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Military Justice in Vietnam

The Rule of Law in an American War

William Thomas Allison

December 2006
256 pages, 6 x 9
Modern War Studies
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1460-8, $34.95

Book cover imageThe My Lai Massacre was the most publicized incident subjected to military law during the Vietnam War, but military lawyers in all the service branches had their hands full with less-publicized desertions, drug use, rapes, fraggings, black marketeering, and even small claims. William Allison reveals how the military justice system responded to crimes and infractions both inside and outside the combat zone and how it adapted to an unconventional political, military, and social climate as American involvement escalated.

In taking readers to war-torn Vietnam, Allison’s study depicts a transitional period in the history of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was revised in 1968. Reflecting American beliefs in discipline and efficiency in military operations, the Code and its implementation were viewed as an integral facet of pacification and counter-insurgency programs. As Allison makes clear, military law and justice in Vietnam were not intended merely as behavioral controls but were also promoted to the Vietnamese as American ideals: respect for the rule of law and an example of the best that democracy had to offer.

American military law and lawyers made near–daily contact with the Vietnamese people, and those interactions open an unusual window on the war and also shed light on contemporary military operations and nation-building missions. Based on deep research into wartime archives and interviews with participants in that conflict (including his own father, a Marine Corps lawyer who served in Vietnam), Allison offers a reflective and well-rounded picture of daily life for military lawyers in Vietnam. That portrait also illuminates the complexities of trying to impose military law and justice on a foreign culture not accustomed to Western-style democracy.

As Allison shows, while the difficulties were great and military justice may have fallen short of its goals, as in the My Lai case, military lawyers conducted themselves with honor in Vietnam. And as military crimes in Iraq dominate today’s news and military justice in a combat zone continues to challenge our democratic ideals, his book provides critical insight into the historical process that underlies American military law today.

“For anyone interested in military justice during the Vietnam War, this fascinating and well-written book will be must reading. Without ignoring the most familiar high-profile war crimes cases, Allison reaches far beyond them, exploring the diverse legal issues posed by ordinary criminal prosecutions, military discipline, the drug problem, and even black market dealings and currency manipulations. He provides a unique look at how all of the services dealt with these concerns, while also conveying what it was like to be an ordinary JAG lawyer in Vietnam.”--Michal R. Belknap, author of The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley

“A unique and valuable book, based on exemplary research, amazingly accurate in concept and detail, and wonderfully well written.”--William G. Eckhardt, Chief Prosecutor at the My Lai War Crimes Trials

WILLIAM THOMAS ALLISON is associate professor of history at Weber State University and was visiting professor in the Department of Strategy and International Security at the Air War College. His other books include American Diplomats in Russia: Case Studies in Orphan Diplomacy; Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright; and, with Robert C. Wadman, To Protect and Serve: A History of Police in America.

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