Posts Tagged ‘By Jeffrey Page’

Improving Military Justice

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013


By Jeffrey Page

So antiquated and one-sided is the American form of military law that a Canadian judge refused to return a U.S. soldier who had been charged with deserting across the northern border. This comes at a time when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called for a revamping of the classically oxymoronic system of military justice.

One aspect of the system that galls critics is the power of high-ranking commanding officers to insert themselves into the process and exercise their prerogative to alter the charges brought by prosecutors and the verdicts returned by juries. The most notorious recent example of this, as noted in The New York Times, was an Air Force general’s nullifying a subordinate officer’s conviction on charges of sexual assault.

Many people who have faced the military justice system in matters serious as well as frivolous understand that it is, at its core, an absurdity. Note that the Air Force lieutenant colonel convicted of aggravated sexual assault had been sentenced to a mere one year in prison.

Without suggesting that rape and the refusal to carry out an order are in any way comparable, let me present an example of how military justice often works.

Once, a long time ago, at Fort Dix, N.J., I was charged with sleeping while at parade rest. Explanation follows.

One hot day in July of 1964, Tango Company, part of a basic training regiment, was marching to breakfast. We had to wait outside the mess hall until another company finished their meal and departed. An Army Reserve sergeant doing his two-week summer training, ordered us to stand at parade rest, which is a slightly relaxed form of standing at attention. We were on a construction site where the Army was building new barracks and I found myself atop a small pile of bricks. I looked down to get my bearings and to adjust my stance.

That was when the sergeant ordered me to perform 10 pushups, a mild punishment when you do something the wrong way.

For what, I asked.

He said, “For sleeping at parade rest,” which is as close to a physical impossibility as you can get. I refused – a very stupid move. And sure enough, later that morning, a clerk told me the company commander, a captain named Dixon, wanted to see me.

“You disobeyed the lawful order of a noncommissioned officer,” Dixon said gravely.

“The man is insane,” I began.

“Shut up, Troop,” he said and proceeded to inform me that we don’t disobey orders in this man’s army. Capt. Dixon yelled a lot and stopped every so often to ask if I understood the seriousness of what I had done. It was clear he didn’t care one way or the other about what the reserve sergeant had ordered, or why.

Finally, the captain told me I could choose my punishment.

“You can have a court martial, at which you will be convicted and sentenced to 45 days in the stockade,” he said, while shaking his head slightly. A signal?

Or, he said while continuing that head-shake, I could choose non-judicial punishment as described in Article 15 of the Universal Code of Military Justice. This would involve a hearing before this very same very angry Captain Dixon. “It would not be a court martial, but you will be convicted and you will lose a month’s pay,” he said. That would have been $78.

The third choice? I could report to Tango Company’s headquarters at 3 o’clock in the morning for three days running, sweep the floor, wash the floor, dust the furniture, and tidy up the place, he explained while nodding slightly. Then I would report to my platoon for a full day’s training and a loss of two precious hours of sleep. Reveille was at 5 a.m. I would start my cleaning at 3:15 a.m. I would be exhausted. And that’s the punishment I elected.

In going before Congress to change the system that allows commanders to ride roughshod over common justice – or finesse it, Hegel should be applauded. Justice should not be booted around in serious cases, but commanders like Dixon should have the right – the obligation, in fact, to get to the bottom of minor, piddling cases like mine and send the wrongdoer on his way.

I concede I was saved from doing time in an army jail by the same wink-and-nod system of military justice that saved the lieutenant colonel from prison. But military justice sometimes seems not interested in justice.

The system needs repair when a guilty-verdict in a felony case is tossed aside and a recruit comes this-close to spending 45 days in jail for disobeying an idiot sergeant.

That’s not justice, military or otherwise.