Dirty Work

In the debate over torture, I am continually reminded of A Few Good Men, and I often get the sense that many of the most vocal torture advocates are, essentially, playing the terrifying but also tragic role of Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessep.

The key line: “I did my job. I’d do it again.” He’s proud of his work. He considers it right and honorable and noble. In the end, Jessep never understands that his orders, his beliefs, his faith in the sanctity of military authority — his authority — are antithetical to a just and decent civilization. And while his beliefs are partially rooted in personal arrogance, they also stem from a genuine commitment to the notion that his actions and orders were vital to the preservation of a safe, free, and great society. For Jessep, Code Reds — essentially sanctioned torture of American troops by their fellow soldiers — are necessary and therefore right. What’s more, even if they aren’t, the core of the issue is not the cultivation of society’s moral character, but the preservation of respect for authority. Whether the practice is cruel, inhumane, or uncivilized hardly matters. He believes that worries over such notions are for civilians and weaklings; they have no place on the front lines of national defense. That’s the distilled essence of how the most vociferous defenders of torture perceive the practice, and I suspect that they, like Jessep, will never accept or truly grasp that what they’ve done and what they support is wrong.