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Court-martials as old as the U.S. military

Next week, the U.S. military will begin legal proceedings against the MPs charged with abusing Iraqi prisoners. The term “court-martial” is going to be thrown around quite a bit. While the idea of a legal battle in front of a military panel may seem new and dramatic to some, the trial-like procedure known as a court-martial has actually been front and center throughout American military history.

Court-martial proceedings date back to the Revolutionary War. One of the first involved a general who disobeyed orders from his commanding officer, George Washington.

During the Civil War, a military panel investigated the assassination of President Lincoln. Eight suspects were convicted, and four of them received the death penalty and were hanged in public.

But the most famous court-martial in American history came during the Vietnam conflict. In 1968, Lt. William Calley led his Charlie Company, 11th Brigade into the Vietnamese village of My Lai.  The “search-and-destroy mission” quickly turned into a massacre of 300 unarmed Vietnamese civilians.  An army sergeant took pictures of the gruesome rampage, and the horrific photographs eventually landed in "Life" magazine.

For his part, Lt. Calley allegedly rounded up a group of villagers, ordered them into a ditch, and mowed them down with a fury of machine gun fire. Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, but was released 3 years later following several appeals.

President Nixon called My Lai an isolated act and said the service of most soldiers in Vietnam was honorable. In the prisoner abuse scandal, President Bush has followed a similar strategy.

The abuse of Iraqi prisoners doesn’t even begin to compare to the massacre of Vietnamese civilians.  But like My Lai, the scandal at Abu Ghraib could undermine public support for the over-all U.S. mission.

The latest Gallup poll shows the President’s approval rating on Iraq has dropped to 41 percent—the lowest since the war began. This is another reason why the Bush administration wants to make a big show of the justice that will be handed out during the military trials—court martial proceedings that will begin next week.