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Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Washington) is tortured by an incident he was involved in during combat in the Gulf War. He was an M1 Abrams tank battalion commander who, during the nighttime confusion of Iraqi tanks infiltrating his unit's lines, gave the order to fire, thereby destroying one of his own tanks and killing his friend Captain Boylar. Out of remorse, he has resigned himself to a desk job.
His latest assignment is to decide whether Army Captain Karen Emma Walden (Ryan) should be the first woman to receive (posthumously) the Medal of Honor for valor in combat. She was a helicopter pilot who saved the lives of the crew of another helicopter that was downed, after which she and her crew were downed themselves. Said latter crew was rescued the next day, but by then Walden was dead.
It is Serling's job to go and speak with the surviving crewmembers to discern what happened during the night and thus decide whether Walden deserves the Medal or not. It all looks as though it will be straightforward... but then the surviving crewmembers offer differing explanations for what happened, and differing descriptions of what Walden was like... and Serling, haunted by the way the Army has swept his own responsibility for the tank incident under the rug, refuses to be part of doing the same with someone else.
- The Alcoholic: Serling has turned to drinking to help drown out the memories, and he's barely keeping it under wraps.
- The Atoner: Serling
- Burn, Baby, Burn: What happened to Walden's body. "Oh Jesus... the fire..."
- Death From Above: Walden implements an ad-hoc version of this by having the chopper's auxiliary fuel tank dumped on an Iraqi tank and then set off by a flare gun. Also the airstrikes sent in to cover the rescue of Walden and the others.
- Drill Sergeant Nasty: Monfriez has become this since the war.
- Driven to Suicide: Monfriez. Driving headfirst into a train no less
- Female Misogynist: Rady's wife shows some of this, feeling that Walden needlessly took them into danger and makes some comments that border on being anti-gay against Walden. Rady basically tells her to shut up and that she doesn't know what she's talking about.
- Functional Addict: Sterling is this, but his alcohol problems are getting worse due to Survivors Guilt, among other factors.
- Good Looking Privates: Washington and Ryan's characters, of course. The other soldiers under Walden's command include Lou Diamond Phillips, a young Matt Damon, and Seth Gilliam. Although Matt Damon's character in the present of the timeline could be considered a mild subversion as he's noticeably pale and gaunt due to having become a drug addict.
- Gulf War
- He-Man Woman Hater: Monfriez has elements of this.
- Honor Before Reason: Serling wants the committee that's investigating the incident where he accidentally fired on another of his tanks to give a real evaluation rather than just sweep it under the table. He's also determined to investigate Walden's case thoroughly and honestly, rather than just creating a good PR story, even after his CO removes him from the assignment.
- Is That a Threat?: Serling, when Monfriez warns him to leave the investigation alone.
"Son, I work for the Pentagon, so I admit I'm a little slow on the uptake, but did you just threaten me?"
- Kill It with Fire: Walden's improvised fuel tank firebomb and the A-10's napalm run.
- Non-Action Guy: Matt Damon's character.
- No One Gets Left Behind: Subverted; Monfriez, a drill sergeant, yells at a trainee about leaving a comrade who was tangled in barbed wire behind. We later learn, however, that he'd done just that to his wounded commanding officer after she'd threatened to court martial him.
- Perspective Flip: The events involving Walden are told from the POV's of the various members of her crew. A critical plot point as the members give conflicting stories.
- Posthumous Character: Walden is dead during the course of the film occupied by Serling. All her appearances take place in flashbacks.
- The Rashomon
- The Squadette: Walden. Justified as she's actually a Medical helicopter pilot, but the plot revolves around her having to take this role for her crew when they're shot down.
- Stab the Scorpion: Walden and one of the soldiers under her command are having an argument. She shoots behind him, at an Iraqi soldier that was about to kill him. Alas, he mistakes her as shooting at him, and he shoots her back.
- Tank Goodness: The film starts off showing a night tank battle between U.S. and Iraqi tank divisions.
- Trapped Behind Enemy Lines
- Unfriendly Fire: Occurs in both the film's plot and sub-plot. Monfriez shoots at Walden after he mistakenly believes she's shooting at him. Serling accidentally kills a soldier under his command when he fires on his tank mistaking it for an enemy tank.
- With Due Respect: "I strongly urge you to dismount the vehicle, sir! Yaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!"
- Worst Aid: At some points the soldiers are fairly liberal with moving Rady, not something you usually want to do when someone has a head wound. Justified, as they're better about it when not under attack, and the time when they're really swinging him around is when they're trying to evacuate a combat zone.
- Yanks With Tanks: Quite literally, given the tank battle that starts off the film.