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Military Justice in Vietnam: The Rule of Law in an American War

by William Thomas Allison. University Press of Kansas, 2006, hardcover $34.95.

William Thomas Allison, professor of history at Weber State University, states his book’s primary purpose is to “explain military legal activities in Vietnam, evaluate them and share the human side of those activities….The broader purpose is to expose readers to the complicated nature of military law and military justice in a democratic society.”

Allison’s case studies bring to light the process of developing and refining interactions between our military and judicial systems; not only in defense and/or prosecution of service member– related crimes and disputes, but also those of civilians and their families who were attached to and working for the U.S. military or any of its contractors. In Vietnam’s case, it also addresses the larger-scale operations of nation-building. This encompassed attempts to spread American values and respect for the rule of law, in the hope that these efforts would lead to the creation and stabilization of a democratically based government, military and police force.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) helped in establishing a framework for supervising and maintaining discipline of a massive military presence while remaining thoughtful of Vietnam’s sovereignty, laws and customs. The code attempted to balance punishment with equitable treatment for crimes of all types, ranging from petty disputes to murder and large-scale currency manipulation.

Allison further demonstrates that the UCMJ became connected to, and affected, all levels of Vietnamese society from the street vender to the highest offices of government. Despite failures and disparities between the UCMJ and the U.S. judicial system, this book illustrates that the military justice system worked, and the lessons learned can be very applicable to our present endeavors to help the fledgling governments of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even if flawed, the American system and the rule of law have led a nation on a course from inception to the world’s only superpower in a period of just 230 years.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.