Saying Goodbye to Good Friends

One of the things I really love about the Army is that it can bring together people who would not have had much interaction with each other in other circumstances. This is particularly true for a Yankee like me. Despite the six teenage years I spent in Utah and law school in Virginia, my politics, my sports affiliations, etc. still mark me as a northern boy. As such, the South-centric military has surrounded me with guys from Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, and the like. While this makes me a lonely liberal in my office, it sure makes the college football season more interesting. Though currently all the captains are white males, there is still quite a bit of diversity, and I've made some great friends.

Unfortunately, one of the things I really hate about the Army is that no matter how great the friendship is, you always know that within a year or two, somebody will be moving on, either to a new duty station or a new career. This mostly happens in the summer time, and today is the last day for a guy with whom I've spent the last year building a great friendship. He's staying in the Army, headed to Fort Hood for a very cool job, and it is the right move for him and his family. But it still hurts, both on a personal and a professional level. He is a good friend and a great mentor, and the office will definitely miss him.

Since I plan to stay here for another couple years, I have many farewells to look forward to. In fact, it is virtually certain that every military attorney who was here when I got here will leave before I do. Several alread have. The discontinuity can be great in some respects: there is always fresh blood for the office, and fresh challenges for the officer. But today it just makes me sad.

Military Guilty Pleas

As in most jurisdictions, criminal justice in the military rests heavily on guilty pleas. However, there are some quirks to the system which surprise many when they first encounter it. One quirk in particular, regarding sentencing, is unusually favorable to the accused and is probably one reason why we do so many guilty pleas.

Since the Commanding General is the source of disciplinary authority, a guilty plea in the military is an agreement between the accused and the CG that in exchange for a plea, the CG will not approve a sentence above a certain amount of incarceration or a certain level of discharge. For example, the agreement might bind the CG to approve no more than 180 days of confinement and a Bad Conduct Discharge. It might even have alternative clauses, such as no more than 60 days of confinement if a punitive discharge is adjudged, no more than 180 days if not.

In court, the accused gets another bite at the apple. After his guilty plea is accepted, the government and the defense present evidence and arguments regarding sentencing, and the judge renders a sentence without knowing the quantitative terms of the plea agreement. If the judge's sentence is harsher than the plea, then the accused gets the benefit of the deal, as the CG can not approve any sentence above that in the deal. If the judge is more lenient than the deal, then the accused gets the benefit of his leniency, as the CG can never approve a sentence higher than that adjudged in court.

This makes for a very interesting system, where both sides are trying to anticipate the judge's sentence when negotiating the deal, and then trying to sway the judge's sentence once the guilty plea is accepted. It is a great way, I think, of giving defendants the advantages of pleading guilty without forfeiting all rights to persuade a judge to be lenient.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

mcewan_on.jpgWhile traveling in London last month, one of my ambitions was to visit the Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court bookshops and bring home some literary souvenirs of our visit. Cecil Court has a small, but very impressive (and expensive) set of antiquarian bookshops. Unfortunately, like so many book-related nostalgias here and abroad, Charing Cross Road itself has apparently lost much of its magic. There were only a few independent bookshops left, and those tended to be super-specialized in fields outside my interest. The big hitters are still there, however, including Blackwell's and Foyle's, and the latter proved to be the one place I found a book worth bringing home: a signed copy of Ian McEwan's latest, On Chesil Beach.

This slim novel/novella is quintessential McEwan, with a slow focus on physical and atmospheric details that evoke the psychological story McEwan is really telling, that of the abbreviated young love of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting. As demonstrated in Enduring Love and Black Dogs (but not, unfortunately, in Amsterdam), McEwan is at his best when he leaves intricate plotting to the side and goes in the for slow motion closeups.

This simple story of love undone and words unsaid works because the ambition is simple: show two sides of a relationship that rested half on love and half on deception and misunderstanding, in a time (the early 1960s) before emotions were worn on the sleeve and sex was freely discussed. McEwan captures the awkwardness, the anxiety, and the anticipation with skill, and conveys potentially graphic sexuality with the same matter of fact tone he has brought to death and dismemberment in the past.

If there is a fault to the book, it comes in the latter pages when the equality of the perspective is dropped and Edward's retrospective becomes the focus. Edward's view of the how and why are left unchallenged by any reply by Florence. Not a fatal flaw by any means, but a curious mistep in an otherwise finely balanced short novel.

Recommended for all readers of modern fiction, essential for McEwan fans.

New Job

Great changes have been afoot in my working life over the past several weeks. After finishing up at the Tax Center, and taking a week to travel with my wife through London and Scotland, I returned to find that I had been transferred to the military justice section and was to be a military prosecutor (officially titled Trial Counsel).

This exciting move had been much rumored in the weeks before, but there were so many moving parts in our office, between deployments and the upcoming PCS season, it was not entirely clear who was going to end up where.

For the last month and a half, I have been slowly learning the job of military prosecution. I was fortunate to have a few weeks of overlap with my predecessor, so he was able to make introductions to my commanders and brief me on the few pending cases he was unable to close out before his move. I also have had the good fortune to have as a good friend the Senior Trial Counsel, whose office became a second home to me during the months when I needed temporary reprieve from the stresses of legal assistance.

Most of what I do, like most attorneys, takes place outside of the courtroom. My primary responsibility, as a prosecutor, is to build cases, advise investigators, bring charges, and prosecute those cases. Most of our cases are resolved through guilty pleas, which I'll discuss more in a later post, but even these require a good bit of work.

As a Trial Counsel, however, I have to do more than simply prosecute cases. Just as the Staff Judge Advocate is the primary legal advisor to the Commanding General, I am the primary legal advisor to the subordinate commanders in the units I am responsible for. That means I have two brigade commanders, six battalion commanders, and a couple dozen company commanders whose need for legal advice comes straight through me. While they primarily rely on me for military justice and discipline advice, they will often have administrative law, fiscal law, and ethics questions as well. While I often don't know the answers to these questions myself, it is my job to track them down. It has, thus far, made for a very interesting practice.