- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

Through the years, members of America’s armed forces have been court-martialed for bolting from the Battle of the Bulge, failing to zigzag a ship to evade submarine attack, misplacing secrets that ended up in a Moscow newspaper and all manner of sexual misconduct.

Even sitting in the wrong part of the bus once came under a court-martial’s reach. But the subject of that case, future baseball great and Army Lt. Jackie Robinson, won acquittal and honorable discharge.

Now Army Spc. Jeremy C. Sivits joins the list of court-martialed soldiers. The truck mechanic is to be the first tried for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. His hearing begins Wednesday.

A court-martial is a military trial. It dates to the American Revolution, when leaders of the Continental Army established a justice system patterned after the British model.

The most famous court-martial of modern times came in 1971, when Army Lt. William Calley went on trial for the massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai. He was sentenced to a lifetime of prison and hard labor, but President Nixon reduced his penalty. He served three years under house arrest.

Historians say punishments often exceeded the crime by World War I, when courts-martial were used to make an example of the accused. In World War II, officials conducted 2 million courts-martial, or nearly one for every eight Americans who served.

Pvt. Edward Slovik deserted during the Battle of the Bulge, surrendered to an American officer a day later and refused to go back to his unit despite an offer to drop charges if he did. He was convicted and became the only American soldier executed for desertion in that war.

Mr. Robinson, who helped set up officer training for fellow blacks in the Army before breaking major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947, refused to move to the back of a military bus in Fort Hood, Texas. In doing so, he broke a racist law in effect at the time. He was court-martialed but won acquittal.

After the war, Congress passed the Uniform Code of Military Justice of May 31, 1951, building in more protections for the accused and bringing the system closer to the civilian practice, said Ronald Spector, George Washington University history professor and a military historian.

Among other notable courts-martial:

• In 1925, Col. Billy Mitchell was court-martialed for lashing out at his superiors for not making efforts to expand the combat use of air power. He was convicted for insubordination and suspended from duty for five years. He resigned instead.

• Army Maj. Gen. Robert W. Grow was convicted of dereliction of duty and security infractions in 1952. He lost a diary while in Moscow, and excerpts of it were published in the Soviet press. He was reprimanded and suspended for six months.

• Navy Capt. Charles B. McVay was court-martialed for losing his ship, the USS Indianapolis, during World War II while not taking standard evasive action. More than 500 of the ship’s 880 crew members died. Capt. McVay fatally shot himself in 1968.

Congress recently passed a resolution exonerating Capt. McVay, followed by a Navy directive making it official last summer.

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