Sunday, September 16, 2012

FFF: "What I Know"

[The Flash Fiction Friday challenge this week is to rewrite a famous movie scene in 1969 or fewer words. I have chosen the most famous scene from one of my favorite movies, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men", the scene when Tom Cruise's Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee is questioning Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup about the death of Private William Santiago on the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. (It is the scene that contains the meme "you can't HANDLE the truth," which you have doubtless heard in some context, unless you spent the last two decades on a Martian penal colony.) This story is told from the point of view of Nicholson's character, and while I am confident my readers are smart enough to understand this, I feel bound to emphasize that these are not my views, they are the made up views of a fictional character.] [ This story is called "What I Know".]

It was hot in the courtroom, hot and stale in a way fans and air conditioners couldn't seem to stir. I could feel the sweat across the small of my back and on my thighs. I hadn't looked forward to making the trip to Washington for just this reason. Cuba was hot, sure, but Washington got hot the way no place else did. It was oppressive, miasmal heat- it made you wonder just what in the hell they were thinking to put the capital here.

It was offensive, leaving all my work behind to fly up here and have them act like I have to defend my command decisions. But here is where I was told to come, and when you've saluted the flag as long as I have, when they say come, you come. I knew what these lawyers were trying to do. It was that rotten little weasel Santiago, the inquiry into his death suddenly becoming a big affair, when really, it was just as simple as you please. I don't care what the doctors say- those slick lawyers have been throwing around buzzwords like acidosis and metabolism and all that crap I barely remember from high school biology. The lawyers were trying to make me responsible for Santiago's death, but truth is, he died of not being a Marine. Simple.

They told the kid to quit. Kendrick, Markinson, Dawson, everybody. Just leave the Corps and go home. Nothing to be ashamed of if you can't do it. Not everybody can be a Marine. It's hard because it has to be, so the men will be brave, and it's hard to make you a better man. Plenty of kids can't do it. Go home and ring a register, or go to community college. I'm not saying the kid deserved to die- I'm just saying he wasn't a Marine. No shame in that. Most men aren't.

But the little bastard stayed. He stayed, and he still couldn't hack it. He was terrible at everything- drill, PT, cleanliness, shooting. Every time we dressed him down about it, he apologized and promised to do better, but nothing would happen, the same sorry performance, on test after test after test. So if he wasn't going to go, we had to mold him. That's our job, right? Molding men? So I decided to work with the boy. I listened to Kaffee yammer at me, responding to his questions, wishing for just one stupid little breeze to cool off this stifling room.

Of course I knew the Code Reds were illegal. Everyone knew that. Division had ordered it. But whoever wrote that rule either had never faced bullets with his name on them, or had faced them so long ago all the fear had faded. When you're in it, when the man next to you is depending on you to do your job and you're depending on him, you take comfort in the fact that you know he's good enough. He was forged in the same fires you were, so you know he's made of something. That's the kind of toughness you must have in a forward area, that's the kind of toughness you need in a Marine, and that's the kind of toughness that Santiago would never have, and that's the kind of toughness Kaffee, for all his degrees, would never have on his best day.

Look at Kaffee, barking questions at me like I'm some kind of office flunky of his. I wonder about him. What kind of fire burns in a man like that? I can see the sweat gathering on his neck, asking me questions, one after another. They're easy to parry- I know where he is headed, and engaging in a battle of wits with someone this simple barely taxes my brain. I answer his questions slowly to help me think, but also because I think it irritates him. He's not half the man his father was. He may wear a uniform, but he's not a sailor.

I can't help but tense up when he gets close. I have these flashes of jumping up out of the witness chair, flooring the little prick with a right cross, seeing his head snap back, his perfect hair shaking, that golden nose breaking under the pressure, and then getting down on the floor and pounding his head into the floor until the MPs pull me off. Look, he's trying to prove there was no transfer order for Santiago with some nonsense about the tower chiefs at Andrews. How cute. What a child he is. I look at his eyes, the way they glitter and his nostrils flare when he thinks he's got me. Think again. Listen, boy, I've faced tougher enemies than you before breakfast.

He's going to ask me. I can feel it. All he has to do is ask me if I have violated a direct order, accuse me of a crime, and I've got him. Then he'll be on the defensive, and I can just smile and watch the little prick really sweat. He's walked into the trap now, I just have to spring it on him. It's like when you're in a foxhole, and you can't see anything, but you know they are there. It's just a matter of waiting for the enemy to move. Then you bring the rain.

I stare at Kaffee, turning aside his stupid little digs and asides and snide looks. Now he's honing in on the two orders, the one that Santiago wasn't to be touched, and the second sending him off the base. I make dozens of decisions every day, and I can't always explain them afterwards. It's a gut feeling. It's called leadership. It's not as simple as pushing papers. I look at his perfect, shiny teeth and wonder if he is involved with Galloway after all.

Kaffee is close, so close I could punch him, and the thought is so pleasant my arm twitches.

"Did you order the Code Red?," Kaffee finally says, his face inches from mine. No one moves, and I luxuriate in the silence for a split second. It's almost like being on stage.

"Did I order a Code Red? Is that what you're asking me? I think that's what you're asking me, Lieutenant, unless all the gunfire over the years has damaged my hearing. And the answer, son, is no, I didn't order a Code Red. I didn't order a Code Red because my superiors told me I couldn't. I transferred Santiago off the base because he had angered his unit, and because he was a substandard Marine. I did what I did because we exist on a small island with the Cuban Army staring at us, eyeball to eyeball, and to do any less than ensure that the men under my command are the very best they can be is a dereliction of duty. I make decisions all the time, and I admit that not every decision I make is a perfect one.

"Perhaps I should have taken Santiago into protective custody. Or perhaps he needed a more in depth physical exam to figure out why he was performing so poorly. I don't know, and I will go to my grave not knowing what I could have done differently to save Santiago's life. But Santiago is gone, and his death, believe it or not, affects me deeply. Every man I have ever lost does. It is the burden of command. It is not an easy one, but when you accept the rank, you accept the responsibility. I did not order the Code Red, Lieutenant, because I was ordered not to. And at Gitmo, we take orders seriously."

I smiled, watching the words hit home. Kaffee's expression was priceless, almost as good as if I had punched him. Even the dust motes in the air seemed frozen. Then everyone was talking at once, and I knew it had worked. Kaffee was in trouble now, because he had made the accusation without proof, and all I had to do was let things play out. There were things that Kaffee knew that I didn't. The only thing I knew about law was that I had to obey them, and I'm sure he knows every regulation backwards and forwards. But there were things I knew that he didn't, hard lessons about what are truths and what are higher, more important truths and how to distinguish between them. Kaffee didn't know that the integrity of the Corps is the freedom that makes the other freedoms possible. Kaffee doesn't know what I know.


  1. Well done. Love the character you've built up.

  2. I could hear Jack Nicholson saying every word as I read.


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