Despite an occasional miscarriage of justice, Army lawyers made sure that due process remained alive and well.
By Colonel Robert Barr Smith, Judge Advocate General Corps (ret.)
All of us who served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps–at least the Regular officers–knew Colonel Jack Crouchet personally or by reputation as a thoughtful, experienced, careful judge and a thoroughly decent man. Especially because I served in Vietnam not long before Colonel Crouchet did, I looked forward to reading his Vietnam Stories: A Judge’s Memoir (University Press of Colorado, $19.95). I was not disappointed.
There are lots of good books about Vietnam, but most of them center on combat. Vietnam Stories, by contrast, is concerned with the day-to-day support of the fighting units, the regular administration of criminal justice literally within the sound of the guns. As a circuit judge, Colonel Crouchet flew all over South Vietnam in all sorts of aircraft, wherever and whenever a case needed to be tried. Vietnam Stories is a history of the year he spent in some very odd courtrooms.
Courtrooms in Vietnam varied from tents in the open to Quonset huts. Colonel Crouchet especially liked our Quonset at 4th Infantry Division. I was glad to hear that, for our office-courtroom was the result of a whole year of trading and scrounging. (Quoth our able warrant officer: “If people think so little of good 2 x 4s as to leave them lying around out in the monsoon, they belong to me.”) But even the best of these courtrooms were pretty primitive, wet in the monsoon season, hot perpetually. None of them even approached being cushy, except, of course, the plush digs down south in Long Binh (“Perfect,” according to Crouchet). For that matter, by comparison with the rest of Vietnam, Long Binh might as well have been on Mars, as Vietnam Stories makes quite clear.
Crouchet writes with compassion and insight about the plight of soldiers caught in a foreign, hostile climate, of distressed kids a long way from home, of the Project 100,000 soldiers–“McNamara’s Boys”–who were allowed to serve America in Vietnam even though their mental acuity fell well below what the Army had once been willing to accept.
And he writes about other things as well, about his own uncertainty about our future in Vietnam, as well as about things that most of us up-country never saw. He knew Saigon well, and he also knew something of Chinese Cholon. He had a unique point of view, for he had visited Saigon in 1960, back in the palmy days, back when To Do Street was still Rue Catinat, back when Saigon still retained much of its colonial charm, back before the air was foul with exhaust fumes and the city jammed with homeless, hopeless poor.
He writes of the animal market along the Saigon River, of the trial of a Vietnamese politician sent to jail for daring to criticize then President Nguyen Van Thieu, of junketing politicians and movie stars, of the superb Le Castel Restaurant, of the luxurious Cercle Sportif, an elegant remnant of la dolce vita from earlier days.
But Crouchet is at his best writing about people, the accused, the victims, the counsel, the other judges, the people of the world of the law-at-war, a world about which most people who were not there have never heard a word. Crouchet’s world is populated with real people, hard-working judges, prosecutors and defense counsel, commanders wrestling the twin demons of discipline and compassion, accused soldiers–some vicious, some just forlorn.
Many of the tales in Vietnam Stories are sad. You can’t read of body bags on a helicopter floor or of a young man led off to face prison and a bad discharge without sadness, and some of the tales of victims, American and Vietnamese, are sadder still. Probably the saddest of all is the story of an American deserter who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl and she with him, a real love that was torn apart when the man faced court-martial. The girl deserved better, even if the man did not.
But overall, the message of Vietnam Stories is upbeat, the story of good soldiers of all ranks doing a miserable job far from home. With all the difficulties attendant on trying cases with dignity while you are stewing in your own sweat, gritty with red dust, bitten by mosquitoes, and listening for incoming rounds, the military justice system got the job done. Notwithstanding an occasional miscarriage of justice, the lawyers made sure that due process remained alive and well even under those extreme conditions, as well as making sure soldiers got civil-law legal assistance when they had trouble at home.
It’s the measure of a great nation that it does not abandon what it stands for even amid the agonies of combat. In Vietnam, men like Jack Crouchet made sure we did not forget that justice. He has written a good book about it, a serious, sometimes amusing account without an ounce of arrogance anyplace in it. Vietnam Stories is a good read, a glimpse of a small but vital part of the war, a part that has mostly gone unreported.