I recently gave a talk on the strange biblical ritual which is initiated when someone finds an unidentified corpse close to where he lives. The discovery of the body generates the convening of a meeting of the priests and elders of the nearest city who take a heifer, decapitate it, and ask for atonement even though they did not kill the man.
What’s going on here? One sage argues that this atonement ceremony takes place in the nearby city because of the suspicion that the community was negligent in welcoming strangers and escorting them as they left the city, and thus the stranger was exposed to potential harm, and in this case death.
My former teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, notes that this ritual is adjacent to a section of the Bible dealing with warfare. The Jews are commanded to extend the olive branch of peace; and if it is not accepted, then to do battle relentlessly against the enemy. Rabbi Lichtenstein suggests that the ceremony of atonement is placed after the command to wage war precisely to underscore the value of even one human life. During wartime, life may seem cheap and it is easy to give way to one’s lustful urges. War can change mild-mannered people into warriors, who may under the influence of battle become insensitive to the loss of life and the feelings of others. Therefore, the Torah reminds us to be human in an environment where life may be brutal and short.
This is the central dilemma of A Few Good Men. The story hinges on the motives of two Marines who assaulted another Marine. Did they attack him because someone higher up in the chain of command ordered them to do so? If they were following orders, then who gave the order? Most important, was the order one that a Marine was expected to follow even when it went against his moral sensibilities? Indeed, these are heavy questions; and the answer in part lies with what kind of conduct is expected of a Marine. He is a soldier fighting to protect his country, a noble cause. But in the process, he may lose his moral rudder and begin to devalue the life of others. There are no easy answers; and the film, in general, presents a balanced view of a very complex topic.
The one scene in the film that is memorable – ask anyone who has seen it – is the confrontation between Tom Cruise, the defense attorney for the accused soldiers, and Jack Nicholson, the general who gave the questionable command. General Jessup describes the sacred duty of a Marine to defend his country which depends upon following orders, orders which at times place the Marine on a slippery moral slope but which must be carried out nonetheless. This is Jessup’s truth, which guides him as a military man devoted to defending the country. When skillfully provoked by the defense attorney, however, he loses his composure and shouts to the courtroom: “You can’t handle the truth.” Handling the truth means accepting complexity, realizing that in the pursuit of a noble cause, there may be collateral damage which may be unwelcome but necessary. Tom Cruise may have won the case, but Jack Nicholson’s assessment of his military reality is not to be dismissed.
Watching A Few Good Men reminded me of the difficulty all of us have in hearing the truth. This came home to me as I watched A Few Good Men, a film that reminds us that to hear the truth, we must be willing to accept discomposure, complexity, and the reality that truth can be painful even as it enables us to grow.