Creating a code of justice
Until the Uniform Code of Military Justice became effective, on May 31, 1951, the Army and Navy operated under laws derived directly from the British Articles of War, which had been in force since before the Revolutionary War. Soldiers and sailors had few rights, and the system was designed to enforce discipline, not justice. Punishments included execution, flogging, and hard labor with ball and chain.
Over the years, there were patchwork changes. In 1850, for instance, the Navy outlawed flogging. World War I brought more changes, including the current system that provides for three levels of courts-martial--general, special, and summary--depending on the seriousness of the charges.
World War II was the turning point. It produced an astonishing 2 million courts-martial--nearly 1 for every 8 Americans who served. More than 100 servicemen were executed; 45,000 went to prison.
A public outcry ensued. Congress eventually created the Uniform Code of Military Justice. President Harry S. Truman signed the legislation on May 5, 1950. The code was hailed by many as the fairest system of military justice in the world.
Rights of appeal. The code meshed the old with the new. Commanding officers still retained a lot of power, such as the responsibility to convene court-martial trials and select jury panels. But there were new checks, similar to civilian procedures. A formal appellate review system was created, including the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, now known as the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Most important, the code expanded protections for service members. More than 15 years before the Supreme Court's historic miranda decision, the code gave service members the right to remain silent and to be informed that any statement could be used against them at court-martial. It also provided for free military defense counsel in the most serious court-martial trials. Later legislative changes, from 1968 through 1983, provided for court-martial trials to be supervised by military judges. Review boards within each service were replaced with appellate courts.
Since then, however, Congress has made few substantive changes. Nowadays, most crimes prosecuted by the military are not military-related--drug use, assault, murder, fraud, and so on. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court removed a requirement that court-martial trials deal only with offenses that are "service-connected," giving the military jurisdiction over all crimes committed by its personnel. -Edward T. Pound
This story appears in the December 16, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.