Here is an iconic dialogue from the movie "A Few Good Men"

Lt. Kafee: Did you order the CODE RED?

My question is whether the evidence against Colonel Nathan Jessup was sufficient and compact to prosecute him and acquit the two marines?

During the course of the hearing, it is sufficiently proved that "Code Red" is an unofficial disciplinary action conducted at Gitmo. So Col. Jessup says he ordered it.

In the confrontation between Kaffee and Jessup leading up to the above dialogue, Jessup froth about the rigid chain of command within the Armed Forces with "We follow orders or PEOPLE DIE". That a Marine officer will not and cannot ignore his superiors' orders under any circumstances.

In the movie, the court takes this bit of information (I will not call this confession) and combines it with Code Red confession in order to prosecute Jessup. The Code Red practice is confirmed by many witnesses, but this "rigid chain of command" is not proved or endorsed by anybody other than Jessup. So it must stand as his interpretation that a superiors officer's orders will never be ignored and will always be followed and not a fact and therefore not a confession.

So even though I as a viewer in a theater want to "Punch in the face" Jack Nicholson for his amazing portrayal of Colonel Nathan Jessup, how can an unbiased court in the film prosecute him with the evidence at hand?

Also, Code Red doesn't mean an order to kill

Also, what kind of punishment was he likely to get after his conviction?

I am not looking for opinionated answers but plot explanations/inconsistencies/holes if any.

  • 6
    As a retired Marine Major I can tell you that in the "practical" and "actual" sense, nothing would be done against him. It may seem unfair but the Corp has a long history of internal discipline, so that means anything that comes will appear as nothing more than a slap on the wrist to the outsiders anyway. But realistically, internally he will probably be praised and instructed to not get caught in the future. That is not to say they condone people getting killed but being hurt is par for the course, we make warriors and if you can't take it, you shouldn't be there. Enemy isn't blowing kisses. Feb 26, 2014 at 17:13
  • 1
    The infraction was the cautionary message from the NIS that the "practice of enlisted disciplining their own" was not to be tolerated. IIRC, his quote was "However, the directive having come from the NIS, I gave it its due attention". Ignoring the directive was the infraction, no matter what they actually called it.
    – JohnP
    Feb 26, 2014 at 22:52
  • 2
    The two marines weren't acquitted.
    – BCdotWEB
    Jul 26, 2016 at 5:40

11 Answers 11


I was an officer in the U.S Army.

There are oaths that are sworn when you are commissioned. In my opinion, Col. Jessup would have been charged with several offenses under the UCMJ (Unified Code of Military Justice). Issuing an illegal order would have been one, but more importantly and more severe would have been several counts of perjury, as well as interfering with a governmental investigation and conduct unbecoming of a Marine.

Committing perjury on the stand is probably why he was immediately detained by the trial judge in lieu of returning to his post while under investigation. Whether or not he would have seen any jail-time would probably have hinged on the amount of publicity the case would have received. But without a doubt, his military career would be over as well as any future political aspirations he may have entertained.

I would imagine that at the least, he would have been reduced in rank and forced to retire. But this was a fictional story. A very good one I might add.

One last note, after the problems began with Cuba in the early 1960's, anything that happened at Gitmo were classified at the highest levels. Any incidents like the one portrayed in the film would been notoriously hidden from public. It was not until 9/11 and the war in Iraq, that the American people became familiar with the operations at Gitmo.


I may be misremembering the ending of the movie, but I'm pretty sure that there is no reference at all to Jessup being prosecuted. He is arrested by military police, as a confession like that would be grounds for an arrest. But the movie does not portray any sort of prosecution of Jessup.

And, as viewers, we could make the assumption that he will be prosecuted in court, but that doesn't mean it would go well and certainly doesn't mean he would be convicted or punished. In fact, you could likely make the argument, based on what is presented in the movie, that Jessup, if he were to be prosecuted, might be found not guilty (or might plea bargain down to a lesser charge ... plea bargaining is a big plot device in the movie, after all).

So in other words, I think that the answer to your question is that, given what the movie tells us, we can't say anything at all about a theoretical Jessup prosecution; it is quite possible that there is not enough evidence to eventually prosecute or convict him (although I wouldn't call it a plot hole, but just a "hey this movie is ending" issue).

Here's an interesting message board thread where people debate this issue more, coming to pretty much the same conclusion (that Jessup will likely be tried, but very possibly not convicted):


Also, the two marines were not completely acquitted; they were both found guilty of conduct unbecoming and were dishonorably discharged.

  • 4
    Good answer. Still I would add that even if it didn't have any legal consequences for Jessup, the accompanying scandal would probably not leave him without any consequences. So I wouldn't regard this so much as an open ending for him, in one or another way his carreer is likely to suffer (even if not in an "official" way).
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jul 9, 2013 at 16:03

As far as the two lower enlisted "only following" orders, as a service member, you are supposed to follow "lawful" orders. If a General ordered you to go out and murder 6 children, if you don't follow the order, you of course would not get in trouble, however if you did, you would go to prison. Now, that being said, it is is established in the film, that the Code Red is a form of punishment that is commonplace for that particular unit. With that in mind, you can't expect two lower enlisted soldiers to understand if that in fact is a lawful order or not.

I worked in the Army Jag Corps for years, it is rare to see a "Dishonorable Discharge", that is usually saved for murderers and rapist and such. Since it was proven that there was no intent to harm Pvt Santiago, only to train, I doubt they would have received that discharge classification. Also, they went on trial for murder, so any defense attorney worth his salt could easily get a retrail based on the new evidence and prove they were following orders they believed beyond a shadow of a doubt were infact "lawful" orders and keep their careers. After all, Santiago's death was a freak accident, not intentional.

What got me is how Jessup got arrested. What would normally take place is with the new evidence, an investigation would take place and if the evidence would charges being pressed, he would then possibly be arrested, but he would surely get released until the trail

One more thing, Lt Kendrick is done, we will be prosecuted for perjury and he will get discharged. Probably no jail time, but his career is over.

  • 1
    While dishonorable is the worst, aren't there several other "bad" discharges? IIRC (I was in the AF), there is Bad Conduct, General, Discharge under other than Honorable and Medical. (I may be missing a couple). It's almost a moot point, as pretty much any discharge other than medical or honorable kinds of jacks you for life.
    – JohnP
    May 27, 2014 at 18:15

I served in the Army during the late 60's when corporal punishment was no longer allowed. Marines in the movie were driving a Humvee so the UCMJ prohibition on corporal punishment was definitely in effect. Code Red is corporal punishment. Looks to me that Jessup and Kendrick committed perjury covering up their illegal orders to commit corporal punishment which resulted in death (manslaughter or murder in 3rd degree. They effectively put the rag in Santiago's mouth. Both officers should have gone to Leavenworth. A most entertaining movie.

  • They were only following orders. If they didn't listen they could of been punished themselves for insubordination. Bottom line is if Jessup didn't order the code red and shipped him out like he said, Santiago would still be alive. Oct 21, 2018 at 21:33

That a Marine officer will not & cannot ignore his superiors orders under any circumstances.

Although Jessup brings up fair points during his rant (but he is criminally misguided, as the movie explores), his statement about the necessity of following orders blindly is the first indication of how he has become misguided.

He's not wrong that failing to follow orders can lead to deaths that could've been avoided.
However, Jessup makes a mistake by thinking that this is the same as arguing that order must always be followed without question.

Overall, Jessup's reasoning has grains of truth in them, but he has resorted to blanket statements that, while often correct in the right context, do no apply as a global rule. But he enforces these as a global rule because he has become indifferent to the consequences of his wilfully overstated blanket conclusions.

Jessup's argument about the necessity of following orders has many applications that are benevolent: making sure the Marines do not hesitate during combat, or get paralyzed by fear when faced with possible death.
However, he sticks to that rule to a fault. He argues that every command must be followed, without regarding the morality or legality of the command.

And that is where his reasoning goes off the rails. Going by his statements; he is arguing that when a Marine is instructed to do something morally reprehensible with no good justification (e.g. raping a woman or shooting a child), that the order still needs to be followed by merit of it being an order from a superior officer.

Jessup puts the chain of command before both legal and moral consequences, and that is why he is considered evil. Not because he intends to do harm or break the law, but because he is recklessly indifferent to the consequences of the power that he wields.

If his behavior is considered willfully reckless, then he should also be considered guilty for the consequences of his actions.
As an analogy: I cannot intentionally murder someone by throwing a knife off of the Empire State Building. But should the thrown knife land in someone and kill them, I am considered guilty of reckless endangerment. I created a situation that, while I did not directly commit the murder, caused someone to die.

  • Do you want him on the wall? Do you need him on the wall? BTW, if all his orders are not to be followed to the word, how will Marines decide which orders to follow & which to not. I mean the order for Code Redding Santiago was disciplinary. He went behind chain of command & reported to NIS. Code Red was not to kill Santiago. Jun 13, 2017 at 7:29
  • @KharoBangdo: Not sure if you're agreeing or disagreeing with me here. To my mind, Jessup makes a whole lot of sense; but he has taken it slightly too far and therefore gets the moral blame of the plot. However, I consider him more a "subtle" PTSD victim (who is paranoid about the dangers around them) than an evil character. He's basically Iron Joe, combined with an anger problem and a tendency to self aggrandize.
    – Flater
    Jun 13, 2017 at 7:38
  • Yes I agree, his orders unintentionally leads to a death. He is just covering his tracks after that. Anyway, the question isn't about Jessup's character. Jun 13, 2017 at 8:00

Reality is it wouldn't have gone further due to his imminent promotion to NSC... Which would now of course disappear. He wouldn't be discharged but likely demoted and given a "bad" assignment where he could be kept an eye on. Where it would get murky is if his mental state came into question, as he did seem yo be somewhat of a psychopath and his behaviour in the court room bore that out.

Kaffer wouldnt be looking over his shoulder however as I'm pretty sure Jessup would commit suicide soon after his disgrace... He wouldn't be able to face being demoted and losing face and his career to that kid.


Having never served in the military but being a law enforcement officer, I understand the chain of command and more importantly, I understand politics. Jessup was a powerful man. IIRC Markinson made mention that Jessup was being considered for a position in the NSA which, as he said, you don't get into that kind of position without being able to dodge a few landmines. Couple that with the fact that this wasn't a landmark or high profile case, chances are when all is said and done, Jessup would have more then likely been forced to retire. Maybe not in disgrace but he would have lost the opportunity to be a part of the NSA. It would have been a shot to his ego but he wouldn't be prosecuted because while he might have ordered the Code Red, it was Kendrick who ordered the manner it was to be given. Jessup could claim plausible deniability by saying he meant for something like a blanket party but it was Kendrick who decided to take it to the next level which led to Santiago's death.

Also, while Dawson and Downey might have been simply following orders, their actions did lead to the death of a Marine and I do not see the Court Martial only finding them guilty of Conduct Unbecoming. The jury could have found them guilty of involuntary manslaughter. I mean, it isn't like Mafia hitmen are excused for whacking someone but they were only acting on orders.


What would have more than likely have happened is that that there would’ve been a General Order Memorandum of Record (GOMAR) that would’ve been issued that would have effectively stalled his career and he probably retires at that point.

The suspension of belief that a Colonel would go directly to a Platoon Leader and tell him to “beat the shit out of Santiago and straighten him out or else” notwithstanding, any charges against him would’ve been completely dropped. Any JAG attorney would have those charges thrown out.

Just looking at COL. Jessup uniform that he wears to court, he has been awarded the Navy Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star with V Device; all of those are Valor awards with the Navy Cross being the second highest Medal there is. The character was the real deal. The character was also an Annapolis Graduate so he was highly educated as well. The actual conversation would never have went beyond Jessup and Markinson and would’ve went like this-

COL. Jessup- “this clown you got here Santiago is bitching and moaning to get off Gitmo. Do you have an issue with controlling your Marines because if you do, I’ll have you relieved.

LTC Markinson- Sir I think it best we get Santiago out of here for his benefit and the good of the unit.

COL. Jessup- “I don’t give a damn what you think, Matthew. You get your Marines in order. You get Santiago in order or I’m gonna have my boot so far up your ass you’ll be puking kiwi. Is that understood or do I have to further elaborate?

LTC Markinson- Clear Sir. I’ll handle it.

At that point, Markinson goes to Kendrick who in turn would’ve went to the Platoon Sergeant who in turn would’ve went to the squad leader. If Kendrick bypassed the Gunny, the Gunny would’ve had a polite and professional conversation with Kendrick about NCO business and how Officers and NCO have their own lanes that both need to stick to for unit cohesion, etc.......etc........

Is there was a push that COL. Jessup directly ordered a Code Red there would be an explanation as to the meaning and intention of that and in no reality would there be an historical precedent of placing a rag down a Marine throat in order to subdue him. The Code Red would be explained by his lawyers as “internal discipline” or some other such colorful terminology and the actual crux of focus would’ve been put where it should’ve been, on the two Marines that actually killed Santiago; something the play barely addresses from a moral standpoint.


If I understand your amply lengthy question correctly, you want to know how the court can punish him without sufficient proof against him. Actually Kaffee had a strong witness, i.e. Col. Markinson, whose testimony was sufficient to punish Col. Jessup. But due to his sad and sudden death, Kaffee felt lost. So the only thing Kaffee could think of was to produce Col. Jessup and to compel him to admit that he had ordered the Code Red. So he summoned Jessup in the court, questioned him wittingly, trapped him by exploiting his intolerant nature and finally made him admit that he had ordered Code Red himself. Now a self-admittance or confession is no doubt above all proofs. If somebody confesses his own misdeed, what else proof is needed for? So the court found him guilty.

  • Though I guess the question is up to something more about Jessup not being responsible himself, but I haven't really understood the question completely, I have to admit.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jul 6, 2013 at 18:39
  • Jessup confesses of ordering Code Red. But Code Red is "Unofficial Disciplinary action", it is not an order to Kill the marine. Your answer covers only half my question. When Jessup says "We follow orders or people die" He's saying Superiors orders are not ignored. But no proof is provided to this thing Jul 7, 2013 at 13:12
  • 3
    When did a court find Jessup guilty? He was arrested at the end of the movie, but I don't remember any reference to him actually being tried. See my answer for more details. Confession and arrest is not the same as conviction.
    – jlmcdonald
    Jul 9, 2013 at 5:18

Jessup has to be made a scapegoat otherwise the marine corps is condoning the code red. The US govt has to distance themselves from this. I think loss of rank and pension. Dishonorable discharge for conduct unbecoming.

  • 1
    Any backup for this wild conjecture?
    – JohnP
    Feb 26, 2014 at 22:48

Jessup will be charged with murder 4th degree (life or death sentence), burglary, perjury, obrstuction of justice, conduct unbecoming of a marine, conspiracy, manipulation of documents, insubordination, assault, wrongful imprisonmente, among other things.

He will probably have a life sentence without parole for the crime.

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