- Much More Than My Lai
In Vietnam, it was My Lai; in Korea it was No Gun Ri. In Iraq it may be Abu Ghraib, or Haditha, or another, as yet unknown scandal or massacre. Nearly every recent American war has its associated atrocity, an ugly remembrance of the horrors, violence, and injustices of war. These incidents, however, also serve as popular signifiers of the military justice system itself: My Lai recalls Lt. Calley's eventual slap on the wrist; Abu Ghraib brings to mind the twisted sense of justice enforced on a "liberated" Iraq.
It was that great Marxist, Groucho, who once said that military justice is to justice what military music is to music, and for some time few military and legal historians have actively disagreed. Previous studies of the topic have focused largely on Vietnam and then almost exclusively on the issue of war crimes, especially the massacre at My Lai, and the eventual court martial of Lt. William Calley. Law professor and former Marine Corps Prosecutor Gary Solis has written two important books on the role of military justice in the Marines during Vietnam, including the definitive account of the Son Trang massacre—often referred to as the Marines' My Lai.1 What has been missing, however, is a study of how military justice operated as a whole in Vietnam, as part of a larger military bureaucracy and war effort. William Thomas Allison's new book, Military Justice in Vietnam successfully fills this gap with additional, impressive results.
Allison's work has three stated goals. First, he wishes to "explain the variety of military legal activities in Vietnam, evaluate them, and share the human side of those activities, all in the context of the war itself" (p. xi). Secondly, he rightly believes that studies of military justice have been underrepresented in both military and legal history and that such studies can serve as a way of connecting these fields to each other and to social history. Finally, Allison believes that "the U.S. legal experience provides an unusual window to shed light on what happened in Vietnam and perhaps offer some guidance for contemporary military operations and nation-building missions" (p. x). Allison [End Page 432] is quite successful in the first two of these goals—explaining and exploring the military legal system in Vietnam and integrating aspects of military, legal, and social history. As for what the larger implications of these stories are for understanding "what happened in Vietnam" or for planning future nation-building efforts, the results are more uneven.
Allison's book is organized thematically, beginning with chapters laying out the history of the United States military justice system and how that system was implemented in Vietnam. Later chapters move into specific thematic case studies, covering courts-martial, war crimes, drug problems, and the black market. Contained in these chapters are fascinating stories of individual soldiers, their units and superior officers, and the military lawyers seeking to prosecute and protect them. Allison's study is based on solid documentary research. Aside from drawing on the obvious legal records of specific cases, Allison has delved deep into the records of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), and makes use of available documents from Congress and the U.S. departments of State and Defense. He also does well in situating the evolution of the military justice system against the larger contours of battle during the war, making use of a range of secondary sources on the war from across the ideological spectrum. Throughout the book, Allison situates the challenges faced by military lawyers, and the strains placed on the military justice system in general, as an integral part of the American war machine. While many of the problems facing the military during the late 1960s and 1970s were "system-wide" and not "Vietnam-centric," Vietnam was where "the dam nearly burst, and it was the military justice that played an important role in keeping a finger in the dike to hold...