent measures in defense of freedom. We also accept Jack Nicholson as a uniquely reformed rough rebel, as the former counter-culturalist from Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, as the once-renegade Navy man in The Last Detail, as a star who once declaimed cartoons in filmmaking but came to validate cartoon franchising with the first Batman – in other words, a hippie-cum-yuppie, his words in A Few Good Men being more powerful than they would be coming from, say, the always-conservative Chuck Norris.
I realize this is a bold claim, but I truly doubt there are many, perhaps any, military people of my age (now mid-40s) or older who have not seen A Few Good Men or are, at least, not familiar with its culminating scene, which features the immortal (and immoral?) line “You can’t handle the truth!” Let’s recall what led up to that quip: Navy Lieutenant and Counsel Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, is interrogating Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Nicholson, about his subordinate Private William Santiago at Guantanamo Bay (!). Col. Jessup oversees Santiago’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Kendrick, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and both Jessup and Kendrick testify that the murder was the result of two wayward Privates who got out of hand, but Kaffee tries to get Jessup to admit that Jessup (through Kendrick) actually ordered the inappropriate discipline, called a “Code Red.” After “You can’t handle the truth!”, Nicholson launches into a speech that I believe very few, if any, of the officers and contractors who worked at the real-life Guantanamo in the 2000s are unfamiliar:
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, Lt. 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 there.
We use words like honor, code,
loyalty… we use these words as the
backbone to a life spent defending
something. You use ’em 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 I provide,
then questions the manner in which I
provide it. I’d prefer 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’re entitled to.
It’s a great speech, one that probably made the rest of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s career possible. And the speech is very appropriate to a man of Jessup’s age, a lifetime Cold Warrior who justifies Santiago’s death by saying defiantly, “Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.” Did American officers give speeches like these before World War II? No, not that we can see in the wealth of literature on everything from the American Revolution to the Civil War (ever read U.S. Grant’s memoir? It’s great!) to World War I. Why not? Because World War II was the first to be fought in a hyper-mediated, globalized age, where one person’s betrayal might have a “butterfly effect” on someone on the other side of the country; World War II was the beginning of “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” Just as the Pentagon, the C.I.A., and the national security apparatus began and continued from World War II policy, so did the notion that any extreme measures on the parts of these programs’ supervisors were inevitably a matter of “saving lives.” We were under extreme existential threat, first from Hitler and then from the Russians; if we had to cut a few corners, perhaps kill a civilian or a sub-standard Marine from time to time, well, that was the “price of freedom,” in a manner that Americans had never countenanced before 1941. In 2014, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, our rhetoric has barely changed: yesterday, Republican senators confidently blasted the Senate report as “endangering lives” in a way that no Congressman would have presumed in 1934.
Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men was actually first produced in 1989, but I believe that the film has had more resonance particularly because it came out in late 1992, more than a year after the breakup of the Soviet Union meant the official end of the Cold War. (President George H.W. Bush had just finished campaigning on having won the Cold War, for all the good it did him.) Cold Warriors like Jessup were looking to remain relevant, and A Few Good Men helped them articulate both the sense of persecution (“my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you”) and ongoing indispensability that they frankly wanted and needed to feel. Still today, I believe more officers can quote “Son, we live in a world that has walls” than any single piece of dialogue ever uttered on 24.
I know the objections: 1, our officers can’t all have seen or remembered A Few Good Men and 2, Jessup is arrested at the end. Well, 1, in the last 12 years, if an American officer was walking down a Guantanamo Base hallway shortly after torturing a prisoner and he passed another officer and one of them mumbled, “You want me on that wall. You need me there,” I sincerely doubt that the other officer would have failed to get the reference. 2, yes, Sorkin and Reiner and Nicholson might have meant to direct us toward a more nuanced age where threats to America aren’t quite as existential and a Colonel’s every decision (vanilla or chocolate? umbrella or raincoat?) might not be retroactively justified as “saving lives.” However, Jessup’s “loss” at film’s end may instead have convinced some people that he should never lose again. (Sorkin’s play, and Rob Reiner’s film of it, now seem quaint and even hokey, because this century has shown that when officers order extraordinary violence at Guantanamo, they’re hardly held accountable for it.) Molly Haskell claimed, in her book From Reverence to Rape, that female audience members of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, felt strengthened by headstrong actresses playing characters who eventually “lost” (in most roles played by, say, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn). I believe that for 22 years now, officers have taken a bit of a “The South will rise again” comfort from the speech that followed “you can’t handle the truth.” After all, Tom Cruise was always a bit of a brat, and it’s easy to see these hypocritical moralists on MSNBC strutting the way Cruise/Kaffee strutted in that final courtroom scene.
I don’t blame Sorkin, Reiner, or Nicholson for creating art that shines a light on our society; nor do I blame our nation’s soldiers for taking their cues from Hollywood. What I would like our soldiers to do instead is choose a different mid-90s film. I have a message for Dick Cheney, for Gary Solis, and for General Finnegan. Instead of letting your students and associates confirm their own biases by re-watching the likes of A Few Good Men, 24, and Zero Dark Thirty, have them watch Seven. Yes, Seven (1995), written by Andrew Kevin Walker, directed by Gone Girl’s David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. You might think this police drama has nothing to do with the military, but in our world of obviously militarized police and “ticking time bomb” mentalities, you’d be wrong.
Let’s recall the bare bones of the plot: Detectives David Mills (Pitt) and William Somerset (Freeman) are chasing a serial killer, and nothing’s working. Somerset decides to go a little beyond the bounds of the law, contacting a friend who keeps library records of people who’ve checked out bomb-building books and the like. Through this friend, Mills and Somerset knock on the door of John Doe’s apartment, and Doe sees them and shoots at them. After Doe escapes, Mills and Somerset return to his apartment’s front door. Now picture David Mills, the Brad Pitt character, his head bleeding profusely, symbolizing America after 9/11. The following exchange – interestingly, it is not in Walker’s published script, was it Fincher’s idea? – should be known to those who defend our nation as well as they know Col. Jessup’s speech:
Where are you going?
I’m going in.
No, no, wait, wait, wait. Wait!
What are you talking about? He fuckin’ shot at us!
We can’t go in there.
Hell, we can’t…
We need a warrant.
We got probable cause.
Think about it. Think!
We got probable cause.
How did we get here? I can’t tell anyone about this. I can’t tell anyone about the bureau! We have no reason to be here.
(advances on door)
No, come on. Get out of my way.
Listen to me.
(pulls him off the door)
Listen to me!
Get off me – get the fuck off me!
All right, all right, I’m sorry! Will you just pay attention a minute. If we leave a hole like this, we won’t be able to prosecute. The fuckin’ guy will walk. Now, is that what you want?
By the time we get the warrant, someone else will…no! Fuck that! No!
We need a reason to knock on this door. Think about it. Ok?
Ok. You’re right. I’m…I’m all fucked up. All fucked up.
(MILLS KICKS DOWN DOOR ANYWAY.)
One reason I like this scene compared to Kaffee/Jessup is that the ages are reversed: the “goddamn it we do what we have to” character is now the young impetuous Brad Pitt, and the Jessup-aged person is now standing for what Senator John McCain yesterday called “how we represent ourselves to the world.” If adults want to take over our interrogation programs in the future, let them be more Somerset and less Jessup.
What happens to David Mills? Well, after John Doe gives him his wife’s head in a box, he’s off to a mental institution. It’s true that we don’t live in Aaron Sorkin’s America, where people in the upper echelons actually have to take responsibility for their actions. No, we live in David Fincher’s America (you should see his other films!), where people are rather screwed up, where you can get away with cutting corners, sure, but it just might drive you crazy. We should trust our military, our C.I.A., and its contractors not simply to reflect that reality, but somehow rise above it. At the end of Seven, watching Mills being driven to the looney bin, Somerset voice-overs the film’s final line, which is something I believe we can all think about going forward: “Hemingway said the world is a good place, and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part.”