Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Col. Jessop Revisited - Means and Ends

As if by kismet, Andrew Olmsted, the new frontpager at ObWi dives into a topic I've been noodling over recently. Rewatching "A Few Good Men" for the umpteenth time, I was struck by the question of where Jessop goes irretrievably off the rails? In the dramatic context of the film, Jack Nicholson's Jessop is unquestionably the primary villain (with an assist from Bauer-in-training Kiefer Sutherland), but it's safe to say that his larger worldview has a certain degree of acceptance. First, consider the speech in question:
"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, 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 on that wall.We use words like honor, code, loyalty...we use these words as the backbone to 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 I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I'd rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand to post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!"
Andrew, a military man himself, is conflicted:
While I am a fan of the film and I believe the outcome was the correct one, I am not alone among military personnel in acknowledging that while COL Jessup was wrong not to accept responsibility for his actions, the points he makes in the above speech are nonetheless valid.
(Read the whole post, it certainly deserves the attention.) In the very enlightening comments which follow, he adds
The passage of the speech I consider accurate is the opening: "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?" That is a fact. Is his current assignment vital to national security? I don't think so, but even a Colonel doesn't get to make that call. His orders are to hold Guantanamo and to protect his Marines, and he is attempting to do so. . . But in the bigger picture, until humanity decides it's 'not gonna study war no more' military personnel will remain a necessary evil. The rest of the speech I do not generally agree with, but as I noted above, I can sympathize with Jessup's position. It can be frustrating to be judged by people who have no idea what military service is like. But, I'd rather live under that system than any other.
While dramatic convention demands to Jessop be portrayed as a unapologetic twirly-mustache type, the real-world proponents of an authoritarian, "get tough" attitude are not. By many accounts, John Yoo is quite personable, funny even. Aside from VP Penguin and Karl Rove, there is no one involved who is as individually loathsome on a personal level. No one fills the archtypical "lead baddie" role.

"You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall," he says. A lot (I'd say most) of Americans probably see it that way, though the advent of blogging has probably put the lie to the "deep down in places you don't talk about at parties" portion - we talk about it all the time. At times it seems like it's all we talk about.

But it's not enough to simply "stand the post", I don't think - Jessop himself uses "words like honor, code, loyalty" but his actions subvert their very meaning. He himself lies about his conduct, ignores orders and shows an appalling lack of loyalty to Dawson and Downey.

In reading Gaddis's "Cold War", I wrote that one of the author's key points was the extent to which living up to one's ideals (or at least making the attempt) matters. Obviously, he's a fictional character, so it's unwise to draw too strong a message, but Jessop is an object lesson. When means become an end to themselves what happens to the original goal? In this case, what started out as the productive and noble goal of providing a strong defense of his country got hijacked by the personal agenda to show just how badass he could be - yes being a badass probably helps the original aim, but they aren't the same thing, and in losing sight of this, Jessop lost his claim to nobility of purpose.

To draw a broader lesson, which I also alluded to earlier, it's easy to lose sight of the end goal (which is not "winning" unless you are actually playing a sport) - I don't espouse liberal ideology because Hillary Clinton has a right (divine or more likely otherwise) to be President in 2009, but because I think that certain things like civil liberties, respect for empricism, and the social safety net are 'Good Things' - to the extent I get sidetracked from these things to focus on merely 'winning,' it had better be instrumental rather than simple boosterism. Otherwise, what am I about?

(Cross-posted at Kakistocracy)

1 comment:

slickdpdx said...

Excellent post. Sometimes it seems like people presuppose the existence or security of a society in which "civil liberties, respect for empricism, and the social safety net" are present.
Despite 18th Century Natural Law and talk about god-given rights, its not something you can presuppose.
So, its important to secure those things not only by resisting our own local and national government when it infringes on them, but also by securing them against the internal and external forces that threaten them but are not our own local or national government.

That's where the tension is.