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ISR Issue 47, May–June 2006

Inside the U.S. military's judicial system

Death row at the “Castle”


IN LATE January, the Department of the Army issued a set of regulations governing the U.S. military’s use of the death penalty. “This publication is a major revision,” said Sandra Riley, an administrative assistant to the secretary of the army. “This regulation establishes responsibilities and updates policy and procedures for carrying out a sentence of death as imposed by general courts-martial or military tribunals.”1 This “little-noticed move,” as the Reuters news service described it, is the first public announcement by the military of a policy that it has been quietly implementing for several years—slowly placing soldiers on its version of death row.

While the civilian death penalty is coming under greater scrutiny and several states are considering a moratorium on executions, the U.S. military is gearing up to carry out its first execution since 1961. The death penalty was restored in the U.S. military in 1984, but it is only recently that death sentences for American soldiers related to the war in Iraq have been imposed. In March 2005, Sgt. Hasan Akbar was sentenced to death for the “fragging”2 death of two officers in Kuwait on the eve of the Iraq War in March 2003. National Guard Sgt. Alberto Martinez also faces a possible death sentence in another fragging case stemming from the death of two officers in Iraq in June 2005. The military is clearly testing the waters to see what it can get away with.

The totalitarian world of “military justice” would even shock opponents of the civilian death penalty. Earlier this year, Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, described the treatment of Arab and Muslim prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as “the gulag of our time.”3 A similar gulag also exists for rank-and-file soldiers who get entangled in the spider’s web of the military justice system, especially for those facing the death penalty. The shrouded world of American military injustice needs to be exposed for all to see.

The “Castle”

For millions of Americans just hearing the word Leavenworth jolts something in the back of the brain, producing an uncomfortable feeling of dread. For the many thousands of soldiers, who have been incarcerated over the years at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, it is known by the nickname the “Castle.” Castles, of course, have dungeons full of hideous instruments of torture. The military’s death row is located in the basement of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (formerly known as the U.S. Military Prison) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. While hanging was the preferred form of execution for most of its history, lethal injection is now the method employed.4

The Castle is the only long-term prison operated by the Department of Defense, as distinct from prisoner-of-war (POW) camps that were meant to operate only during wartime. The prison was established by an act of Congress in 1874 and has been in continuous operation since 1875, when the Castle was built by prisoners from gray stone blocks cut from the bluffs above the Missouri River. A new modern prison was completed in 2002. It incarcerates members from all branches of the armed forces—the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and the Coast Guard.

The last prisoner to be executed at the Castle was African American Army Private John Bennett, by hanging, in 1961. The last American soldier executed during wartime for desertion was Private Eddie Slovik, shot by a firing squad in Europe in 1945. There is a perception that Slovik was the only American soldier executed during the Second World War, but there were dozens of others. The hero of that war, beloved president and part-time golfer, Dwight D. Eisenhower, signed two death warrants—the first time as the supreme allied commander in Europe and the second time as president of the United States. One hundred thirty-five soldiers have been executed by the U.S. military since 1916.5

Currently there are eight men on death row at the Castle: six African-Americans, one white, and one Asian of Filipino descent. There are no women on military death row. These numbers are all the more stark when it is recalled that Black men make up 6 percent of the entire U.S. population, and that Blacks as a whole make up 30 percent of enlistees. The only white inmate on death row is the former senior airman Andrew Witt convicted last October for the double murder of two people in the summer of 2004. To say that racism plays a role in who gets death in the military justice system is an understatement.

While some may argue that the small number on the Castle’s death row doesn’t allow us to draw any definitive conclusions about the role of race in sentencing, the numbers parallel racial disparities in sentencing outside the military and are no accident. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote many years ago in his History of the Russian Revolution, “An army is always a copy of the society it serves—with this difference, that it gives social relations a concentrated character, carrying both their positive and negative features to an extreme.”6 The extreme racism, sharp class divisions, and corrupt judicial system of U.S. society are starkly reflected in the American military today. Currently, 75 percent of federal death row prisoners are non-white, while 43 percent on death row nationally are African American.7 It’s not surprising, then, that the racial disparity on military death row is far greater.

Last man executed

This becomes abundantly clear when looking at the last man executed by the U.S. military—Private John A. Bennett. He was executed at the Castle in 1961 for rape, a crime that is no longer punishable by the death penalty in civilian courts. Bennett’s case is a stark example showing the wrong then and now of the death penalty, in civilian life and in the American military.

Bennett came from an extremely poor Black Virginia sharecropping family; he dropped out of school at an early age. His family had a long history of mental illness—his grandfather and great-uncle were both institutionalized, and his first cousin committed suicide. Bennett was later diagnosed with epilepsy. Throughout his life he complained of dizziness, chronic headaches, and blackouts. He joined the army in the early 1950s and was assigned the dirtiest, hardest, and most dangerous jobs, which Blacks were traditionally given in the military, working first as an ammunition handler and then as a truck driver.

According to the few documented accounts of his life, John Bennett had no trouble in the army until December 1954, when he was charged with raping an eleven-year-old white girl in Austria, where he was stationed. Because Bennett was an active duty GI, and because of treaties signed by the Austrian and U.S. governments, the U.S. Army tried him rather than the Austrian courts. Such treaties have been the focus of protest and opposition wherever American forces occupy a country. Had Bennett been tried in an Austrian court, he would certainly not have faced death, the death penalty having been outlawed there in 1950.8

While the evidence presented against Bennett seemed overwhelming, he always claimed he had been forced to confess at gunpoint. What is not in dispute is that his court-martial, held in Austria, lasted only five days. His defense counsel didn’t put up much of a fight, issues of mental illness were dismissed as irrelevant, and the jury deliberated for just twenty-five minutes before finding him guilty. He was eventually sentenced to death by hanging and moved to the Castle to await execution.

The issues surrounding Bennett’s conviction come into sharper focus when his fate and those of other Black defendants are compared to white defendants charged with similar or worse crimes during the Eisenhower era. According to Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Serrano:

During the six years between [Bennet’s] trial and death, eight other soldiers were executed, all of them Black. Six white prisoners were on death row during those years. Some had killed little girls or had killed more than once. None were executed. President Dwight Eisenhower commuted the sentences of four. Two were spared by the courts.9

“In the 1950s,” explains Serrano, “black soldiers routinely were hanged while whites were spared. Between the passage of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950 and the suspension of military executions in 1961, eight of the nine soldiers put to death were black; one was white.”10 The military was one of the few integrated institutions in 1950s America, and because of this was held in relatively high regard by many African Americans. During the Vietnam War, however, the racist treatment of Black soldiers by the military’s judicial system would become a major political controversy.

A last-ditch effort was made to get clemency for Bennett from the newly elected Democratic President John F. Kennedy. Despite the opposition to the death penalty by key Kennedy advisers and pleas from Bennett himself, his family, and the family of his victim, Kennedy allowed the execution to go ahead in April 1961. For a president who had been labeled a civil rights supporter, his inaction may seem odd, but after several foreign policy failures, his new administration was already seen as weak. Even more importantly, Southern supporters of Jim Crow dominated his party. Kennedy wasn’t going to open himself to further attack by taking a courageous stand in the Bennett case.11 His handling of the Bennett case may remind many of a political controversy in 1992, when the then-governor of Arkansas and Democratic candidate for president Bill Clinton, allowed the severely brain-damaged Ricky Ray Rector to be executed, to prove that he wasn’t “soft on crime.”

Who gets death in the military?

“It is one of the ironies of patriotism,” declares Robert Sherrill in the opening of his searing 1970 book Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music, “that a man who is called to the military service of his country may anticipate not only the possibility of giving up his life but also the certainty of giving up his liberties.”12 The Bill of Rights doesn’t exist in the military. Military justice has never been about “justice”—that is, the most elementary efforts to protect the rights of the individual, the presumption of innocence, a jury of one’s peers, or a fair and speedy trail. It has always been about one thing: discipline, the power of the officer corps to command and control soldiers, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court time and time again. Chief Justice Earl Warren said the military was “an enclave beyond the reach of the civilian courts.”13 This “enclave” has had a predictable record of injustice.

During the First World War, millions of Americans for the first time served in the various branches of the armed forces, including a large number of Black soldiers who were stationed in Southern military bases near large cities. At Fort Bliss in Texas, Black soldiers protested the constant harassment by the white officers and soldiers. In 1917, several Black soldiers protested their condition by not reporting to a drill formation and were court-martialed for mutiny, found guilty, dishonorably discharged, and sentenced to ten to twenty years in Leavenworth. A full-scale rebellion broke out in late August 1917, in Houston. Over one hundred Black soldiers from the highly decorated Third Battalion of the Twenty-fourth Infantry marched with their weapons on a police station holding imprisoned comrades, believing them to have been beaten or killed by the police. In the battle that ensued, fifteen whites (five of them cops) and four Black soldiers were killed. In December 1917, sixty-three Black soldiers were court-martialed with forty-eight sentenced to long prison terms and thirteen sentenced to death. According to Luther West, veteran military lawyer and critic, “Two days after the completion of the trial, and some four months before their records of trial were received in Washington, D.C., for ‘appellate’ review, the thirteen Blacks sentenced to die were executed.”14

During the Second World War, the same backward, racist, and arcane system of justice prevailed in the U.S. military. Alvin “Tommy” Bridges, a military policeman during the war and a future police chief, recounted his very bitter memories of “military justice” to Studs Terkel in the Good War: “They shot some of those same guys up there that were—if you’d go to a municipal court, they’d dismiss the case. Depending a lot upon the commanding officer.”15

Near the end of his narrative, Bridges makes clear the extent of summary “justice” and who was responsible:

Eisenhower says that’s the only guy [Eddie Slovik] that was ever executed for it [desertion]. That’s what burns me up, when a gross of them that I know were executed for probably more minor things than what Slovik was. They said he was the only one. We had to make a show of it. The son-of-a-bitches.16

Eddie Slovik was a Polish working-class kid from Detroit who had a minor criminal record and spent some years in a youth reformatory. His draft classification was originally 4-F (unfit for military service) and therefore not eligible to be drafted. He married and got a decent paying job in the auto industry, whereupon he was reclassified 1-A. The army was then drafting anybody it could get its hands on in preparation for the invasion of Europe. It was also clear that Slovik couldn’t kill a living thing and was terrified of combat. In his “confession” after he deserted he said, “I’ll run away again if I have to go their.” (He misspelled “there,” and by “there” he meant going into combat).17 Over 40,000 other deserters tried by lesser courts-martial were punished by confinement to disciplinary centers or dishonorably discharged. Another 2,864 were tried by general courts-martial. Most were sentenced to long terms in prisons (many left prison soon after the war was over), but forty-nine were sentenced to death. All the sentences for desertion were commuted except Slovik’s.

Slovik’s story is recounted in William Bradford Huie’s book The Execution of Private Slovik. Why Slovik? It seems likely that the reason Slovik was singled out was because he deserted at the time of stiffening German resistance in late 1944, when the Allied forces came dangerously close to collapsing on the Western front. Yet, curiously, the army never publicized his execution beyond his company, never told his wife, and buried him in a secret cemetery. It would be nearly a decade after Slovk’s death before Huie began investigating the strange circumstances surrounding it. Despite the efforts of many people, Slovik’s wife never received the paltry $10,000 plus interest she asked for in GI life insurance. Slovik’s remains were finally returned to the U.S. in 1987, to be buried beside the grave of his deceased wife.

While many people believe that Slovik was the only American soldier executed during the war, that is not true. Many were executed on charges other than desertion, and African American soldiers once again bore the brunt of these executions. During the war, the United States virtually occupied Great Britain, and the Visiting Forces Act (VFA) gave exclusive power to the American military to prosecute American soldiers for criminal acts committed in Britain. Among the criminal acts that could be punished by death was rape, which was not a capital crime in Britain. Authorities and vigilantes in the Jim Crow South used the charge of rape in particular to persecute and terrorize Black men. Most charges of rape by white women against Black men were fabrications. Guilty or not, Black men were lynched or sent to the gallows or electric chair, while few white men suffered the same fate.18 Of the sixty-two men executed by the state of Georgia for rape between 1930 and 1977, for example, only four were white, and the rest (94 percent) were Black.19

Jim Crow segregation was transferred to Britain during the war by the U.S. military, replete with segregated bars, clubs, theaters, barracks, even whole towns. When Black heavyweight champion Joe Louis toured Britain in early 1944, he was told he had to sit in a “special” section—colored only. Louis exploded, “Shit! This wasn’t America, this was England…. The theatre manager… knew who I was and apologized all over the place. Said he had instructions from the Army.”20 The U.S. military carried out seventy executions from 1942 to November 1945 in Europe, and of these fifty-five were Black, 79 percent of those executed. Eighteen of those executions took place in Great Britain, with nine convicted of murder, six of rape, and three of both. Of the eighteen executed, eleven were Black, three were Latino, and four were white. Yet Blacks made up only 8 percent of U.S. military forces stationed in Europe during the war.21
According to historians Robert Lily and David Thomson, the sentencing disparities were based on class as well as race:

Whites represented 27.8 percent of the executed soldiers, with African-Americans accounting for 55.56 percent, and Mexican-Americans the remaining 11.1 percent of the 18 cases…soldiers of color are selected far beyond their share of the ranks for this ultimate sanction. The executed men were overwhelmingly from the lowest rank(s)…many of them uneducated, and suffering from a mental disorder or other mitigating factors. No man above the rank of corporal was executed. This suggests that the military do not punish randomly, but selectively, especially to its lowest ranks, and most socially disadvantaged.22

Things actually got worse after the war was over. “After President Truman ordered an end to the armed forces’ segregation in 1948,” according to journalist Dwight Sullivan. “This racial disparity actually increased. The military carried out 12 executions from 1954 until the most recent one in 1961. Eleven of the 12 executed service members were African-American.”23

Why? One can only speculate, but the answer may be that it was one way that the officer corps of the U.S. military expressed its opposition to desegregation by deepening the persecution of Black soldiers in its ranks.

Out of the clamor came the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), which Congress passed into law in 1950. The separate services would no longer each have their own judicial system but one that would govern all. The code still included capital punishment. While there were changes, such as the defendant’s right to a trained lawyer, or a civilian lawyer, a jury, the presence of enlisted men on courts-martial, and a right to appeal court-martial verdicts, the content remained the same. As the case of John Bennett and the increase in the proportion of Black soldiers executed shows, these changes meant very little. It was still a system dominated by the officer corps. As veteran army lawyer and critic, Luther West, put it,

The military commander was still in charge…He still decided what charges to prosecute, what offenses were to be investigated, and what offenses were to be covered up. He still picked military juries…also picked the prosecution and defense lawyers as well as the military judge.24

These issues, however, virtually disappeared from public sight for a decade-and-a-half until the U.S. invaded Vietnam in 1965.

The “mere gook rule”

One major political issue that arose during the Vietnam War was the sharp contrast in the treatment of American soldiers accused of killing their officers versus those who murdered Vietnamese civilians. The starkest contrast was between the case of Lt. William Calley, who was accused and convicted of the murder of Vietnamese civilians, and that of Pvt. Billy Dean Smith, an antiwar GI, whom the army attempted to frame for the murder of two of his officers. While they were not the only cases of their kind, they illustrate the hypocrisy and racism of the military judicial system.

On March 16, 1968, the soldiers of Charlie Company of the Americal Division, led by Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley, white officers from the Southern U.S., entered the village of My Lai. During a four-hour period the soldiers of Charlie Company massacred around 400 unarmed, elderly men, women, and children, including babies. A cover-up followed involving as many as thirty officers, including the future secretary of state Colin Powell. Despite the cover-up, the massacre became public in the fall of 1969. Eventually, four members of Charlie Company were indicted, but only Calley was found guilty—of killing twenty-two civilians. The court sentenced him to life in prison at hard labor. During the time of his arrest and trial, Calley was under “house arrest” at his apartment on base at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had the run of the base and was treated as something of a celebrity. After his conviction, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley released from the stockade and returned to his apartment. Nixon eventually pardoned him.25

In sharp contrast, Army Pvt. Billy Dean Smith, a Black soldier from California, was accused of killing or fragging two officers and held in solitary confinement for a year before his trial. Fragging refers specifically to the killing of an officer or non-commissioned officer by throwing a fragmentation grenade into his tent, an event that happened usually at night. Fragging was almost always directed at officers who sent into combat soldiers who no longer wanted to fight. In 1969, the Associated Press reported that the army investigated ninety-six alleged fraggings, and 209 in 1970, totaling 101 deaths. The number of fraggings actually grew as the U.S. rapidly drew down troop numbers after 1970. Not all fraggings were expressions of antiwar sentiment; some had to do with covering up criminal activity (drug dealing in particular) or personal vendettas, another sign that the army was disintegrating.

On March 15, 1971, at Bien Hoa, a U.S. Army base in South Vietnam, a fragmentation grenade exploded—this time in an officer’s barracks for an artillery unit, killing two lieutenants and wounding a third. All were white. The unit commander Captain Rigby and First Sergeant Willis decided they knew who did it—Billy Dean Smith. Smith was an outspoken critic of the rampant racism in the army and particularly objected to the segregated bars and clubs in Vietnam. Without any evidence, Smith was charged with two counts of murder, two counts of resisting arrest, one count of assault, and two counts of attempted murder. Smith proclaimed his innocence and pled not guilty to all the charges. If found guilty he would have faced the death penalty.26

Smith’s lawyer, civilian Luke McKissack, went to Vietnam and investigated the situation, and petitioned to have the trial moved to Fort Ord in California. After a change in venue was granted, McKissack wrote directly to the president complaining of the treatment of his client.

I wrote a letter to (then President Richard) Nixon asking him to intervene on Billy’s behalf and also asking why Calley (who had been convicted of 22 counts of murder by this time) was living it up in a bachelor type pad while my guy, who hadn’t been tried yet, was confined to a 6 x 9 cage, seeing daylight one hour a day. I asked if it was because Billy was Black and Calley white, because Billy was an enlisted grunt and Calley an officer, and then I invoked the “mere gook rule.” My guy had allegedly killed white people, Calley had blown away “mere gooks.”27

McKissack was stunned when he received a reply from a Nixon aide agreeing with him. “As you pointed out in your petition, the issues of Private Smith’s case are in no way similar to the issues inherent in Lieutenant Calley’s case,” wrote Nixon aide General Lawrence Williams. The only “evidence” the army had against Smith was that he had hand grenade pins in his pocket when arrested. “I put G.I. after G.I. on the stand who not only said they routinely carried around grenade pins, but that they also saw what they felt was an ongoing need in their unit for drastic actions like fragging,” said McKissack.28

After McKissack’s vigorous defense and a campaign organized by G.I.s and antiwar activists, Smith was acquitted on all charges. After he left the military, Smith became an organizer for the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU), one of the most serious attempts at organizing a trade union for military personnel. There were many more Calley-like cases, such as the Green Beret murder case and the Son Thang massacre. What is true in all of them is that if an American soldier murdered Vietnamese civilians, they were far less likely to be punished, or punished very severely, for their crimes.29

The war in Iraq and capital punishment

The last soldier to be executed by the U.S. military was a mentally ill Black soldier from a very poor family. The first soldier to be sentenced to death during the Iraq War is a mentally ill Black soldier from a very poor family, who also suffered religious persecution during his time in the army. In the forty years since the last military execution nothing has changed.

Sgt. Hasan Akbar was found guilty in March 2005 of murdering two officers and wounding fourteen others on the eve of the invasion of Iraq; he was sentenced to death.
Akbar was born Mark Fidel Kools, but his parents changed his name after the family converted to Islam. Like many, Akbar enlisted in the army to help defray his college loan payments after he graduated with an engineering degree from the University of California at Davis. But from his earliest teenage years Akbar felt the heavy weight of poverty, racism, and religious bigotry on his shoulders. It is even possible that he was sexually abused as a child. According to statements made to the press by Akbar’s family, his problems seem to have gotten worse after he joined the Army in the late 1990s, exacerbating his loneliness and withdrawal symptoms that were noticed at a young age, including—as revealed in his diary—his harboring of homicidal thoughts.30

John Akbar, his father, testified during the court-martial that his son claimed that other members of his platoon wore Nazi, KKK, and Confederate-flag tattoos. “They would mock him while he prayed,” the father said.31 Akbar, according to testimony at his court-martial, suffered racist insults by soldiers who denigrated his fellow Muslims on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, and after the war and occupation of Afghanistan. His brother Bilal left the air force soon after 9/11 for similar reasons. After Akbar was arrested, the military police claim he voiced his fear that American forces were going to rape and kill Muslim women in Iraq. These very justifiable fears seem to have pushed Akbar over the edge. “He’s mentally ill,” said Maj. Dan Brookhart, one of Akbar’s defense lawyers. His lawyers argued that Akbar should not have been in the army, much less in an army invading a country whose population is predominately Muslim.

Army prosecutor Lt. Col. Michael E. Mulligan’s closing arguments are what anyone would call thinly veiled religious bigotry. Mulligan declared, “He is the enemy,” calling his murders “Akbar’s war,” and that “this is the hatred that lies in his heart.” He displayed, according to media accounts, excerpts from Akbar’s thirteen-year-old computer diary on two screens along with pictures of his victims. “Caucasians, I will kill as many of them as possible,” Akbar wrote in 1992. In 1996, Akbar wrote: “Anyone who stands in front of me shall be considered the enemy and dealt with accordingly,” and “destroying America was my plan as a child, and as a juvenile and in college. Destroying America is my greatest goal.”32

Compare Akbar’s case to white soldiers who committed similar crimes but with victims of different ranks and races. This year Sgt. Aaron Stanley was sentenced to life in prison on two counts of premeditated murder for the deaths of Staff Sgt. Matthew Werner and Specialist Christopher D. Hymer in 2004 at Stanley’s farmhouse in Clay Center, Kansas, about thirty miles west of Fort Riley. “These were extraordinarily violent and senseless murders,” according to Maj. John Hamner, lead prosecutor.33

Army Capt. Rogelio Maynulet was found guilty of the “mercy killing” of an Iraqi civilian. In May 2004, when U.S. troops were pursuing suspected militiamen supporting Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr near the Iraqi city of Najaf, Maynulet and others fired on a car, wounding the driver and a passenger. Maynulet said he then shot the driver. “He was in a state I didn’t think was dignified. I had to put him out of his misery,” Maynulet said. Maynulet’s victim was a local rubbish collector. “He was sentenced with dismissal from the United States Army...there will be no confinement time,” a military spokesman said.34

On January 21, 2006, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, a U.S. Army interrogator, was convicted of causing the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush during a round of questioning in November 2003. Welshofer killed him by putting a sleeping bag over the head of the Iraqi general, sitting on his chest, and covering his mouth. A court-martial jury of six officers decided the officer was not guilty of murder but of negligent homicide. He was fined $6,000, given a letter of reprimand, and confinement to base for six months.35

Can there be any doubt that Akbar has been given a death sentence because he is Black, a Muslim, and a self-proclaimed hater of the U.S. Army? That his victims were officers insured a death sentence.

Lifting the veil on military injustice

Over the past several years, support for the death penalty has begun to wane in the United States. A Gallup poll last fall showed that support for the death penalty has fallen to 64 percent, from a high of 80 percent in 1994. When life without parole is offered as an alternative, support for the death penalty drops to 50 percent.36 There are many reasons for this important shift in public opinion, not the least of which has been the release of more than 100 innocent people (some who came dangerously close to execution) from death row since 1976. There have also been frightening revelations of police torture, judicial corruption, frame-ups, and bad forensics. The whole machinery of death is under more scrutiny than it has been in a generation.

For the still relatively small number of anti-death penalty activists in the United States, the long hard work of many years has begun to payoff. This doesn’t mean that the supporters of the death penalty are in an irreversible retreat. The execution of Stan “Tookie” Williams by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2005, despite significant support for clemency, is one example of this. Another is the pledge by one Republican candidate for governor of Illinois to lift the moratorium on executions that former Governor Ryan decreed in 2000. The fact that the U.S. military is gearing up for its first execution in over forty years contradicts the trend, but it also represents something deeper—the huge strain the war and occupation of Iraq is having on the U.S. military.

Military justice has always been first and foremost about disciplining the troops. The U.S. military is facing its biggest crisis since the Vietnam War, with thousands of troops deserting,37 going AWOL, and wounding themselves in order to avoid combat. It is no accident that, facing this crisis of command, the military wants the death penalty restored as a regular feature of military punishment. Antiwar activists, advocates for soldiers’ rights, and anti-death penalty activists have an opportunity to work together, linking the criminal occupation of Iraq with the military’s unjust treatment of the men and women whom they have spent billions of dollars turning into professional killers.

Joe Allen is a member of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago and a long-time member of the International Socialist Organization. His three part series on the history of the Vietnam War can be found at

1 “Army may be preparing for executions,” Reuters News Service, January 24, 2006.
2 To deliberately injure or kill (one’s military leader) by means of a fragmentation grenade.
3 Irene Khan, “Speech by Irene Khan at Foreign Press Association,” May 25, 2005,
4 Richard A. Serrano, “A grim life on military death row,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1994.
5 Statistics on military death row can be found at the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center,
6 Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (New York: Monad Press, 1980), 17.
7 Statistics on federal death row are available from the Death Penalty Information Center Web site.
8 Richard A. Serrano, “Pvt. John Bennett is the only U.S. soldier executed for rape in peacetime,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2000.
9 Ibid.
10 Serrano, “A grim life.”
11 Serrano, “Pvt. John Bennet.”
12 Robert Sherrill, Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 1.
13 Ibid, 65.
14 Luther C. West, They Call it Justice (New York: The Viking Press, 1977), 31.
15 Studs Terkel, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 390.
16 Ibid, 392.
17 William Bradford Huie, The Execution of Private Slovik (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme, 2004), 188.
18 For a complete history see Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New York: Modern Library, 2003).
19 Michael Kroll, “Chattahoochee judicial district: Buckle of the death belt: The death penalty in microcosm,” Death Penalty Information Center, 1991,
20 Graham Smith, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1987), 109.
21 J. Robert Lilly & J. Michael Thomson, Executing U.S. Soldiers in England, WWII: The Power of Command Influence and Sexual Racism, 1995, Section IV,
22 Ibid, Section V.
23 Dwight Sullivan, “A matter of life and death: examining the military death penalty’s fairness,” The Federal Lawyer, June 1998.
24 West, They Call it Justice, 18.
25 For a complete account of the My Lai massacre and the travesty that followed, see Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four Hours in My Lai (New York: Penguin, 1992).
26 For an overview of the Billy Dean Smith case see Mark Allen, “The case of Billy Dean Smith,” The Black Scholar, October 1972.
27 McKissack is quoted in Steve Hesske’s “Free Asan Akbar and put the system on trial,” Alternative Press Review, April 24, 2003.
28 Ibid.
29 In the Green Beret murder case, members of a Green Beret intelligence unit were accused of murdering a suspected “Vietcong” spy in their ranks. The case was quashed by the Nixon administration. In the Son Thang case, a self-described “killer team” of marines out on patrol on February 19, 1970, shot and killed sixteen Vietnamese women and children at point-blank range in a small hamlet. Two defendants were acquitted, and two were found guilty of unpremeditated murder and given five-year prison terms that were later reduced. Sam Green, an African American who participated in the killings on his eleventh day in Vietnam, committed suicide in 1975. See Jeff Stein’s A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993) and Gary Solis, Son Thang: An American War Crime (New York: Bantam, 1998).
30 Richard A. Serrano, “GI sentenced to death for fatal attack,” Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2005; Richard A. Serrano, “Soldier convicted in Kuwait base killings,” Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2005.
31 Serrano, “Soldier convicted in Kuwait base killings.”
32 Serrano, “GI sentenced to death for fatal attack.”
33 John Milburn, “Sergeant to serve life in prison for killing two men,” Kansas City Star, June 12, 2005.
34 “U.S. soldier convicted of killing Iraqi walks free,” Reuters, April 1, 2005.
35 See a series of reports on this case by Human Rights First!,
36 “U.S. support for death penalty wanes,” BBC News online, December 2, 2005.
37 Bill Nichols, “8,000 desert during Iraq War,”USA Today, March 7, 2006.
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