Can you handle the truth?

Posted: May 26, 2004 12:00 AM

The movie "A Few Good Men," which starred Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, may well be played out in real life in the next few weeks. Those who recall the movie will remember that characters played by Cruise and Moore have the difficult duty of defending two Marines accused of hazing a fellow soldier. The crux of their defense: They were ordered by higher-ups to harass their comrade, accidentally leading to his death.

 Sound familiar? And for those who remember how the movie ends, there will be great interest in a brand-new InsiderAdvantage poll. We asked:

 If it is established that some of the soldiers involved in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal were acting on orders from superior officers, should those soldiers be found guilty in their courts-martial?

 Yes: 47 percent
 No: 41 percent
 Undecided/Don't Know: 12 percent

 The national survey was conducted with our research associates at The Marketing Workshop on May 21 and 22. It sampled 500 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.

 Since the powerful film mentioned above is several years old, I'll run the risk of giving away part of its ending. It turns out that the two Marines charged with abusing one of their own, abuse which unintentionally leads to his death, were indeed carrying out orders from senior officers, including the base commander, played masterfully by Nicholson. The result is a guilty verdict with a sentence of time already served and a dishonorable discharge. The senior officer played by Nicholson is then brought up on charges as well.

 The results of this survey seem much like the results of the movie. By a fairly narrow margin, Americans believe that following orders does not excuse violations of military law. And interestingly, men surveyed, by a narrow margin, said those following orders should not be found guilty, while women respondents overwhelmingly rejected such a defense. Why the split? I have no earthly idea.

 Still, it's clear that, as several of those accused of posing in demeaning pictures with Iraqi prisoners, or far more serious acts, go on trial, the issue of following orders will be a significant part of the defense. Most legal analysts suggest that such a tactic rarely works in military courtrooms. Yet, the entire Iraqi abuse scandal gives rise to a series of issues unique to our time.

 For instance, would the public's opinion have been different on this issue had the events occurred immediately after 9/11? While pictures of female soldiers laughingly pointing at nude male prisoners may be disturbing, how disturbing would they be were they juxtaposed with freshly published pictures of bodies hurled from one of the Twin Towers?

 Some argue that those who are facing a military tribunal are scapegoats, offered up rapidly to the press and public in order to brush the entire issue under the carpet.

 Others, however, believe that the actions of these U.S. servicemen and women must be judged on a stand-alone basis, and that these particular soldiers should have stood up to any superior who might have ordered or encouraged such behavior. These are sticky issues for anyone, but particularly for those who have never served their nation in combat.

 Just as the nation seems closely split on almost every issue, the decision with regard to those accused of abuse is a virtual tossup. And from a political point of view, it becomes even more complicated. The critical "swing voters" who call themselves "independent" believe soldiers who were following orders should not be found guilty -- by an amazing 49 percent to 41 percent, with the rest undecided. So, conviction of these accused servicemen and women may not necessarily go over well with a critical group of voters.

 Some will recall in "A Few Good Men" that one of the convicted Marines explains to the other defendant why the jury found them guilty, even after learning that they were following orders. He says that the two servicemen were supposed to stand up for their weaker colleague.

 That begs the question of whether or not an Iraqi prisoner of war deserves the same such consideration.

 And if these trials are to follow the script of the movie, will there be charges filed against superior officers? Based on the results of this poll, America seems so unsure on the entire issue that, as Nicholson's character from the movie might say, "We can't handle the truth."