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.

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