Friday, January 6, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Hollywood goes to trial, military style

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
January 6, 2012

The court martial of Sgt. Frank Wuterich began this week in California on charges of manslaughter and assault. Wuterich, was a squad leader in Haditha, Iraq in 2005 when a roadside bomb exploded, killing a Marine and injuring two others. In the aftermath of the attack, 24 Iraqis were killed including women and children.

Most of what we know about military trials comes from Hollywood. This is not to diminish the gravity of the ongoing proceeding, but three pictures that do “justice” to military trials are Paths of Glory, Breaker Morant and A Few Good Men.

Paths of Glory, released in 1957, was based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb. The novel was loosely based on the court-martial and execution of four French soldiers during World War I. Kirk Douglas played Colonel Dax, a unit commander, who was a lawyer in civilian life. He defended the soldiers charged with cowardice after they refused to continue a suicidal attack.

The trial was a predetermined exercise to set an example for the rest of the French army. Colonel Dax, well aware of his clients’ fate, memorably told the court, “Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I'm ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.”

Breaker Morant was an Australian film released in 1980. The movie was also based on a true story. The movie explores, in detail, the court-martial of three Australian soldiers, carrying out unwritten orders to kill Dutch prisoners of war during the Boer War in 1902. The movie won a Golden Globe for best foreign film. The court room action is entertaining as typified by this exchange during the examination of a prosecution witness:

Prosecutor: How did Lt. Handcock look?
Witness: Like he was thinking, sir... like... I can't think of the ...
Prosecutor: Did he look like he was agitated?
Witness: Agitated? Yes, that's it, sir. Yes, sir, he looked agitated.
Defense Attorney: Objection. Major Bolton (prosecutor) is leading the witness.
Prosecutor: I will rephrase the question, sir. Tell me, how did Lt. Handcock look?
Witness: Agitated, sir!

The final film, A Few Good Men, was released in 1992. Originally written as a play and adapted for the big screen, the movie is based, in part, on a real incident that occurred at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

Two Marines are on trial for carrying out a ‘Code Red’ order that resulted in the death of another marine. The code was ordered by the base commander to bring a wayward Marine into line. The movie’s well known ending, with Tom Cruise as Lt. Kaffee and Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup, lights up the screen with one of film’s all-time great cross-examinations.

The lead-up to, “You can’t handle the truth,” is so well underplayed that it is often forgotten. As Lt. Kaffee’s examination seems to unravel, Colonel Jessup goads him into the decisive confrontation, “Now, are these the questions I was really called here to answer? Phone calls and foot lockers? Please tell me that you have something more, Lieutenant. These two Marines are on trial for their lives. Please tell me their lawyer hasn't pinned their hopes to a phone bill.”

If you haven’t seen them, all three films are worth watching. If you have seen them, they’re worth another look.

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