Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) the son of a prominent attorney and a lawyer coming into his own is chosen after only nine months in the Jag corp. of the navy to represent what would appear to be the murderer of a U.S Marine. From its beginning the movie hints at the conspiracy that would later become the focal point the drama. Lt.Cdr. Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) is the first to display suspicion of foul play and wants to tackle the case herself but is brushed off by superior officers, Kaffee is chosen instead to her dismay. As the story develops Kaffee’s character appears to mature from a self-righteous lawyer out for himself and the progression of his career, to a self-righteous lawyer out for his client and butting the system that he was once so happy to simply be a part of. Risking his own career and imprisonment Kaffee provokes Colonel Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholsan) to incriminate himself on the stand, in court, and in a fit of rage. The colonel’s loss of demeanor gets Kaffee’s clients no jail time but a dishonorable discharge that is the bitter sweet ending to the film.
The film indirectly presents themes of sexism, pop culture prejudices among other themes but these are at best understood as commentary on the time the film was produced, it more directly address’ ethical issues such as ambition for self-advancement versus the self-sacrificing edifying mindset . The story takes the Kaffee in a direction that directly challenges one of the assertions in the book that being the “Principle of Right Desire” the principle states basically that we should desire only what is really good for us and nothing else. The principle is not defined well and regardless of who said it the fact of the matter is that we can never know definitively what is really good for us, we can only do what we think is really good which depending on what each individual defines as good, may not be. Kaffee starts out being truly self-serving seemingly only interested in furthering his career, when he is accused by Lt.Cdr. Galloway of “doing his time in the corp. till he can get out and get a real job” it doesn’t seem harsh a criticism at all , it seems fitting in fact . Where this movie clashes with the Principle of Right Desires that the outcome of the story only seems positive after Kaffee decides to do something that we could argue would serve against what would really be good for him. Only after Kaffee is convinced is he willing to challenge colonel Jessup and risk imprisonment and his career. Of course we can see that over all it was the best decision but would we feel the same way if he had lost the case and been incarcerated?
There are other ethical issues that arise in the film. One such ethical issue is the right of authority to force us to adopt morality foreign from our own, and when we are justified in questioning said authority. The term “Code Red” is first used by Lt.Cdr. Galloway this term refers to a practice by the Marines stationed in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The practice involves the punishment or “training” of Marines who fall short of expectations or break rules. The “Code Red’s” are carried out by Marines on other Marines and where apparently banned earlier by higher up’s in the military , their use was not to be condoned by officers. Two Marines accidently kill another Marine while practicing a “Code Red” that they had been ordered to carry through. The decision they made involved at least three theme’s covered in our Ethics book. The themes that seemed most applicable are Social Conditioning, Moral choice , and Natural Endowment. The social conditioning is probably the most apparent being that the society didn’t simply suggest a behavior they were to follow but actually enforced an environment where authority cannot be questioned for fear of repercussion, then an order was directly given. As for moral choice they had none, their morality was pre-established by the code they were forced to follow “unit, corps. ,God , country”. What our to victims Pfc. Londen Downey and Lance cpl. Harold W. Dawson are left with is the ability to reconcile their conscience with their passion for being good soldiers. It isn’t until the end of the movie that Dawson realizes what his failure and wrong was. The film leads us to believe that the Natural Endowment of both of our victims is low and more on the impulsive side, but of the two Dawson was definitely the better suited to make a thought out decision . Downey for the length of the film never understands why he had been dishonorably discharged, he’s left looking puzzled and distraught.
The fallacy that makes the entire movie possible and one that every character except possibly Galloway is guilty of is a wrongly accepted appeal to authority. Almost all the characters are willing to take the word of their superiors as justification for their actions at some point in the film. Since the subject matter for which the characters appealed to authority was of such a nature that the authorizes expertise wasn’t in the area to which they addressed, they shouldn’t be accepted as authorities on the matter. In this case the morality was the subject, something they couldn’t possibly have authority over.