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Court-Martial: How Military Justice Has Shaped America from the Revolution to 9/11 and Beyond.

Court-Martial: How Military Justice Has Shaped America from the Revolution to 9/11 and Beyond

By Chris Bray

Reviewed by C. Anthony Pfaff, Research Professor for Military Profession and Ethic, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College

In Court-Martial: How Military Justice Has Shaped America from the Revolution 1 to 9/11 and Beyond, historian Chris Bray chronicles the evolution not just of the military justice system, but also of our sense of what counts as military justice. Thoroughly researched, Bray writes in an entertaining, narrative style that sheds a fascinating light on a process that shaped both the US military and the society it serves.

Civil-military relations in the early United States were very different than they are today. In those days, every "able-bodied white male citizen," was a militiaman. This broad imposition, though popular at the time, embedded in the militia an irreconcilable character: it was simultaneously a government organization run by a strict hierarchy and a neighborhood association that relied on mutual consent and a sense of community. So while today our civil-military concerns are driven by fears that the military and society are too far apart, in those days the concern was they were too close together. Bray relates numerous stories where bar fights and business disputes between neighbors ended up in court-martials when one party happened to outrank the other in the militia. Similarly, many units simply evaporated because the commander did not treat subordinates as neighbors and gain their consent before giving orders.

This conflation of civil and military came to a head during the War of 1812, when Andrew Jackson declared martial law in New Orleans, bringing civilians and military alike under military rule. He conscripted soldiers from the local population and banished those who refused to serve. When several militiamen from Tennessee tried to go back home after their enlistments had expired, Jackson had eight of them executed. When a state senator objected to Jackson's continued imposition of martial law months after his victory over the British, Jackson had the senator, and any who tried to support him, including his lawyer, thrown in jail. While Jackson's own officers acquitted the senator, it was incidents like these, and Bray chronicles many, that drove the American public to prefer a large standing army rather than constant, if inconsistent, subjugation to military law.

Even after civil and military split, military courts continued to serve as an agent of change on the larger American society. While the role of the military in improving racial equality is well-known, what is less known is the important role of the court in that process. For example, during the Civil War, some African-Americans drafted by the Union army were tried for mutiny for objecting to serve for less than equal pay. A number were executed. But because they were tried in court, their claims of injustice were aired, which prompted the same commanders who ordered the executions to lobby Washington to provide the necessary funds to right what they too saw as a wrong.

If the Civil War made the military more sensitive to racial inequality, it did not resolve it. While African-Americans struggled for equality under the law in civil society, military courts handed them a few victories. Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play professional baseball, was also one of the few African-American officers commissioned during World War II. While stationed in Texas in 1944, he found himself on trial for disrespecting a superior officer and disobeying orders. The source of the disrespect and disobedience was Robinson's refusal to sit in the back of an Army shuttle bus, which, in accordance with Army regulations at the time, had no segregated spaces. The prosecution, realizing Robinson's cause was just, tried to make the trial about his justifiably angry response to an abusive interrogation by the camp's provost. The plan backfired, and Robinson was acquitted.

While the military justice system moderated over time--only one person was executed for desertion in World War II--it still delivered wildly inconsistent outcomes, which Bray describes in great detail. These inconsistencies got a public airing in the aftermath of World War II and forced reform. While there had been attempts at reform during the interwar years, those efforts failed because the Army leadership, including its chief lawyer, saw them as undermining command authority. By 1948, however, in the wake of this public accounting, congress enacted the Elston Act, which established the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This legislation enacted many of the reforms sought previously. Notably, enlisted service members would serve on tribunals where the accused was an enlisted soldier. Lawyers, furthermore, would participate in all parts of the legal process, meaning soldiers would no longer be defended, prosecuted, or judged by the officers who commanded them. Perhaps most importantly, the Elston Act prohibited "unlawful command influence," which meant commanders could no longer tell courts they expected a particular verdict.

Court-Martial: How Military justice Has Shaped America from the Revolution to 9/11 and Beyond makes fascinating reading for military lawyers and historians--and anyone interested in American history. The book will be especially useful to military leaders at all levels who will benefit from this deep, nuanced description of how military justice has evolved in order to better understand where it--and American society--is likely to go.
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Title Annotation:WAR & LEGALITY
Author:Pfaff, C. Anthony
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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