Boots and the Law by Samuel T. Brick

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Samuel T. Brick is a lawyer. He tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—”for the most part” and except for the names of the innocent and guilty—in Boots and the Law: A Story of Army JAG Service in Fort Polk and Vietnam (iUniverse, 244 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper).

The book’s subtitle explains its storyline, which is based on Brick’s experiences on active duty in the late 1960s. Brick fictionalizes his tale by giving everybody an alias—to protect those who went through the military judicial system. Samuel Brick becomes Gregg Thompson.

The Army permitted Thompson to finish law school and pass the Delaware bar exam before herding him through Basic and into AIT as an infantry draftee. The Pentagon then dragged him from the middle of Tigerland at Fort Polk, tested him, and promoted him from E2 to O3. When unexpectedly offered a commission to captain, Thompson barely managed to croak, “Let’s get on with it,” and a major immediately swore him in.

Like most JAG newbies, Thompson started his courtroom career on defense, something that tilts the scales of military justice in favor of prosecutors who theoretically have the more difficult job and require greater experience. That supposition brings us to what I liked most about the book, traits that from here on I will credit to Sam Brick, their practitioner.

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Over a century ago Georges Clemenceau said, “Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.” The quote’s subtext says, “It suffices to add ‘military’ to a word for it to lose its meaning.”

People cite Clemenceau’s idea to defame military justice, arguing that it provides officers with unquestionable authority to punish subordinates. Neither Brick nor I see it that way.

In Vietnam, Sam Brick defended, prosecuted, or sat as a judge in many types of cases: murder, desertion, rape, disobedience, armed robbery, black market activities, and various lesser crimes. Regardless of his role, he sought to see into the minds of defendants by investigating their histories in depth.

Generally, Brick uncovered evidence that showed defendants were immature men without a viable value system. The possibility of dying in the Vietnam War and their unwillingness to being there often overrode any other thoughts.

Pre-trial research guided lawyers in formulating a strategy for defending or prosecuting a case and determining appropriate punishment. In that regard, Brick carefully explains the pros and cons of military courts relative to a crime. Most of his JAG cohorts used the same approach.

The detail with which Brick explains trial and administrative procedures makes the book an outstanding read for anyone with even the slightest interest in justice. As he puts it: “Some of the sentences for serious crimes, usually more lenient than one would suspect, are a consequence of military juries weighing the need for discipline while bearing in mind the environment in which our men were thrust.”

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Sam Brick

Brick shows that not every offense went to trial. In-country transfers provided equally effective methods for changing behavior. Gen. Creighton Abrams himself once sent a popular but recalcitrant AFVN disc jockey “up north” to a little mountain just outside the A Shau Valley where the 101st Airborne Division could “teach him to soldier,” Brick writes.

During the early 1970s I found a similar degree of leniency among peers with whom I sat as a juror. I came to believe that being in a war expands one’s tolerance for lesser evils.

Brick wraps up several of his stories with twists. In summarizing one case, he says, “Nothing in this country is ever what it seems.” That conclusion fits just about every issue he writes about .

My verdict for Boots and the Law: Sam Brick is guilty of clearly explaining the fairness of military law during the Vietnam War.

Brick is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,serves as VVA’s South Carolina State Council President, and took part in this year’s Leadership & Education Conference in Palm Springs. He retired as an Army reserve JAG colonel after working for CENTCOM during the Persian Gulf War.

I believe that he should write a sequel to show if the righteousness of military justice still prevails.

—Henry Zeybel