In his first book, a former infantry sergeant–turned-historian surveys more than 200 years of the administration of American military justice.
Through the prism of select, illustrative military trials, courts-martial, and commissions, Bray’s chronological treatment stresses a few consistent themes: how unwritten rules, politics, culture, and institutional tradition shape the application of law; how the increased scale of our wars expanded the scope and power of military justice; how the interests of command authority, obedience, and discipline always rub up against rights of the accused; how “the hard journey from command authority to due process” has never been straightforward; how the issues contested have always mirrored the controversies that have riven the larger society. Some of his court-martial subjects—John C. Fremont, Billy Mitchell, and William Calley—will be known to general readers. Others include the likes of a militiaman who refused to cut his hair, the African-American Women’s Army Corps medical technicians who defied orders to scrub floors, or the only World War II soldier shot for desertion. Though his sympathies seem to lie almost uniformly with the accused, Bray never loses sight of the always-pertinent command perspective, whether the officer involved is Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, William Tecumseh Sherman, or John Pershing. His delightfully conversational style makes room for literary references to the works of Herman Melville, Richard Henry Dana, and Robert Penn Warren and to discursions on flogging and dueling, the class division between officers and enlisted, and the warrior mentality of professional soldiers. The author resurrects numerous stories that deserve wider attention: the strong-arm tactics by the Lincoln administration and the Union Army officer corps to ensure political uniformity within the ranks, the hidden portion of a cemetery in France that houses only the numbered graves of soldiers executed for rape, murder, and desertion, or the shocking symmetry between a massacre of Cheyenne at Sand Creek and of Vietnamese at My Lai 100 years later.
A thoroughly impressive debut.