Saturday, May 30, 2009

Resistance in the Military: The Crimson Tide Paradigm

The interplay of resistance and law has been an important feature of films about the military and/or military culture.[1] In (some of) the public’s imagination, the military often carries, inter alia, the aura of power, law and order, in addition to respect to discipline and hierarchy. In several films however, these concepts are challenged. This defiance has tremendous implications with respect to discipline, for when orders are issued, it is expected that they are to be followed. However, what certain films depict is that when the dominant power of superior officers is exercised in a manner that is in contravention or inconsistent with certain norms governing their conduct, their decisions are justifiably challenged by subordinates who in turn exercise what radical geographers would characterize as resisting power.[2] Furthermore, such insubordination is ratified and is perceived to lead to ultimately beneficial consequences.

One of the critical expectations of military personnel is that they follow the orders of superior officers, almost unquestioningly, except where the orders are manifestly illegal (e.g. ordering the rape and/or torture of an individual).[3] However, when the orders appear otherwise legal yet questionable given particular facts and circumstances, to what extent should a subordinate be expected to follow a superior’s orders – especially when observing such orders may lead to nuclear holocaust or widespread disaster? One film in particular tackles this scenario.

In the film, Crimson Tide, anti-American Russian rebels revolt against their government and obtain control over one of the country’s nuclear installations. The rebels claim that any attempt by their government or the United States to force them to surrender control of the facility will lead to the launching of nuclear missiles at the United States. A United States submarine, the USS Alabama, is deployed into Pacific Ocean bearing nuclear warheads aimed at Russia. After being deployed, the Alabama receives authenticated orders that the use of nuclear weapons against Russian targets is authorized. As the crew prepares to launch the missiles, under the assumption that an attack on the United States is imminent, they begin to receive a second priority message, the transmission of which is interrupted by an attack by a Russian submarine sympathetic to the rebel cause. After the Alabama is able to evade the enemy submarine, the Alabama’s captain, Ramsay (played by Gene Hackman) orders the recommencement of the missile launch. Given their depth, the Alabama is unable to receive the second message in its entirety due to damage inflicted on the vessel’s communications. Yet rather than verify that the second message doesn’t countermand the first order to launch, Ramsay proceeds. He is however challenged by his Executive Officer, Hunter (portrayed by Denzel Washington) who believes that Ramsay’s decision to pursue the launch is unadvisable - given that the original order to launch may have been rescinded. Ramsay responds that without a properly authenticated second message, the original orders in hand remain in effect. After Ramsay ignores Hunter’s suggestion to bring the submarine up to the periscope depth in order to properly receive the full message, Hunter refuses to concur with Ramsay’s order to launch the missiles, a procedural requirement necessary for the launch to proceed. Ramsay then orders Hunter’s arrest and to have him replaced with another officer willing to concur with his order and comply with what Ramsay ultimately believes is a formality. Hunter in turn relieves Ramsay of his command for his attempt to circumvent fundamental procedural rules respecting the launch of nuclear weapons. Hunter orders that the “Chief of the Boat” have Ramsay removed from the bridge and confined to quarters.

Before Hunter can have the Alabama in position to receive the entire second message, the Russian submarine attacks once again. Although the Alabama is able to ultimately destroy the enemy submarine, the necessary radio equipment is damaged. As Hunter orders and urges the radio technician to quickly repair the equipment, Captain Ramsay is freed by officers loyal to him. Ultimately an armed standoff takes place on the bridge with men loyal to each Ramsay and Hunter each aiming firearms at one another. Ramsay tells Hunter that the latter has two minutes to have the radio repaired and receive the entire second message or else relinquish the keys to fire the warheads. The radio is of course (conveniently) fixed in the nick of time and the second message ultimately reveals that the rebels have indeed surrendered control of the nuclear installation and the launch of nuclear weapons is called off. Ramsay, recognizing that Hunter’s insistent actions ultimately prevented a nuclear war, retires to his room.

At the close of the film, a hearing panel is convened to investigate the mutiny and events on the submarine. The panel concludes that “on the record” the actions of either man did not warrant punitive action. Ramsay decides to retire from active duty and Hunter receives his next assignment (with a positive recommendation from Ramsay). Equally however, the panel also states, that unofficially, both men “created a hell of a mess”; by not working together to resolve their differences – what resulted aboard the submarine was a mutiny (legitimized in the case of Hunter).

What was in play in Crimson Tide was a critical difference in how both characters interpreted procedural norms. Both Ramsay and Hunter believed that they were following the proper protocol. For Ramsay, the circumstances dictated a clear and narrow response: in the absence of an authenticated second message countermanding the original order to launch the missiles, the latter command still remained valid. Ramsay indeed raised the possibility that the second message was not authentic and every second wasted contained the possibility that the rebels could mount a first strike. For Hunter, the threat of an all-out nuclear war militated against a narrow following of the original order to launch: absent full knowledge of the second message’s contents and confirmation of its authenticity, the gravity of launching the nuclear missiles was too substantial to do otherwise. In Hunter’s mind, knowledge of the existence of a potential second message that could avert the imminent loss of millions of lives required a broader approach to interpreting the protocols. Implied in the tone of the film and reading into the success of Hunter’s interpretation in averting nuclear holocaust, what seems to be posited therefore – in the context of military decisions - is an endorsement of a thoughtful broader interpretation of rules, rather than a simplistically narrow reading of the relevant norms.

Crimson Tide is also an interesting exploration into dimensions of power – and particularly the fluidity of the dynamic between dominant power and resisting power and the ability of each to impose their interpretation(s) of relevant norms. Both men play the role of the dominant power and resisting power. Ramsay represents the dominant authority figure while he is in control of the ship except where he is forcibly relieved by Hunter. While Hunter assumes control, it is Ramsay, notwithstanding his title as captain, who suddenly becomes the resisting power. Notably, when Ramsay regains command of the submarine with the use of firearms along with a band of loyal officers, he is the one who is committing the illegal act of resisting Hunter’s legal assumption of control.[4] In the final standoff near the end of the film, arguably neither is dominant, neither is resister. Ultimately it is only a reading of the second message that will confirm which of their approaches was the right choice and interpretation.

In subsequent posts, I will explore other instances of resistance and law in the context of military-related themes in film.

1. This blog posting is part of an overall series that I am exploring about how themes of resistance and law are intermixed in various artistic productions. See my posting from February 6, 2009, entitled “The Resistance Strain in Jurisculture” -

2. See Joanne P. Sharp et al. “Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance” in Joanne P. Sharp et al., eds., Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance (London: Routledge, 2000).

3. See Mark Osiel, Atrocity, Military Discipline & the Law of War (London: Transaction Publishers, 1999).

4. It should be remembered that the law permits a second in command to sometimes coercively relieve a commanding officer due to some disability or illegality. In case of the office of the President of the United States, section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment permits the Vice-President to relieve the President of his power and duties. There are however limits to this power as set out in the section.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Genocidal Trek

There is no doubt that the recently released movie version of Star Trek features many of the same traits which fans have embraced for years, such as futuristic plots, stunning special effects, and phrases which have entered the popular lexicon. Indeed, it is easy to watch the new Star Trek and be so caught up in the plot that the actual meaning behind the plot lines becomes secondary. And yet, to do so would be an injustice to a story that highlights important issues facing international law and the international community.

The nemesis in the current installment of Star Trek is Nero, initially described as one of the last inhabitants of the planet Romulus. Eventually, the audience learns that, over a hundred years in the future, Romulus is threatened by a black hole and faces extinction. The future Spock offers to save Romulus and its inhabitants – and nearly does so – however he is thwarted by the quickness of the black hole. As a result, Romulus disappears, taking with it the majority of its inhabitants, including Nero’s wife and unborn child. Nero then vows revenge on Spock and both go back in time; Nero arrives first and captures Spock, who he condemns to live on a small planet until Nero is able rework the past and destroy Vulcan (Spock’s home planet) before Spock’s helpless eyes. Nero explains to Captain Pike of the USS Enterprise – whom he captures and tortures for information – that he intends to avenge the loss of his family and planet through a “genocide” similar to that which they suffered. He plans to destroy all planets in the “Federation,” including Earth and Vulcan, because he sees the entire Federation as responsible for the destruction of Romulus. Nero goes to great – and somewhat successful, at least in terms of the destruction of Vulcan – lengths to carry out this goal. Ultimately, Nero is killed by Captain Kirk, young Spock, and the crew of the USS Enterprise, and the remaining planets in the Federation which Nero so methodically targeted are saved. However, Nero’s impact extends far beyond the end of the movie credits.

In Nero, we see the figure of someone who has suffered a deep and profound personal loss. Rather than being a sympathetic character, however, Nero is portrayed as evil. His losses drive him to seek the destruction of planets – which can be analogized to states in the international system – and deaths of billions of people and traditional ways of life. Beyond a personal vendetta, Nero’s co-opting of other surviving Romulans to assist in his plot – and his statements that he is engaging in his plot to avenge all Romulans – is emblematic of recent genocidal regimes, which have used the propaganda of past wrongs by other groups in order to dehumanize them and give rise to a climate in which genocide and attempts at human and state destruction can be perpetuated with perceived justification.

The type of justice sought by Nero for the deaths of his family and the destruction of his planet is not justice as the rest of the movie characters and communities know it. Instead, it is itself another crime – greater in planned scope than anything done to Romulus. And, rather than seeking impartial justice for what Nero perceives as Spock’s failure to save his family and planet, Nero’s choice is to sentence Spock to a punishment of Nero’s creation and which was designed to make Spock suffer the same sense of loss and horror that Nero experienced. This shunning of impartial justice is again similar to the choices made by many actors in recent genocides and civil wars, where the decision to seek individualized and greater vengeance outside of the established national and international court system has perpetuated the cycle of war crimes and destruction.

Certainly there is a good deal of storytelling and creativity in the overall plot of the newest Star Trek movie. In addition to other cinematic commendations reaped upon Star Trek, it should receive attention for subtly yet powerfully relating aspects of many current and past genocidal acts and conflicts that have changed the state of international law and the international community.

Information on Star Trek is available at .

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Systems of Justice

The first regular episode of the seventh season of 24 featured Jack Bauer testifying before a Congressional panel which seemed dedicated to the destruction of Jack and the sense of patriotism that caused him to commit the acts he became well known for in previous seasons. The atmosphere of the Congressional committee room was formal and rigid, and the parties involved were eager to challenge each other, making the encounter tense. The method used to pillory Jack seemed to be harsh and unfair, creating the idea that the overall type of justice which the lead inquisitor, Senator Mayer, was attempting to impose was vindictive and counter-productive.

One of the very last scenes of season seven showed Jack, near death due to his exposure to the bio-weapon he was trying to keep from those who would use it against the American public, essentially waiting to die in a hospital. He had previously reunited with his daughter, Kim, made peace with her for their past falling-out, and then sent her away so that he could die without exposing her to the grotesque process of death due to the bio-weapon. Jack is alone except for his medical team when he is informed that he has a visitor, and is seemingly surprised when that visitor is Gohar, an imam who Jack met earlier in the day. Their initial meeting was far from cordial, with Jack seeking information from Gohar regarding a member of Gohar’s congregation and Gohar reacting to Jack with disgust due to Jack’s reputation. Indeed, one of the first comments Gohar makes to Jack is that he saw him at the Congressional hearing, said in a derogatory tone. However, when Gohar accompanies Jack and Renee in their search for his congregant, and when Gohar sees Jack’s attitude toward the congregant change once he realizes that the congregant has been unwillingly brought into a plot by Tony Almeida, Gohar’s views of Jack change.

When they are alone at the hospital, Jack tells Gohar that he asked him to visit in order to apologize and seek forgiveness. Instead of asking for more, or reminding Jack of the previous acts which caused Jack to seek forgiveness in the first place, Gohar extends his hand to Jack and suggests that they both seek forgiveness for their previous actions. They each spend a moment in quiet prayer and then Jack signals that he is ready to die, after which his doctors put him in a comma to ease the suffering of a biological weapon-induced death. Gohar stays with Jack and when Kim returns to insist that she be allowed to participate in an experimental procedure that might save Jack, she is greeted by Gohar, who identifies himself as Jack’s friend.

Other than Jack, what is the connection between the opening and closing scenes of season seven? Certainly it is nothing aesthetic – there are perhaps fewer obvious contrasts than between a politically charged Congressional hearing room and the hospital room of a dying man. And certainly it is not in the other characters involved – again, there are fewer glaring contrasts than a near-rabid Congressional inquisitor and a quiet, peaceful religious leader. The connection between these scenes is that they each portray a system of justice, and the contrast between the two raises the question of how success is viewed from the perspective of justice.

In the Congress-implemented system of justice, Jack is called before the panel – led by an extremely zealous and highly opinionated Senator – in order to be excoriated for what the panel’s leadership views as immoral conduct. Jack is brought to the panel in order to be the scapegoat not only for his own actions but also for the entire CTU entity, which we quickly learn was dismantled after the sixth season due to the continuous crusading of Senator Mayer. Senator Mayer and his panel hold Jack up as the representative of CTU and intend to dress him down publicly in order to receive a vindication of their actions to end CTU. They seek to punish him through a system of justice in order to promote their interests while at the same time indicting a person and the system of enforcing justice which he is deemed to represent.

In the system of justice used by Gohar, the anger at Jack ends when it is realized that he is not in fact a monster or on a mission to target the Muslim population at large. Rather, Gohar’s system of justice involves talking to Jack as a person and seeking to understand him in order to comprehend what he has done. There is no attempt to publicly flaunt Gohar’s relationship with Jack. When he believes he is about to die, Jack reaches out to Gohar because he represents those who Jack believes he has wronged and yet is still willing to listen to him. Gohar’s system of justice is to lead Jack in prayer and to grant forgiveness without personal gain other than the knowledge that he is doing his religious duty by helping a repentant, dying man.
The contrast in systems of justice, when viewed as such, is extremely stark. Of course, one system of justice is political and one is religious, but that is not the extent of the contrast. Rather, the contrast comes in the way in which the system administers and understands justice. While the Congressional system is vindictive in its justice and understands its role as furthering such a concept, Gohar’s system of justice is open to those seeking to avail themselves of it and does not seek to condemn. Both systems of justice would likely find supporters, and the purpose of this blog posting is not to explicitly favor one system over the other. Rather, the purpose of this blog posting is to highlight these systems of justice and their placement in the storyline of 24.

Information about 24 is available at .

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Stuck in the Middle

The “Better Half” episode of Lie to Me presented what was, on its face, a rather simple case in which Foster and Torres are asked to assist in the investigation of a murder within the rap music industry. The victim, Dante Edwards, a member of the group affiliated with rap star Little Sid, was shot and killed; the initial suspect is rival rapper, Caden, or a member of his group.

Background information on Caden reveals that his music is particularly violent and glorifies murder. When Torres and Foster arrive at Caden’s home, they comment on its size and affluence; when they present themselves for an interview with Caden, his cousin and deputy, “B,” tells them that Caden does not speak to the police because it would have a negative impact on his album sales and reputation within the rap community. However, Caden relents and grants an initial interview. The interview between Foster, Torres, law enforcement, and “B,” is fruitless in establishing a clear link between Caden and Dante’s death. Indeed, Torres detects genuine sadness from Caden when he discusses Dante and his death. It becomes apparent that Dante, Caden and “B” grew up together and there was not a real sense of animosity between Caden and Dante at the very least.

When footage of a purported confrontation between Caden, Little Sid, and their respective groups is reviewed by Torres and Loker, they notice that the facial expressions indicate that the argument is fake and speculate that the rivalry was created to increase attention and record sales. Further analysis of the confrontation tape, and Dante’s facial expressions on it, leads Torres and Loker to conclude that Dante was in fact a homosexual. This revelation makes Torres and Loker suspect that the murderer is in fact someone within Little Sid’s group, or Little Sid himself, since the lyrics of Little Sid’s songs are profoundly homophobic. Torres and the assigned police detective then pay a visit to Little Sid to question him. Little Sid tells Torres that he knew Dante was a homosexual and that he didn’t have a problem with it because Dante kept it quiet. When asked by Torres about his homophobic song lyrics and their relationship to Dante, Little Sid states: “I got records to sell. So if I have to hate, I’m gonna hate, but I got no problem with Dante doing his little Brokeback thing.” Upon further questioning regarding his violent lifestyle, Little Sid again explains that the guns and violent accoutrements associated with his image are for the sake of image alone and that he is an entertainer, not a criminal. However, Little Sid does reveal that Dante was about to leave his group and join Caden’s group.

This bit of information causes Torres, Foster and Loker to re-evaluate Caden and his group members as suspects in Dante’s death. Torres pays another visit to Caden’s home, and is barely able to get past “B” in order to see Caden. During their conversation, Torres deduces that Caden and Dante were in a romantic relationship. Caden admits this and then goes on to lament the fact that he was unable to attend Dante’s funeral because of the image he was trying to maintain. Ultimately, both Torres and Caden focus on “B” and his involvement in the murder. It is then that “B” admits he killed Dante because he was afraid that Dante and Caden would be “outed,” thereby ending Caden’s career. “B” attempts to justify Dante’s murder by reminding Caden of their rough childhoods and how far they had come because the image that they had crafted, an image which would not allow Caden to be identified as homosexual. The story concludes with Torres and Caden watching as “B” is put in a police car.

In this plotline, more than unexpected twists and turns emerge. Strikingly, we see characters that are caught between the world in which they have chosen to live - and which has made them famous and wealthy – and the world with which they identify personally. These characters are stuck in the middle because their true identities are deemed to be incompatible with the personalities they must adopt in order to be successful in a culture that has helped them out of difficult personal backgrounds and circumstances. This storyline demonstrates the realities of people caught in social worlds and norms that cause them to strike out against things they personally embrace and to allow – and even condone – violence as part of these norms. It also shows how parallel norms can exist and yet only one norm is recognized by people who feel threatened at the idea of acting outside of the mainstream norms.

The story of Caden, Dante, Little Sid, and their relationship to homophobia is one example of these dual normative relationships. For Caden and Dante, they must deny their true sexual identities and emotions because these identities and emotions are not publicly acceptable in the world in which they live. The cost to each of them would have been their careers and wealth, and, in Dante’s case, the cost was his life. Little Sid finds himself in a position where he glorifies homophobia within the rap culture through his songs – although he himself is not homophobic – in order to be successful within the norms and rules of the culture itself. There is no attempt to change the culture because of the comforts and identity it affords. The same can be seen in Little Sid’s statement that he is an entertainer and not at heart violent, but that he sings about violence and exemplifies it in his personal image and conduct in order to fit into the predominant culture associated with the rap music industry.

Through Caden, Dante and Little Sid’s embracing of this duality of public and private, one can see how many philosophies and norms of hatred are perpetuated in written and unwritten laws by people who otherwise do not espouse these same philosophies and norms. One also sees the personal difficulties experienced by those who are stuck in the middle of accepted norms and their own identities, and, especially in the case of Little Sid’s adoption of a violent and homophobic persona over his naturally artistic and tolerant personality, we can see the justifications which are made in order to continue being stuck in the middle.

For information on Lie to Me, see .

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Idol Jury Part IV

As discussed in a previous posting, this season of American Idol saw the introduction of a new element to the standard weekly elimination of contestants: the judges “veto” of the voters’ choice for elimination. Under this system, the judges were given one opportunity during the season to save a contestant who was voted off the show. In order to successfully invoke the veto power, at least a majority of the four judges were required to agree to its use for a particular contestant. As a penalty, however, the week after the veto was used two contestants would be eliminated.

In order to decide whether to use the veto to save an otherwise eliminated contestant, every week the eliminated contestant was required to perform the song he/she had chosen for the week for the judges. After the performance, the judges were theoretically supposed to deliberate and then decide whether to invoke the veto. However, due to airtime constraints, the judges typically deliberated during the performance and announced a decision promptly thereafter. Throughout the season, the question of who would be saved dogged the competition, and the judges’ handling of the veto decision-making process drew criticism from contestants and the public alike.

Several weeks from the end of the competition, Matt was eliminated. After his performance, the judges seemed to engage in a quick yet intense discussion and then announced that they were invoking the veto to save him. However, Simon cautioned him not to celebrate too much, as saving him then did not mean anything other than that he would have the chance to be eliminated the following week. Thus, the meaning of the veto was somewhat tempered by the idea that it was only a provisional success for the contestant, who would then have to return to the stage the following week and make his case for staying in the competition to the viewers.

It might seem that the judges’ veto is an example of something completely outside of a potential juror’s experiences and outside of the standards of the court system. However, there are several parallels and lessons that can be taken from this new system of American Idol governance. Essentially, the judges’ veto is a stylized version of the appellate review system, with the exception that all the Idol judges are able to order is the remand of the contestant for what amounts to a new trial. The judges told the voters that they were wrong in their choice of which contestant to eliminate. Yet the judges are also limited in what they can do to help the contestant other than offering him/her a new trial the following week. If the contestant is unconvincing the following week then that is the end of his/her time on the show.

This system exposes potential jurors to the reality that their decision, regardless of how well considered, might be reversed on appeal. As such, this offers a good lesson in tempering one’s expectations as a juror and also in understanding the place of the juror in the overall legal system. Similarly, for those who might sit on the jury of a remanded case in the future, the judges’ veto system offers an understandable explanation of how the case came before a trial court for the second time. Since the appellate process is frequently far more technical as a matter of law than lay persons and potential jurors can easily understand or relate to, the judges’ veto system on American Idol not only provides a lucky contestant with a second chance at the competition, but also provides lay people and potential jurors with at least a superficial understanding of what the appellate court system can do.

For more information on American Idol, see .