COURAGE UNDER FIRE
SUBJECTS — U.S./1991 – present;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Marriage; Redemption; Leadership; Suicide; Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Courage in War;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Responsibility.
AGE: 12+; MPAA Rating — R for war violence and language;
Drama; 1996; 115 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Set in the 1991 Desert Storm conflict and its aftermath, this film is the fictional story of the first woman to receive a Medal of Honor for heroism in combat. A subplot concerns the destruction of a U.S. Army tank by friendly fire and its effect on the man responsible.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
In addition to exploring the role of women in combat and casualties from friendly fire, this movie contains lessons about alcohol abuse, honesty, redemption, leadership, and the effect of the military macho doctrine of “I can handle it without help” on the marriages of army officers. “Courage Under Fire” can lead to discussions on these topics.
SERIOUS. This is a war movie with frequent profanity and some death. The brief view of the tank commander’s charred body is gruesome but there is artistic justification for this since the tragedy of his death is a driving force of the plot. Alcohol abuse is shown.
The villain, Monfriez, when confronted with his crime, commits suicide by driving his truck into an oncoming train. It should be pointed out to children who see this film that every time Monfriez is called upon to make any moral or life affecting decision, he makes the wrong choice.
Most children will be interested in discussing several of the lessons presented by this movie. Start by talking about the differences between the actions of Serling and Monfriez. Colonel Serling changes and grows through the story. Monfriez does not. As an example of how Serling grew, ask the Quick Discussion Question. Go over some of the poor decisions made by Monfriez: two of the big ones are lying so that Captain Walden would be left for dead and committing suicide when he was caught. Then go to the Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions. Don’t worry if you can only get through a few questions. Just taking the film seriously and discussing some of the lessons in the movie is the key.
TeachWithMovies.org recommends that every child in any family in which there is any history of heavy drinking or alcohol abuse be taken to an open AA meeting beginning at the age of 12 or 13. This should be repeated every year or so. Some meetings are divided into two parts. Try to stay for the second part. That’s when specially selected speakers talk about the difficulties they encountered while intoxicated and their new lives in sobriety. Tell the kids that if they ever have trouble with alcohol, the twelve steps of AA are a way that they can avoid the destructive effects of alcoholism. For more information, see Handout on Alcohol and How it Affects Us.
In August of 1990, Iraq invaded the tiny Sheikdom of Kuwait which, at the time, had 10% of the world’s oil reserves. Iraq also had about 10% of the world’s oil reserves. This act of aggression threatened the stability of the other oil producing Arab countries, most importantly Saudi Arabia, which controlled another 25% of the world’s oil reserves. Because the economies of the Western industrialized nations were dependent on Arab oil, the West, led by the United States, was forced to go to war with Iraq to liberate Kuwait. Desert Storm was the first war in which the U.S. Military assigned combat roles to women. It was an easy victory for the U.S. and its allies. Only 149 Allied soldiers died and 513 were wounded.
“Friendly fire” means bullets, shells or bombs accidentally directed at your own troops. In every war, soldiers have been killed by friendly fire. In Desert Storm, because the Iraqis were so thoroughly beaten, the deaths and injuries from friendly fire are thought to be a much higher percentage of total casualties than in other wars. It is officially estimated that 35 Americans died from friendly fire during the Gulf War.
The character of Monfriez is a foil for Captain Serling. Like Serling, he commits a great error. (The difference is that his error was intentional and Serling’s was not.) Like Serling, he lies about it. Unlike Serling he doesn’t deal with his remorse. He does not seek redemption. Instead, Monfriez tries to hide his guilt. When he is discovered he takes the coward’s way out and he kills himself.
2. Has a woman ever been awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor?
The only woman to be awarded the Medal of Honor was Mary Walker who, over strenuous resistance, served as a medical officer for the Union Army during the Civil War. Mary Walker was a remarkable woman who overcame many obstacles to serve her country. She was forced to fight for her medal.
3. Monfriez is a literary device to highlight the character of Colonel Serling. How are the actions of Monfriez similar to or different from the actions of Colonel Serling? In the analysis of literature, there is a name for characters who, like Monfriez, serve to highlight growth or change in the main character. What is that name?
Like Serling, Monfriez commits a great error that leads to the death of a fellow soldier. (The difference is that his error was intentional and Serling’s was not.) Like Serling, at the beginning, he lies about it. Unlike Serling, Monfriez doesn’t deal with his remorse. He does not seek redemption. Instead, Monfriez tries to hide his guilt. When he is discovered he takes the coward’s way out, and he kills himself. The character of Monfriez is a foil for Captain Serling.
4. Should women fight in combat?
This is a great question to stimulate debate. The general conclusion is that women can perform most combat roles. But can they perform all of them?
1. Why was it important that the killers of Captain Walden be brought to justice? Why is justice important at all?
One of the most basic and essential human rights is the right to justice. Captain Walden was dead, but that did not diminish this right. In addition, her child and her parents had the right to justice. A society that abandons the commitment to justice and the rule of law will disintegrate into chaos. The strong will oppress the weak; the weak will strike back; murder and social disorder will result. It was said that before the 1994 genocide, Rwanda suffered from a “culture of impunity” in which wrongdoers went unpunished. This is considered to be a major factor in causing the chaos in which almost a million Tutsis were brutally murdered by their Hutu countrymen, often by their friends and neighbors. See Learning Guide to “Hotel Rwanda”.
2. What penalty, if any, should Colonel Serling have suffered as the result of blowing up Captain Boylar’s tank, or, as occurred in the movie, should he have been exonerated?
The answer lies in whether or not Colonel Serling was violating any procedures when he ordered his tank to fire or whether the death of Captain Boylar was an accident of war. It appears that it was just an accident and Colonel Serling should not be punished at all.
3. Evaluate the guilt of the medic, Ilario, in Captain Walden’s death. Did he commit first-degree murder, the premeditated killing of another? Or did he commit a lesser crime, either a knowing killing under mitigating circumstances (call this second-degree murder) or an unintentional killing through negligence (call this manslaughter)? Or was he not guilty of the killing at all, being simply an accessory after the fact for keeping silent when Monfriez lied and told the helicopter pilot that Captain Walden was dead?
A strong case could be made that Ilario was guilty of first-degree murder because Captain Walden was still alive when he kept silent in the helicopter. Her murder was an ongoing action at that time and he participated by keeping silent. In addition, he had been insubordinate and would have been court-martialed had the Captain lived. Thus he had an interest in her death. It would be hard to believe that Ilario kept silent only because he was afraid of Monfriez. His actions were worse than negligence because he intentionally did something (he kept quiet when Monfriez lied) which resulted in harm to another person, knowing that such harm was the likely result of his action. He had an obligation to help Captain Walden not only because she was a member of his unit but also because she was a human being in need. Ilario could claim it was second-degree murder as we have defined it. He would argue that he was justifiably afraid of Monfriez and that his fear was a mitigating factor. This argument would probably not prevail because of his own personal interest in having Captain Walden die so that he would escape punishment.
4. Evaluate Colonel Serling’s marriage. Did he and his wife care for each other? What about the times that his wife wanted to help him with what was troubling him and Colonel Serling rejected her offers?
He had a good marriage plagued by a problem suffered by many military marriages. The men believe that strength means keeping their problems to themselves and that they don’t need emotional help in times of stress. When his wife wanted to help him, he should have accepted the offer. The shared experience would have improved their relationship.
5. Was there a connection between Colonel Serling’s drinking and his inability to share his problems with his wife? (This question assumes that Colonel Serling was not an alcoholic.)
Serling was drinking to dull the emotional pain that he felt. Alcohol will never help solve problems in life. Had Colonel Serling been able to talk about the situation with his wife, he probably would not have needed to resort to alcohol. (If Colonel Serling had been an alcoholic, no amount of talking with his wife would have helped relieve him of the need to drink alcohol. Treatment, usually in the form of a 12 step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, is usually necessary to arrest alcoholism.)
6. What motivated Colonel Serling to risk his career to find out the truth about Captain Walden?
He sought redemption for having killed Captain Boylar and lied about it to Captain Boylar’s parents. He also believed in justice.
7. What motivated Colonel Serling to tell Captain Boylar’s parents the truth about how their son died?
You cannot begin to heal from having committed a wrong until you acknowledge your error and take the consequences of what you have done. Colonel Serling couldn’t begin to heal from the guilt he felt for having killed Captain Boylar with the lie in his mouth.
8. What motivated Colonel Serling to give the tape to the Washington Post reporter before he knew what it said? Note that reporters have been known to ruin the careers of government officials: see All The President’s Men.
Serling knew that he had to face the truth, whatever it was. If he was at fault for the death of Captain Boylar, then the truth should come out and he had to face that truth and its consequences.
9. What motivated Colonel Serling to go against the instructions of his senior officer relating to the investigation of Captain Walden’s Medal of Honor?
He was seeking redemption for the death of Captain Boylar and the lie that he had told to Captain Boylar’s parents. Serling also believed in justice and that everyone, including Captains Boylar and Walden, should get justice.
10. What actions did Colonel Serling take in this film to redeem himself? Name three.
They include the following: He persevered until he found out what had happened to Captain Walden. He gave the tape to the reporter. He told Captain Boylar’s parents what had really happened and retracted his lie.
11. Compare the leadership styles of Colonel Serling, Colonel Serling’s Commander, and Captain Walden. What are the pros and cons of each?
12. Which character in the movie made the wrong choice each time that he was faced with a moral dilemma or a major decision affecting his life or the lives of others? What choices did he make and why were they wrong?
Monfriez makes the wrong choices. Here are a few examples: He lies about Captain Walden’s condition and causes her death. He intimidates Ilario into going along with it and keeping the secret. He commits suicide when he is caught rather than seeking redemption.
13. Was there a way for Monfriez to redeem himself or was the only way out suicide?
Absolutely. You confess, apologize, take your punishment and wherever you are, in jail or out, you try to help other people.
ALCOHOL AND DRUG ABUSE
14. Why did Colonel Serling get drunk? Was he an alcoholic?
Colonel Serling drank to dull the pain he felt for having caused Captain Boylar’s death and then lying about it. He drank to numb the guilt. He didn’t seem to be an alcoholic because he was able, eventually, to deal with the situation. Classic alcoholics appear to metabolize alcohol differently than non-alcoholics. Their drinking can go out of control when they are happy as well as when they are sad or distressed. Treatment, usually in the form of a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, is usually necessary to arrest alcoholism.
COURAGE IN WAR
15. Was Monfreiz’ problem that he was simply afraid and wanted to get out of the combat situation?
No. That was only part of it. Monfriez was selfish and didn’t know how to make decisions that he would be proud of in the long run.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)
1. Was Colonel Serling doing the right thing by telling the Washington Post reporter about the existence of the tape? Did he know beforehand that the tapes would exonerate him?
He did the right thing. He didn’t know what the tape would say, but he had to get the truth out because it was killing him to live the lie.
2. Was Colonel Serling acting ethically when he lied to Boylar’s parents about how Boylar was killed?
No. And it was worse than just telling the government lie. This was a lie that protected Colonel Serling himself. He had an interest in maintaining the lie.
3. There were a number of lies told by the characters in this film. Name three and tell us what the film says about how those lies affected the people who told them and to whom they were told.
4. There were several instances in this film in which characters were placed in a conflict of loyalties. Please name two, describe the conflict, and using The Josephson Institute Ethical Decision-Making Model, describe how the conflict should have been resolved.
5. There were a number of situations in which characters in this film were not loyal to those to whom they owed a duty of loyalty. Name three instances in which this occurred and describe how The Josephson Institute Ethical Decision-Making Model, would apply to the situation.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
6. Did Captain Walden, as a single parent, do the right thing when she left her child to go to war? Would your answer change if the father was actively involved in the daughter’s life?
There is no one correct answer to this question. Many single parents serve in wars. The argument against a single parent going to war is that parents have a very high responsibility to their children. There is a big difference to a child is being left with one parent and being left without both parents. There are many ways that a person can contribute to their country or to the war effort besides being on the front lines. There are other people who can go to the battle zone, but if one parent is out of the picture, the remaining parent is uniquely important to a child. The argument in favor of a single parent going to war is that very few soldiers in any army will die during a modern war and that parents shouldn’t be asked to forgo the experiences that they want to have an advancement in their careers just because they are a single parent. (The counter to this argument is that having a child involves assuming responsibilities which may require the parent to forego certain experiences.)
7. Several characters in this film attempted to avoid accountability for their actions. Who were they and what did they do wrong?
8. Describe the ways in which Monfriez violated the “Responsibility” Pillar of ethical conduct?
9. Describe the ways in which Ilario violated the “Responsibility” Pillar of ethical conduct?
10. Describe the ways in which Colonel Serling both complied with and violated this Pillar?
BRIDGES TO READING
Attendance at an open AA meeting is an excellent extra-credit activity. Some meetings are divided into two parts. Tell the kids to ask permission to stay for the second part. That’s when specially selected speakers talk about the difficulties they encountered while intoxicated and their new lives in sobriety.
immolation; “to bury” (as in being assigned an office or task so time-consuming and insignificant that you will not be noticed or promoted); “passed over;” “get yourself in the program;” “out of the loop;” “give you all the rope in the world;” “I handed this to you as a way back;” and “friendly fire.”