Ethics & Public Policy Center

Rules of Engagement

Published in EPPC Online on April 1, 2000



It pains me to have to criticize William Friedkin’s movie, Rules of Engagement, because it is that rare thing, a pro- military movie out of Hollywood. Moreover, its scenes of combat are well-made and gripping to watch — both those set in Vietnam in 1968, when a younger Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) saved the life of a younger Hays Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), and those set in Yemen (supposedly) in 1996 when now Col Childers gets in a spot of legal trouble. To wit, he and his little marine detachment kill 83 demonstrators outside our embassy there in the process of extricating the Ambassador (Ben Kingsley) and his family from imminent peril. The outcry from the Arab world at the massacre makes it imperative from the point of view of National Security Adviser Bill Sokol (Bruce Greenwood) that Childers be made a scapegoat, so he is charged with murder and chooses Hodges, now a marine lawyer on the point of retirement, to defend him.

What follows is the movie’s justification of Childers, the old warrior, particularly vis à vis a younger generation of Marines, symbolized by the lead prosecutor, Major Mark Briggs (Guy Pearce), who have never seen combat and who are rather improbably eager to convict Childers for doing his best in a bad situation. The picture ought to be given a gold star just for not being boringly and predictably anti-military, but its rehabilitation of the warrior spirit of the U.S. Marines is at the expense not only of the young popinjays who will succeed them but also of the U.S. political and diplomatic service establishment, which are trashed in over-familiar ways, and of the good people of Yemen, who whatever their shortcomings have never so far as I know been known to behave as they do in this movie.

For you don’t have to be an Arab to resent its portrait of the Yemenis as a gang of sullen, sneaky, ugly terrorists. Their leaders fiendishly disguise a murderous mob, intent for undisclosed reasons on massacring the inhabitants of the U.S. embassy compound and their defenders, as a peaceful demonstration. Putting women and children out in front, they open fire on Col Childers’s Marines, who are on exposed positions on the embassy roof. The women extract automatic weapons from beneath their chadors and join enthusiastically in the shooting. Those soft, sentimental Americans won’t dare to return fire if it means shooting women and children, they think. They’d rather die first. Oh yeah, you miserable camel jockeys? Just you watch us! “Waste the m*****f*****s!” orders Col. Childers who, as we know but the A-rabs don’t, murdered a POW in cold blood in order to save the life of his friend, Col Hodges, in Vietnam.

Oops. That insufferable Major Biggs has not only got hold of this 30 year-old story but has even got the North Vietnamese officer whom the shooting of the POW was designed to impress to come and testify about it in court. I may be wrong, but however riddled with political correctness the military justice system may be, I think the idea of a former enemy soldier being allowed to testify at an American court martial against an American officer about the American’s actions in combat against him is so preposterous that even the most wimpy Pentagon desk jockey would laugh at it. Of course, the suddenly electrified Col. Hodges is shown turning aside the force of this testimony by inducing the immensely dignified Vietnamese gentleman to admit that, had their situations been reversed, he would have done exactly the same as Childers. Obviously, Biggs never thought of that!

There is, still, a problem with Arab terrorism, just as there is a problem with trigger-happy soldiers in police situations, but this movie is not interested in such real-world dilemmas. Instead, it dumbs down the moral difficulties it raises for an audience of children by caricaturing both the Arab terrorists and the American soldiers. The wickedness and unattractiveness of the former are as exaggerated as the innocence of the latter. For not only is poor Childers the victim of Machiavellian international politics and a military establishment full of callow and untested “beach boys” but also of the perfidy of Mr Sokol who deliberately suppresses evidence in the form of a security camera videotape that could have led to Childers’s exoneration.

Instead, this happy event is made the issue of Col. Hodges’s masterful summing up to the jury in which he regains some of his own self-respect after his own victimization by alcohol and divorce and disappointment and the too-high expectations of his hero-father. These things are almost as much stressed as Childers’s innocent sufferings and are supplemented by a gratuitous shot of Hodges weeping at the Vietnam Memorial. These are all further indications, if further indications were needed, of the extent to which the standard of goodness in American movies these days, as in so much of American society, is suffering rather than any active virtue. Hodges wins his case by appealing to the proudest traditions of the U.S. Marines, but if this movie were to be believed, those traditions in the future will have to include self-pity.

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