What Is “Code Red” in the Military?

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“Code red” is one of several military slang terms that refers to a form of extrajudicial punishment — a type of punishment that’s carried out without a court’s oversight or any form of legal approval. The term was a major plot point of the 1992 film A Few Good Men, in which a character dies after receiving a code red. But is the term “code red” actually used to indicate illegal military activity in real life, or is it more of a Hollywood fabrication? Let’s dig a little deeper as we attempt to separate fact from fiction.

Code Red in “A Few Good Men”

When many people hear the term “code red,” they immediately think of the popular 1992 movie A Few Good Men. In order to understand what the term meant in the film, we’ll need to look at it in the context of the overall plot. The movie was based on a real-life incident that took place in 1986 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in which 10 Marines were court-martialed for hazing a fellow Marine.

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In the movie’s version of the events, the hazing incident becomes even more serious when it results in the death of a Marine named William Santiago. A character named Lt. Commander Jo Galloway (Demi Moore) suspects that the officer’s death was the result of a “code red” order given by a character named Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson).

In the context of A Few Good Men, a “code red” refers to a type of illegal order that results in the hazing or death of a marine by his fellow officers. As the film progresses, the case is ultimately assigned to Lt. Dan Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a lawyer who prefers to quietly plead his cases. At Galloway’s urging, however, Kaffee finally uncovers whether or not Jessup gave the code red order.

The truth ultimately comes out in an explosive scene in which Jessup exclaims his famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” A few lines later, the exchange continues:

LT JG Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?

Col. Jessup: I did the job—

LT JG Kaffee: Did you order the Code Red?

Col. Jessup: You’re G** d*** right I did!

What Is a Code Red in the Marines?

In reality, the truth behind the meaning of the term “code red” in the military code, specifically the Marine Corps, is far less nefarious. At Marine Corps Base Quantico, for instance, a “code red “or “status red” more or less indicates a snow day. Here, military personnel use a color-coded system to alert base personnel to dangerous conditions presented by storms, snow or other forms of severe weather. Each day by 4 a.m., one of four colors is updated live on the Quantico website, Facebook page and secure hotline to alert everyone to what expectations are for the day as the result of various weather conditions.

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These color statuses include:

  • Green: Everything is all clear and everyone should report to work on time.
  • Yellow: Things are a little murkier and reasonable tardiness will be excused, but everyone should still be able to make it into work.
  • Blue: Usually this indicates that it snowed the night before and that the base will be opening late in order to allow extra time to clear away snow.
  • Red: Weather conditions have gotten extreme and turned dangerous, so only emergency and essential personnel should come to work.

Code reds have similar meanings at the United States Military Academy, West Point, although there are only two extreme weather codes to choose from:

  • Code White: Under a code white, everyone except for mission-essential personnel is given permissive leave until further notice.
  • Code Red: Excused absences are granted without charge to leave for all non-mission essential employees effective until the stated time or all day.

Cooper’s Color Codes of Awareness

The use of the color red as a code word tends to be somewhat uncommon in actual combat situations, but it does show up in a framework called Cooper’s Color Code. The code was originally developed by Jeff Cooper, founder of what’s now called the Gunsite Academy, and has since been used in the training of military and police officers and for general self-defense.

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Cooper’s Color Code assigns colors to four different levels of situational awareness, state of mind and willingness to take action. The idea is that, by assessing your status at any given moment, you can ensure that you’re in the right frame of mind to respond appropriately. The four colors are as follows:

Condition White: Unawareness

This is the level at which far too many of us are operating on a regular basis. Condition white signifies blissful unawareness of your surroundings. Anyone who’s completely glued to their smartphone screen while oblivious to what’s going on around them — so much so that they might run into things in their path — is a great example of condition white in action. A subtler but equally common example is simply getting distracted by your own thoughts.

Condition Yellow: Relaxed Awareness

Condition yellow involves being aware of your situations and alert, but not tense or prepared to take immediate action. This is the condition that military and law enforcement officers strive to maintain on a daily basis. Due to the nature of their jobs, they must be aware that their lives could be in danger at any moment. Unlike ordinary civilians, these officers must train themselves to live in the moment and constantly take note of their surroundings. Getting “lost in thought” can expose them to dangerous situations.

Condition Orange: Focused Alertness

Operating in condition orange means that you’ve noticed something that may or may not be a potential threat and are prepared to have to defend yourself. Condition orange is usually triggered by something out of the ordinary that seems “off” in some way. These triggers could be either people or situations. For instance, if a woman is walking alone at night, she might find herself immediately triggered into condition orange when she notices a man following her even after she makes several random turns. Another example would be returning home to find your lights on when you’re sure you turned them off before you left. During condition orange, your attention becomes focused on the trigger as you attempt to figure out whether or not it actually signifies a threat.

Condition Red: Readiness to Act

If condition orange ultimately reveals that you’re in danger, you should immediately shift to condition red. During condition red, the object of your attention changes from a potential threat to a definite threat and potential target. This is the stage where you must prepare to defend yourself by drawing a weapon, finding the best possible tactical position and/or calling for help. While you should prepare to respond to the threat in condition red, you should only act to defend yourself if your target actually makes it clear they’re about to attack.