Colonel Jessup, Machiavelli, and Modern-Day Dilemmas

I don’t think I’m the only one vehemently excited for Thanksgiving break; I’ve been keeping a tally since September. For almost all of us, Thanksgiving break means going home, eating our body weight in great food, and spending quality time with family. For me (besides what’s already listed), one of my favorite things to do over break is watch movies with my dad. We have very similar tastes, and a few years ago, he introduced me to one of my favorite movies of all-time, A Few Good Men.

To me, this movie is pretty much perfection. The film has one of the greatest storylines of all time, is responsible for some of the most quotable and memorable scenes ever, and is one of the precious few films that Tom Cruise doesn’t overact in. Honestly, I could make this entire post about the greatness that is A Few Good Men. But, in particular, I wanted to focus on one of its most memorable scenes: Colonel Jessup’s famous “You can’t handle the truth.” It highlights a concept that has birthed moral controversy for many, many years. Perfectly articulated by Machiavelli, it explores the idea that, as a leader, “it is better to be feared than loved.” 


There’s a reason this entire court scene is so profound: it isn’t black and white. Although we all may claim to be obliged against “dirty” practices in the military, “deep down, in places [we] don’t talk about at parties,” we may appeal to the idea that they are an unfortunate necessity. Colonel Jessup, the man accused of ordering a “code red” that led to the death of a fellow soldier, perfectly embodies the Machiavellian mindset. According to Jessup and Machiavelli, in positions of leadership, it is necessary to employ morally questionable methods for the sake of safety and efficiency, and the approval of the people takes a back seat. It “saves lives.” And as citizens, we need to have leaders—we “need [them] on that wall”—that are feared, both by the people they govern and especially by potential threats to security.

And even by today’s standards, they both have a point. America is threatened as a nation on a daily basis. We currently face the spread of Ebola, Isis threats, potential Russian attacks and many more. A reasonable desire of the public, then, would be to appoint a leader that will act with swiftness, strength, and authority to ensure we are all protected. And, in a situation like Machiavelli depicts, if we cannot both love and feel protected by our leader, which would we rather choose? Why not, like Colonel Jessup suggests, stop sticking our noses where they don’t belong and let the people who are, unlike us, willing to do the job, to do it? We aren’t there; we have no idea what it’s like, from a military standpoint, to risk our lives every day. We have no idea the physical and mental toll of protecting this country. And if, like Colonel Jessup suggests, it is necessary to employ morally questionable methods to ensure we never have to see or experience these horrors firsthand, why don’t we let them? What’s really more important, to like our leader or to be protected by him?

I don’t have an answer to these questions; I doubt anybody really does. They bring to light another Machiavellian belief: that the ends justify the means. Although we may, again, be quick to deny the validity of this, would our answers change if our friends, our families, or ourselves were the ones threatened? We have the luxury, at least in a military context, of leaving these questions hanging; we don’t need to come up with definitive answers. However, for the men and women in the line of fire on a daily basis, it’s another story. The beauty of A Few Good Men is that, although we may find Colonel Jessup “grotesque,” we are able to see, maybe for the first time, both sides of an unfortunately challenging dilemma. For some, this means developing perspectives they had never considered before, and Machiavelli possibly gaining some merit.

It is through the window of A Few Good Men that we see this Machiavelli-inspired predicament in a very real light. If you had control, what would you choose? And while you’re thinking about it, write a petition to Mika asking to be able to watch the movie for extra credit.

…Or am I getting carried away?