What Does the Military Mean by “Code Red”?

One of the many military slang words for extrajudicial punishment is “code red”; this punishment is administered without a judge’s supervision or any other type of legal authorization. A character dies after getting a code red in the 1992 movie A Few Good Men, which featured the phrase as a central plot device.

However, is the phrase “code red” more of a Hollywood invention or is it truly used to denote unlawful military activity? Let’s delve a little deeper and try to sort out the truth from the fantasy.

“A Few Good Men”Code “‘s Red”

Many people quickly conjure up the hit 1992 film A Few Good Men when they hear the term “code red.” We must examine the term in the context of the whole plot in order to comprehend what it meant in the movie. The 1986 episode at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 10 Marines were court-martialed for hazing a fellow Marine, served as the inspiration for the film.

The hazing incident in the movie’s depiction of the events worsens when a Marine named William Santiago dies as a result of it. Lt. Commander Jo Galloway, played by Demi Moore, believes that the officer’s demise was caused by a “code red” order made by Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson).

A “code red” in the setting of A Few Good Men is a specific kind of unlawful order that leads to the hazing or murder of a marine by his fellow officers. The case is ultimately given to Lt. Dan Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a lawyer who likes to discreetly argue his points, as the movie goes on. But Kaffee eventually determines whether Jessup gave the code red order at Galloway’s insistence.

Ultimately, the truth is revealed in a dramatic moment in which Jessup utters his well-known phrase, “You can’t handle the truth!” A couple of lines later, the conversation continues:

JG Kaffee, LT Did you place a Code Red order?

Col. Jessup: I completed the task

JG Kaffee, LT Did you place a Code Red order?

Colonel Jessup I did, and you’re G** d*** right!

What Does a Marine Corps Code Red Mean?

The meaning of “code red” in military jargon, particularly as it relates to the Marine Corps, is actually much less sinister. For instance, at Marine Corps Base Quantico, a “code red” or “status red” essentially denotes a snow day.

Here, military personnel employ a color-coded system to notify base personnel of potentially hazardous storm, snow, or other severe weather conditions. Every day at 4 a.m., one of four colours is changed in real time on the Quantico website, Facebook page, and secure hotline to inform everyone of the day’s forecast based on the current weather.

Among these colour statuses are:

Green: No issues exist, therefore everyone should arrive at work on time.

Yellow: Things are a little more hazy, but everyone should still be able to make it to work and moderate tardiness will be excused.

Blue: This typically means that it snowed the previous night and that the base will open later than usual to give snow removal crews more time to work.

Red: Only emergency and essential staff should report to work since the weather has become severe and dangerous.

Although there are only two extreme weather codes available, code reds at West Point, the United States Military Academy, have comparable meanings:

Code White: During a code white, everyone is permitted permissive leave until further notice with the exception of mission-essential employees.

Code Red: Non-mission essential staff may take an excused absence without paying a fee up until the specified time or for the entire day.

Color Codes of Awareness by Cooper

In actual battle, the usage of the colour red as a code word is usually not very prevalent, but it does appear in a system known as Cooper’s Color Code. The code was created by Jeff Cooper, the man behind the now-famous Gunsite Academy, and has since been taught to police officers and soldiers as well as utilised for everyday self-defense.

Cooper’s Color Code allocates four different levels of situational awareness, mental condition, and action readiness to different hues. The notion is that you can make sure you’re in the right state of mind to react effectively by constantly evaluating your situation. These are the four colours:

White: Lack of awareness

This is the level that far too many of us are constantly functioning at. White represents blissful ignorance of your surroundings. A prime illustration of condition white in action is someone who is totally engrossed in their smartphone screen and unaware of their surroundings, to the point that they might run into objects in their path. Simple self-distraction is a less obvious but nonetheless frequent example.

Condition Yellow: Calm Attention

Being in condition yellow means being awake and aware of your surroundings, but not tense or ready to act right away. Military and law enforcement personnel work hard to maintain this state on a daily basis. They must be aware that their lives could be in risk at any time due to the nature of their professions.

These policemen must learn to live in the now and pay attention to their surroundings more than regular civilians do. They can come across perilous circumstances if they become “lost in thinking.”

Condition Orange: Alert Concentration

When you are operating in condition orange, you have seen something that may or may not pose a threat, and you are ready to defend yourself. Orange condition is typically brought on by an unusual occurrence that seems “odd” in some sense. These triggers might be persons or circumstances.

For instance, if a woman is out alone at night, she can suddenly find herself in condition orange when she sees a man following her despite her taking multiple irrational detours. Another illustration would be coming home to discover the lights on even though you are certain you switched them off just before leaving. When the state is orange, you become more aware of the trigger and try to determine whether it genuinely denotes a threat.

Condition Red: Prepared to Take Action

If condition orange eventually indicates that you’re in danger, you should switch to condition red right away. The focus of your attention switches from a prospective threat to a confirmed threat and potential target during condition red.

You must now get ready to defend yourself by pulling a weapon, taking the best tactical posture, and/or calling for assistance. Red indicates a threat, and while you should be ready to respond, you shouldn’t take action to defend yourself until your target explicitly indicates they are about to attack.

Misha Khatri
Misha Khatri is an emeritus professor in the University of Notre Dame's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. He graduated from Northern Illinois University with a BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics and a PhD in Physical Analytical Chemistry from the University of Utah.

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