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Evan Wang

Mr. Fisher

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21 April 2017

The Unbroken Chain of Dominance

Human nature has long revealed those who openly seek authority often fear it as well.

Moreover, the complex relationship of a military officer towards power can lead to the eventual

corruption of an ideal as noble as allegiance. In the 1992 film A Few Good Men, directed by Rob

Reiner, allegiance to self is often overshadowed by allegiance to superiors and to country.

Lieutenant Matthew Markinson and Lance Corporal Harold Downey both demonstrated open

willingness to disobey the unjust orders of their superiors, but ultimately lacked the courage to

follow through because their selfish fear of consequences confined them to submission that

ultimately befell a worse fate for them. The suicide of Lt. Col. Markinson and the dishonorable

discharge of L. Cor. Downey in A Few Good Men (1992) illustrate that, especially in the military,

it is the dominance of authority, not the weakness of resolve, that renders the subordinate unable

to defy orders that contradict his or her own moral awareness.

The realizations of two characters, Lt. Col. Markinson and L. Cor. Downey, from the film

in particular illustrate the significance of the chain of command. Early in the plot sequence,

Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, who serves as the primary antagonist of the film, meets with his

subordinates Lt. Col. Markinson and Lieutenant Jonathan J. Kendrick to discuss the fate of

Private First Class (PFC) William T. Santiago. In a letter, Santiago offered information of an

illegal fence line shooting by Dawson in exchange for a transfer from his station at Guantanamo

Bay, Cuba, where he struggled to conform with his platoon. While Lt. Col. Markinson initially
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argued for the sympathetic, humane solution of transferring Santiago off the base and re-

stationing him to a more suitable post, Col. Jessup dismisses Markinsons concern as

inappropriate to the business of saving lives and resolves to train Santiago by administering a

code reda brutal punishment enforced by other members of the platoon. The private meeting

scene is made more poignant when Markinson lashes out at his subordinate Lieutenant Jonathan

Kendrick for interrupting, only to be reminded by Jessup of his own inferiority to the colonel.

Markinsons resulting passivity ensues until his suicide, and he dies regretful that he could not

carry through with his defiance to a superiors order that put a fellow Marines safety and well-

being in grave danger.

Before the events of the film, L. Cor. Downey previously defied his commanding officers

in a notable case where he brought water to a fellow Marine who received a code red by being

denied food and drink. Despite the fact that the code red was ordered by Lt. Kendrick, a superior

officer, Downey relied on his intuition rather than loyalty and based his decision to disobey the

order on his own moral judgement. However, Kenrick gave Downey below average remarks on

his next progress report, a marked deviation from the high marks that Downey scored on all

other aspects of proper Marine conduct. Consequently, Downey, who throughout the film,

demonstrated a strict adherence to the Marine code, showed no hesitancy or defiance when

ordered by Kendrick to perform a code red on PFC Santiago. It was only until the court ruling

and charges were delivered at the conclusion of the trial when Downey realized that his actions

in response to the code red on Santiago, not his response to the first code red, truly represented

conduct unbecoming of a Marine.

Markinsons exchange with his superior Jessup and subordinate Kendrick exemplifies the

adage there is always a bigger fishin this case, with respect to the military chain of
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command, Markinson would always be outranked as a Lt. Col by the domineering Jessup.

Markinsons initial questioning, but subsequent blind obedience to his superior's authority

indicated that he not only respected, but feared Jessups power over him. It is noteworthy that

after Kendrick was dismissed, Jessup contemptuously noted that though he and Markinson

initially trained and fought as equals, Jessup ascended the chain of command faster, resulting in

what was likely an envious tension between Markinson and Jessup. Regardless of Markinsons

military ambitions, Jessup quickly subjugated Markinsons independent thought and moral

responsibility, and ultimately, the uniform in which the Lieutenant Colonel took his life wore

only shame and remorse, not pride and honor.

In many ways, the chain of command exhibited in the Marine Corps represents an

extreme example of societal relationships between average people. Particularly illuminating of

this issue of one-sided dominance is the Milgram experiment, created by Yale psychologist

Stanley Milgram, who detailed the study in his 1974 article The Perils of Obedience. In the

Milgram experiment, the voluntary subject played the role of a teacher, who first read a long

list of word pairs to a student sitting on the other side of a wall, then tested the student by

reading the first word and providing four answer choices. The teacher, sitting at an electroshock

generator connected to the student, delivered incrementally (by 15-volt) intense shocks for each

incorrect or absent answer. The entire experiment was overseen by an experimenter, who,

acting in a role of authority, delivered the instructions to the teacher and knew along that the

shocks never reached the student, who was revealed later to be a confederate in the experiment.

Through the results, Milgram surprisingly disproved a series of hypotheses by Yale psychology

graduate students that the subject would choose to cease administering shocks after hearing the

(acted) screams of pain and the eventual silence of the student altogether.
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In fact, in The Perils of Obedience, Milgram contends that the volunteer subjects

continued with the experience, despite believing that they were causing harm to the student, not

out of sadistic tendencies, but as a result of the dominant-subordinate relationship quickly

established by the experimenter with the teacher. The experimenter, dressed in a white laboratory

coat, adopted a frigidly objective tone from the beginning, establishing his credibility as a

practiced scientist, and when the teacher showed or verbalized signs of objection to the duties of

his post, the experimenter quickly responded with refined, yet terse commands such as, It is

absolutely essential that you continue. Faced with the intimidation of an authority figure, many

of the teachers were unable to terminate the experiment on their own terms, even if the effects

were antithetical to their personal morals. Similarly, Lt. Col. Markinson, who had disappeared

after Santiagos death, had neither the strength to intervene against Jessups orders nor the

bravery to even testify of Jessups artifice in court. The consequences of Milgrams experiment

and Markinsons actions exemplify the incomparable strength of an authority over the mild-

willed individual.

The verdict delivered to L. Cor. Downey and PFC Dawson at the conclusion of A Few

Good Men also illustrates the power struggle between duty and morality, which tested many

characters in the film. Following the tense standoff between Lieutenant Kaffee, Dawson and

Downeys defense attorney, and Col. Jessup resulting in the dramatic realization that Jessup

ordered the code red, Dawson and Downey are found not guilty of a number of crimes that were

direct consequences of the order from a superior officer, including the charge of conspiring to

commit murder. However, the two recruits are found guilty of conduct unbecoming of a Marine

and dishonorably discharged, much to the surprise and chagrin of Downey, who cannot

comprehend the error in their ways. Dawson understands, however, that it was the very Marine
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code they believed they followed, that actually dictated the necessity of acting on behalf of those

not strong enough to fight themselves. Thus, although Jessup likely received the greatest

punishments for his handling of Santiagos fate, because of the nature of the chain of command,

punishment for obeying such an antithetical order traveled downwards to Dawson and Downey.

The reasoning for the sentencing of Dawson and Downey parallels the assertions in Erich

Fromms article Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem, an analysis of the

consequences of disobedience and obedience on the psyche. Fromm, a German social

psychologist, redefines obedience in society according to two branches: heteronomous and

autonomous obedience. According to Fromm, heteronomous obedience, that is, to external

power, is equivalent to submission, while autonomous obedience, adherence to personal

reasoning or conviction, affirms ones sense of self and conviction in one's own ideas (para. 8).

For Lt. Col. Markinson, his abandonment of his own, independent thinking and his deviation

from his better judgement compelled him to shield himself from any authority and ultimately

from himself. However, for Downey, who has never known any duty besides heteronomous

obedience to his superiors, ultimately remained trapped by his devotion to the code, and as

viewers, we can only hope that his dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps allowed him to

he achieve some degree of freedom.

Although neither Milgram nor Fromms pieces explicitly discussed the power structure of

the U.S. military, both carefully reflected on the competition between allegiance to self and

allegiance to the power vested in authority. Both assert that while humans naturally submit

themselves to sources of dominance, precautions must be taken to ensure that obedience to

external control does not overcome loyalty to ones own moral principles. For PFC William T.

Santiago, his sacrifice was necessary to bring about the realization of how volatile the chain of
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command can be if subjected to a figure as powerful as Col. Jessup. For the entire cast of A Few

Good Men, the film proves that the most easily corruptible facet of character is individuality.
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Works Cited

A Few Good Men. Directed by Rob Reiner, performances by Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and

Demi Moore, Colombia, 1992.

Farris, Christine R., and Deanna M. Jessup, editors. Writing & Reading for ACP Composition,

Second Edition. Pearson, 2013.

Fromm, Erich. Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem. Farris and Jessup, pp.

123128.

Milgram, Stanley. The Perils of Obedience. Farris and Jessup, pp. 7789.