Aaron Sorkin

A Few Good Men

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A Few Good Men Summary

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Set in the summer of 1986, Aaron Sorkin’s dramatic play A Few Good Men (1989) follows Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, an apathetic military lawyer, as he is assigned to the case of two Marines charged with the murder of a squadron member. The play is loosely based on events that occurred at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in July 1986. Sorkin, who is best known as a screenwriter, also wrote the screenplay for the 1992 film adaptation of A Few Good Men, which starred Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore.

At the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, Private First Class William T. Santiago has been murdered in what looks to be a hazing incident gone wrong. He is found dead with his head shaved and a rag stuffed in his mouth. Two of his fellow Marines, Lance Corporal Harold W. Dawson and Private First Class Louden Downey, stand accused of this crime. They are being held in Washington D.C., awaiting trial.

As Dawson and Downey give their testimonies, it is revealed that Santiago was a poor soldier who did not care about his fellow Marines. He wrote several letters requesting a transfer from Guantanamo, but all his requests were ignored. Finally, he agreed to testify against the other Marines for minor offenses in exchange for a transfer; this is believed to be the motive for why Santiago was targeted in the hazing attack.

Lieutenant Commander Joanne Galloway, military legal ace in Internal Affairs, thinks there is more to this seemingly cut-and-dried case. She believes that Dawson and Downey were following a “Code Red” order—a secretive order given by a superior officer to mete out violent punishment to troublemakers. Code Red orders are illegal, but Galloway believes that they are still regularly used, and she campaigns to represent the accused Marines in court to prove her theory.

Knowing Galloway will see that the case goes to court and eager to avoid a scandal, the Navy higher-ups assign Lieutenant Junior Grade Daniel A. Kaffee to represent the accused Marines. Kaffee is an apathetic young lawyer who cares more about his summer softball league than his job. He has a reputation for using plea bargains to settle cases quickly and quietly out of court; in this instance, that is exactly what the Navy wants.

Kaffee works with Lieutenant Jack Ross, the prosecution lawyer, to come up with a plea deal that involves an extremely mild punishment for a murder case: six months in prison followed by a dishonorable discharge in exchange for an admission of guilt. However, when Kaffee presents the deal to Dawson and Downey, they refuse. They are proud Marines, and they fully believe in the military code of honor and integrity. To accept the plea bargain would mean admitting that they did something wrong. As they were simply following orders, it is against their code of honor to admit wrongdoing because it would be like accusing their superior of wrongdoing.

Galloway (who has meanwhile convinced Downey to name her as his lawyer) is excited to learn that her suspicions of a Code Red were true. She pressures Kaffee to take the case to court, and because the accused Marines will not accept the plea bargain, he reluctantly agrees. It is revealed that Santiago was indeed scheduled for a transfer from Guantanamo and that Lieutenant Jonathan James Kendrick, the commanding officer where Santiago was stationed, had publicly ordered that no one was to retaliate against Santiago for leaving. Privately, however, he ordered Dawson to enact the Code Red, and Dawson enlisted the help of Downey in this endeavor. Intending only to punish Santiago, not to kill him, they did not realize that Santiago had a medical condition that would cause him to suffocate from the rag in his mouth.

Kaffee speaks to Captain Matthew A. Markinson about Santiago’s scheduled transfer. Markinson, who had previously worked with Dawson, Downey, and Santiago, had lobbied heavily to his supervisor for a transfer for Santiago. His supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessup, a powerful man who loves being in control, never intended to transfer Santiago, and as Markinson reveals, the currently scheduled transfer is a ruse. It was added after Santiago was found dead to refute suspicion.

Kaffee intends to call Markinson to testify against Jessup, but Markinson chooses to commit suicide rather than go to court. Without his testimony, Kaffee believes the case is lost. Galloway, however, thinks they may still have a chance if they call Jessup to the stand and can get him to confess. It is a huge risk; not only does Jessup’s influence range far and wide in the Navy, there are stiff consequences for soldiers that smear the reputation of a superior officer. If they fail to get the proof they need from Jessup’s testimony, they will almost certainly be court-martialed.

When Jessup takes the stand, he brags that his orders are always followed, saying that he ordered Santiago’s transfer because the soldier was so disliked among the Marines. The transfer was for Santiago’s own safety. Kaffee questions this inconsistency in Jessup’s story: Jessup had previously ordered, via Kendrick, that Santiago was not to be harmed. Therefore, if his orders were always followed, Santiago would have been in no danger and would not have needed a transfer for his own safety.

Jessup flies into a rage at being made to look foolish by lower ranking officers. He says that he was the one who ordered Kendrick to call for the Code Red because his sanctity and the sanctity of the military go beyond the law. He and Kendrick are arrested; Dawson and Downey are found not guilty of murder, but guilty of “conduct unbecoming a United States Marine.” They are dishonorably discharged from the Navy.