Military Executions

J Robert Lilly. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1: The Presence of Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Prolegomenon: Historical Background

The origins of military executions worldwide are lost to antiquity, yet for centuries such executions have remained a stable but underdeveloped topic in the fields of military history and jurisprudence. In England, the first laws concerning military executions were written by kings in their instructions for various expeditions, including the orders issued by Richard I for the Crusades in A.D. 1190. Over the centuries, laws regarding the power of courts martial to impose the death penalty for ordinary crimes and for such uniquely military matters as mutiny have fluctuated widely. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, “the first comprehensive articles of war were those declared by Richard II at Durham in A.D. 1325. and Henry V at Mantes in A.D 1429.” (Loving v. United States 1996:761). Except during times of political disorder, these rules lost force after the hostilities ended because they were not fixed codes. The American Congress enacted the first U.S. Articles of War in 1789.

From one perspective, military executions are nothing more than part of the hard facts of warfare. The deaths of thousands of enemy soldiers and noncombatant prisoners at the hands of their captors during the First, Second, and Third Crusades are illustrative.1 Another approach to the subject, the one I take in this chapter, focuses on intramilitary executions—that is, killings carried out by a military body against its own members. An analysis of extramilitaryexecutions would examine the execution deaths of enemy soldiers and civilians. In July 1945, for example, the U.S. Army executed five German POWs Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for the murder of a fellow prisoner (Green 1995).

Although military organizations and governments have found it important to document the use of capital punishment within the military, it is far more interesting to examine the how and why of military executions. In this chapter I strike a balance between these two perspectives, because it is nearly pointless to discuss one without the other. The death of Christ as a prisoner is a useful beginning example.

It is quite clear that biblical scholars agree that Christ was put to death by crucifixion under the military authority of Pontius Pilate. It is also agreed that soldiers contributed to Christ’s humiliation before his death—they placed the crown of thorns on his head, lashed him, and gambled for his garments. There is less agreement on the symbolic meaning of his death. Was it strictly a military exercise by the Roman Empire in what was then essentially an “outback” region? If so, it is rather difficult to see what military purpose was achieved by killing one man who had no army. The how and why of Christ’s death, however, are laden with several messages. One message was the reaffirmation, to the public and to the Roman Empire itself, that the empire still had the power to impose order by killing non-Romans. The slow and painful death by crucifixion was also a public and ignominious degradation ceremony—long reserved for the execution of criminals—that put Christ in the same league as thieves and murderers (Brown 1994:945-47). By publicly crucifying Christ, the Roman Empire told others, including Christ’s followers and potential followers, what might happen to them while simultaneously, although only temporarily, repairing the tear in the empire’s social fabric caused by Christ and his followers (Lilly and Ball 1982). Today it is arguable that although Christ died as a direct result of military decisions, his death was more importantly the most significant symbolic development in a growing religious movement.

In the remainder of this chapter, with few exceptions, I focus primarily on the who, offenses, places, numbers, methods,and by whom of the U.S. military’s executions of its own personnel. Most of the information provided here comes from the American Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, and World War I and II—no U.S. soldiers were executed by the military during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.


Lower Ranks

Those who were executed by the military from the time of the American Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II came primarily from the lower ranks of noncommissioned personnel. This is not surprising, given the fact that all branches of the military are rigidly controlled hierarchical organizations with power flowing downward. There is one notable exception, however. A 1919 dispatch from Dijon, France, near the end of World War I reported that the U.S. Army authorities at Is-sur-Tille “sentenced and hanged an American Lieutenant for an assault on a little girl who died in consequence of injuries received” (“Hang American Officer” 1919).

Consistent with the fact that almost all executed soldiers have come from the lower ranks is that overwhelmingly these individuals have not been regular army career troops; rather, they have been volunteers and draftees who were in the army for the duration of a particular war. One possible exception comes from World War II: Private Theron W. McGann (white), married, IQ 118, age 23, of the 32nd Signal Construction Battalion, was hanged in France on November 20, 1944, for the nighttime rape at gunpoint of Madame Yvone Emilienne Fugenia Vaudevire on August 5, 1944. McGann had previously served in the Oregon National Guard, 162nd Infantry (U.S. v. Theron W. McGann 1944). Arguably, this does not qualify him as a member of the regular army, but he did have previous military experience.


Because the U.S. military was racially segregated until 1948, race illuminates much about who was executed during the 20th century. During World War II, nearly 80% of the 70 soldiers executed in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were black, even though black soldiers constituted only approximately 10% of the troops. The exact racial distribution of the 35 American military personnel who were executed during World War I, between April 6, 1917 and June 30, 1919, is unknown (U.S. War Department 1919: 674; U.S. Congress 1923). However, 25 of these 35 executions took place within the United States, and of those, at least 17 involved black soldiers. Of these 17 black soldiers, 13 were executed in August 1917 for participating in a riot in Houston, Texas (U.S. Committee on Public Relations 1917; Haynes 1976). During 1918, 3 more blacks were hanged for “‘assaulting and outraging’ a 17-year-old white girl on the cantonement grounds” (“Whole Army Division” 1918). Of 11 more soldiers executed during World War I in France, 8 (73%) were black.

Types of Offenses

Throughout U.S. history, soldiers have been executed for crimes specific to the military, such as desertion, mutiny, and cowardice. They have also been executed for misdeeds defined as felonies by civilian authorities that are also prohibited by military law, such as murder and rape. During the American Revolutionary War, General George Washington approved hundreds of executions, some for desertion (Daniel Hearn, personal communication, May 26, 2002). On April 23, 1779, Privates Richard Hollowell and John Williams were shot at Washington’s Morristown, New Jersey, camp for repeated desertion. During the American Civil War, according to Alotta (1989), more than “275 men were executed for military offenses by the Union Army, whether guilty or not” (p. 186). More than half of these deaths resulted from charges of desertion alone or from this offense and others, including cowardice. No soldier was executed for desertion again until World War II.

The U.S. Army has not executed any soldiers since 1961, when Private John A. Bennett (black) was hanged for raping an 11-year-old white girl in Austria. Fisher (1988) has made an unsubstantiated claim that Bennett is the only U.S. soldier ever to be executed for rape during peacetime. During World War I, the U.S. Army did not execute any soldiers for purely military offenses. In 1923, Colonel W. A. Bethel, judge advocate, concluded that this was evidence “of the good conduct and discipline of the American soldiers who served abroad in the World War” (U.S. Congress 1923:ix).

A complete listing of the capital crimes for U.S. service members is contained in the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. A total of 15 offenses carry the death penalty, although that punishment applies to many of the offenses only in time of war.2 Since the time of the American Revolutionary War, the number of capital offenses has generally increased through the enlargement of military jurisdiction rather than through the creation of more death penalty offenses (Dwight H. Sullivan, personal communication, 2002). Execution for espionage in time of peace under Article 106a is an exception to this general rule. Also, currently there is some doubt as to whether the use of the death penalty in a case of the rape of an adult woman during an attempted murder is constitutional (Jackson 1986).


Military Installations

During times of both war and peace, American military executions have almost invariably been held at military installations, except for naval executions at sea (Valle 1980). The executions approved by General Washington are thought to have occurred outdoors on parade grounds at military camps or forts (Daniel Hearn, personal communication, May 26, 2002). The same practice appears to have been followed by the Union Army, according to one historian’s account (Alotta 1989:24-25). The major symbolic purpose of these executions was discipline by example.

The places where many of the 35 World War I executions were carried out are unknown, but we do know that at least the 17 of these that took place on U.S. soil were conducted outdoors within the confines of military camps before several, if not all, of the soldiers stationed there. An exception to this practice occurred in Gievres, France, where a white soldier’s execution for murder took place in secrecy “as far as possible…at a distant point…not to disturb the activities of a busy camp” (U.S. Congress 1923:v).

During World War II, 18 American soldiers were executed at a 400-year-old prison in Shepton Mallet, a small town near Bath in southern England, for offenses committed in Ireland, England, and Wales. Except for two soldiers who were shot, these men were hanged inside a small, two-story, red-brick attachment built specifically by the U.S. Army for putting soldiers to death at rope’s end.3

Crime Scenes

U.S. military executions in France during World War II occurred at one of two places—either inside a military prison, if the victim was a member of the military, or semipublicly, at or very near the scene of the crime, if the victim was a civilian, depending on the conditions of war. After being driven in a command car from Seine Disciplinary Training Center, Private Thomas W. McGann went to his death by hanging in a courtyard off the main highway in the northern section of Saint-Lô, Manche, France. The site was a short distance from where he had raped Madame Vaudevire (U.S. v. Theron W. McGann 1944; Emmett Bailey, Jr., personal communication, February 23, 1998). The building adjacent to the gallows had been bombed—only the walls were left standing. A hedge screened the northern side of the gallows, and a stone wall enclosed the rear area. According to one eyewitness account, as the chaplain intoned a prayer, “the rain soaked masonry wall began to crumble and collapse toward the assembled witnesses” (Bailey 1986).

The semipublic executions that were carried out in France delivered two important messages: that any misbehavior that seriously threatened military discipline would be dealt with harshly, and that the local populace could be reassured that the U.S. Army was mindful of the importance of good public relations and could be trusted to use strong efforts to keep its soldiers in line.5 Sometimes the U.S. Army invited French civilians and local authorities to witness executions so that they could convey these messages to others after the offender’s death. McGann’s execution is illustrative. In addition to the army’s 10-member execution team, 18 “Authorized Spectators” from the U.S. Army and 10 Frenchmen were in attendance. The latter group included 6 gendarmes from Saint-Lô (U.S. v. Theron W. McGann 1944). The rape victim’s name does not appear on the witness list, but Sergeant Emmett Bailey was there, and he recalls that she was standing nearby (personal communication, February 23, 1998). In a terse letter from the First U.S. Army Headquarters dated December 11, 1944, the victim was informed that the commanding general expressed his regret for McGann’s offense and that he wished to thank her for her cooperation. The letter also informed her that McGann was hanged by the neck until dead.

The execution of U.S soldiers at the scenes of their crimes, as was done in France, was a practice that had been used earlier in the North African Theater of Operation (NATO). Eight days after American forces invaded Sicily on July 9, 1943, Privates Harvey Stroud, Armstead White, Willie A. Pittman, and David White entered without invitation the house of Giovanni Morana at Marretta, near Gela, Sicily. In the house were Morana, his wife, their 3-year-old child, and their nephew and some other relatives who were visiting. The soldiers (all of whom were black) compelled the nephew and other relatives to leave the house, after which each of the soldiers in turn raped Giovanni’s wife, Giovianana Incatasciato Morana, forcing her husband and daughter to watch the assaults. The soldiers were apprehended and were subsequently hanged in the vicinity of Gela on August 30, 1943 (U.S. v. Pvt. Harvey Stroud 1943).

Selection Process

Field Executions

Not all, probably not most, soldiers executed by their commanders in the Western world during the 20th century had the benefit of trials, nor were they likely executed with any thoughts about public relations. During World War II, approximately 10,000 German soldiers were executed in the field along the Russian front for a wide range of offenses, including the loss or misuse of equipment, desertion, and cowardice (Batov 2002). Stragglers, and especially deserters, who were caught wandering aimlessly and unable to explain their behavior were usually shot or hanged by the side of the road as examples to other retreating individual troops or units (Sajer 1972:335; Neumann 1958:243-45).

Peter Neumann, who had been a member of an SS unit, wrote in 1958 how, toward the end of the war, he and others had been ordered to “arrest all deserters and shoot them immediately, in case of resistance” (pp. 243-45). He described one incident involving a Mercedes containing a captain and two other officers that was stopped at a roadblock:

Abject fear is written all over the faces of the three men. They are obviously Staff Officers who, having no effective command, must have decided to head for Minsk off their own bats. But at a time when all of our resources should be mustered to try and hold the Bolsheviks, it is nothing more or less than treason to run away without fighting. (P. 245)

Unable to convince Neumann and his unit that they were not running away, the officers were led to a field down the road and shot to death with machine pistols.

Mass Executions

Military history is replete with large-scale incidents of mutiny, desertion, cowardice, and retaliation that led to mass executions. As Bryant (1979) states, “Perhaps the most infamous of these was the sepoy mutiny in British India, which began in [May] 1857” (p. 166). Among other things that led to this mutiny was what the native Indian soldiers (sepoys) saw as yet another example of foreigners’ lack of sensitivity toward them and their culture. The British, already the subject of smoldering resentment in India, contributed to the mutiny by introducing a new piece of technology—the Lee-Enfield rifle. To load the rifle, a sepoy had to first bite off the end of the cartridge, which was well greased with a combination of beef and pork fat. Because the Koran holds pork to be unclean, and because Hindus hold the cow as scared, the sepoys protested that having to touch this fat with their mouths constituted pollution to their bodies. The manufacturer of the rifle had not anticipated offending two dominant religious groups, nor had the British plotted to use the grease as a means of the assaulting the groups’ faiths, but this situation nevertheless contributed to an outbreak of rebellion among the sepoys. The first incident occurred at a military base in Meerut, where some native soldiers murdered their officers and departed for Delhi. Within a few weeks the rebellion spread quickly, with similar occurrences across the province of Oudh. In some instances British officers’ wives and children were attacked. The brutality was horrific, and it came to include other European men, women, and children as well.

Despite evidence that some of the mutinous sepoys had refused to carry out any mass butchering of women and children, and the fact that some of the killings were committed by mercenaries, the British army overreacted. Some of the mutineers who were captured were subsequently court-martialed and either hanged or shot. Others were executed by being blown from the muzzle of a cannon.

During World War I, in the spring of 1917, the French army faced serious problems with soldiers fleeing in the face of the enemy and deserting. The French military authorities conducted courts-martial aplenty and meted out severe punishments, but the effects were minimal. At one point, in hopes of instilling discipline, the army executed representative soldiers from various units based on a lottery (Keegan 1976:275-77). The British experienced a similar problem during World War I, but did not execute any soldiers based on a lottery (Putkowski and Syles 1989; Babington 1983; Corns and Hughes-Wilson 2001).

During the American Civil War, Confederate partisan leader John Singleton Mosby used a lottery to select 7 out of 27 Union soldiers for execution without trial near the northern Virginia village of Rectortown. Mosby took this action as a proportionate retaliation for “the similar execution on September 22, 1864, of seven members of his command by members of the Union Army” (Boyle 1994:148). Of the Union soldiers Mosby selected, one escaped en route to the Union lines, where Mosby wanted them hanged so that “the sight of their dangling corpses would create the greatest possible effect on the Union soldiers” (Boyle 1994:148).


On Land

To date, army executions have relied on hanging and shooting—the needle has yet to be utilized. General George Washington is believed to have reserved hanging for enemy spies and used shooting for military personnel, notably deserters. Traditionally, hanging has been considered the more ignominious method because it causes greater suffering and is less instantaneous than shooting. During the Civil War, the Union Army used both methods of execution almost equally in cases of murder and rape. Soldiers convicted of desertion, pillaging, spying, or mutiny were almost always shot (Alotta 1989:192-201). Of the approximately 112 soldiers executed for desertion from the Union Army, 100 (89%) were shot.

During World War I, the U.S. Army continued to use the rope for nonmilitary offenses—each of the 11 executions carried out was accomplished by hanging. This method was used predominantly throughout World War II’s ETO. Only 6 of the 70 soldiers executed there were shot—all others were hanged. In England there was one exception to the tradition of executing soldiers who had committed offenses that could be defined narrowly as military crimes. Private David Cobb (black) disobeyed an order to give up his rifle and shot Second Lieutenant Robert J. Cobner (white) while Cobb was on guard duty. He was hanged at Shepton Mallet on March 12, 1943. Almost a year later, on March 5, 1944, Private Alex F. Miranda (white) shot First Sergeant Thomas Evison through the forehead because, Miranda said, Evison was snoring too loudly. Miranda was subsequently executed at Shepton Mallet, but, unlike Cobb, he was shot, as was Private Benjamin Pygate (black), who had stabbed Private First Class James Alexander (black) to death in an intraracial fight following the closing of a pub. It is unclear why Cobb was executed by hanging. Was it because he was black in the then-segregated U.S. Army? According to some circa 1990s recollections that I encountered in Shepton Mallet, it is possible that hanging was preferred because the sound of a rifle shot within the prison walls disturbed and offended members of the local public, who were just on the other side of the prison walls when the noisy, nasty deed was done. The method of execution, it must be noted, was recommended during sentencing at the court-martial—prison authorities probably had little control over this matter.

During World War II, desertion, although potentially a capital offense, was always punished with imprisonment or dismissal, with one famous exception—the case of Private Eddie D. Slovik (white). Out of more than 4,000 desertions prosecuted by the U.S. Army in the ETO, only Slovik, a small-framed, poorly educated Polish American from Michigan, was executed (Huie 1954). The circumstances of Slovik’s crime and death are illustrative of the power of contextual explanations and the symbolic value of punishment. Slovik deserted Company G, 109th Infantry, twice, once between August 25, 1944 and October 4, 1994 and again on October 8-9, 1944. During his absence, his company was engaged in combat against Germany soldiers in Belgium. On November 11, 1944, Slovik was found guilty of desertion. He was executed, shot to death, on January 31, 1945, at Sainte-Marie aux Mines, France.

What was a rather routine desertion in October 1944 took on greater significance as the U.S. Army continued to fight the Germans during the winter of 1944 in the Ardennes campaign against what was Hitler’s final counteroffensive in northwest Europe. Launched in the severe winter of December 1944, it quickly became known as the Battle of the Bulge. With astonishing mobility, the U.S. Army was successful in what Churchill called the greatest American battle of the war, and with its victory hastened Germany’s defeat later in early May 1945. However, the human cost for the United States was the highest for any its World War II battles. Estimates of American casualties at the Battle of the Bulge vary from 80,000 to 100,000. Weigley (1981), one of the foremost U.S. military historians, claims that “the total American casualties in the Ardennes battle was 80,987” (p. 574). Of this number, 10,276 were killed or died from their wounds.

It has been argued that during the years between the beginning of World War II and the Battle of the Bulge, U.S. military authorities in Europe became increasingly hardened against deserters. By late 1944, military prisons and jails were full of deserters and soldiers who had gone AWOL, and the army needed men who in the early years of the war had been rejected as unfit to serve. Indeed, Slovik had been rejected by the U.S. Army, only to be drafted later. It was within these shifting circumstances that Slovik’s refusal to fight provided the U.S. Army with a timely opportunity to use execution as a deterrent to future desertions.

Shipboard Executions

Although significantly less numerous than army executions—no more than 17 American sailors and marines have been executed since 1849—shipboard executions are an important dimension of capital punishment in the military (Valle 1980:102-42). Historically, capital crimes at sea have involved acts that posed real and imminent danger to the well-being of a vessel, its command, and its crew. In addition, shipboard discipline has often appeared to be rash, cruel, and inhumane, even by military standards.

Mutiny, or suspected mutiny, has been the offense that has led to most of the shipboard executions in the U.S. Navy. The 19th-century “Somers affair” is illustrative. On a return trip from Africa to New York in late November 1842, Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie of the new U.S. Navy brig Somers was informed that Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer and two others were plotting to kill the ship’s officers and use the ship for piracy. Three days later, on December 1, 1842, without trial but based on his officers’ unanimous opinion that the three should be put to death, Mackenzie had Spencer and the other two suspects hanged (Valle 1980:108-10). Because of laws enacted before 1800, as well as one enacted in 1800, that required conviction by court-martial before the death penalty could be inflicted, these executions were illegal. A court of inquiry exonerated Mackenzie, however, and later a court-martial acquitted him on a split vote in what today we would call a whitewash. Philip Spencer, who was executed on the Somers, was the 17-year-old son of Secretary of War John C. Spencer.

Mutiny is not the only capital shipboard crime. Interestingly, prior to 1861 sodomy was a death crime in the British Royal Navy, although it is not a capital offense today. On February 1, 1861, four crew members on the HMS Africaine were hanged for sodomy on the orders of the ship’s captain, Edward Rodney. No American sailor or soldier has been executed for sodomy, but many have been court-martialed and dismissed for this behavior, including Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin, the first soldier dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality. He was drummed out of the army on March 11, 1778, at the Grand Parade in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (Shilts 1993:11).

Shipboard executions of sailors and marines have always involved hanging, as far as I have been able to determine, with one notable exception. In A.D. 1190, King Richard I published an ordinance that spelled out six offenses for which the Crusaders would be punished; two of these carried penalties of death: “Whoever shall slay a man on ship board, he shall be bound to the dead man and thrown into the sea. If he shall slay him on land he shall be bound to the dead man and buried in the earth” (quoted in Loving v. United States 1996:761).


During and since the Revolutionary War, the executions of American soldiers have been carried out by U.S. military personnel, with two well-documented exceptions. Before the U.S. Army developed its own group of hangmen in World War II’s ETO, it relied on the professional skills of England’s Home Office official civilian hangmen. Among others, these men included Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew Albert, who conducted most of the first 17 executions in the ETO (Pierrepoint 1977; Lilly 1996; Lilly and Thomson 1997). Firing squads, although relatively rare, were made up of noncommissioned enlisted men commanded by an officer. Hangmen, by comparison, were usually prison commandants with officer rank in the ETO and other World War II theaters of operation.


The interments of the 70 soldiers executed in the European Theater of Operations and the combined 26 put to death in the North African Theater of Operations and the Mediterranean Theater of Operations illustrate that ignominious deaths suggest ignominious burials. The 18 American soldiers executed at Shepton Mallet were at first buried in unconsecrated land located “backstage,” on the outside perimeter and adjacent to tool sheds and a compost heap in the large Brookwood Cemetery in London. Those executed in France, Algeria, and Italy were also initially buried in graves separated from those who had died honorably (Lilly 1996).

At war’s end, the bodies of most of these executed soldiers were exhumed and reinterred in a walled-off, secret section of the World War I Oise-Anise American Cemetery in Fere-en Tadenonis, France. Approximately 5 were sent home to their next of kin. David Cobb was the first U.S. soldier executed in England, and both his mother and his estranged wife requested that his body be returned. It arrived on March 31, 1949, and was reburied in the North Highland Street Cemetery in Dothan, Alabama. The body of executed deserter Eddie Slovik was returned to the United States in 1987. The final places of burial for all of the other executed U.S. soldiers during World War II include the post cemeteries at Clark Air Force Base in Luzon, Philippine Islands (20 soldiers), various post cemeteries within the United States (25 soldiers), and the post cemetery at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii (5 soldiers). In addition, 6 executed soldiers are buried in various private cemeteries within the United States.

A small number of the soldiers who have been buried in cemeteries for World War II’s dishonorable troops were not executed, however. Louis E. Garbus was scheduled to be executed in a Brisbane gas chamber on March 5, 1943, for the rape of a 10-year-old girl. Instead, he killed himself by taking cyanide. He is buried at the Schofield Barracks post cemetery in Hawaii. Sergeant Willie Hall and Private E. Lewis were convicted of killing T/5 G. Robinson on January 16, 1944, in Bizerte, Tunisa, and were sentenced to life confinement. Before he could begin his sentence at the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, however, Hall died, probably at the NATO U.S. Army Disciplinary Training Center in Casablanca, French Morocco. He is buried in France. Lewis was released from the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, in December 1952. Joseph J. Mahoney (NATO) was convicted in September 1943 of sodomy against a 13-year-old boy in Palma di Montechiaro, Sicily. He was sentenced to 5 years at the U.S. penitentiary in Lewisburg, but for reasons currently unknown he died and never made the journey to the United States. Mahoney was interred first at El Alia Cemetery in Algiers, and his body was later moved to France.

How Many

The U.S. Army executed relatively few of its own soldiers in the past century compared with Britain and France. During World War I alone, France executed approximately 600 soldiers, mostly for mutiny and desertion. Some historians think the actual number is greater, because during a retreat of Allied troops in 1914, summary executions occurred on the battlefield, as well as deaths by officers shooting their own men. Britain’s military reportedly put 346 of its own to death during World War I (Corns and Hughes-Wilson 2001).9 Canada, by comparison, executed 23 soldiers during same war, all for desertion. The U.S. Army has carried out at least 459 executions since the last U.S. Navy execution in 1849 (Sullivan 1998). In the 20th century, the U.S. military terminated approximately 160 of its soldiers—none by summary execution (U.S. Department of Justice 1992).

Conclusions: The Future?

One of the more striking features of First World Western nations during the past 100 years has been their abandonment of the power to execute citizens. This raises interesting and perplexing questions about the future of intermilitary executions. Put simply, will the armed forces of these nations continue to execute their own members? On the one hand, there is the time-honored argument that the military is a unique institution whose emphasis on efficiency through discipline requires the availability of executions as an essential element of social control, especially during war. However, there is mounting evidence that this logic is less convincing today than it has been in the past.

Military Executions: Little Used and Ineffective

Because interand intramilitary executions are extremely rare, it is difficult for anyone to point to the use of such executions as an efficient tool for maintaining discipline and deterring crime. Of the 266,785 British soldiers convicted of military offenses during World War I, for example, only 2,675 were sentenced to death, and only 276 (10%) were actually executed (Davies 1996:352). During World War II, the U.S. Army sentenced 443 soldiers to death in the European Theater of War, but only 70 (16%) were executed. The United States has not executed a soldier for a military offense in nearly 60 years, and Great Britain has not executed a soldier since before World War II.

Furthermore, there is no empirical evidence that the use of executions makes any difference in the efficiency or effectiveness of fighting armies. As Davies (1996) has pointed out, during World War I the Australians “fought bravely and effectively, despite lower standards of formal discipline and the absence of a deterrent death sentence for those who stepped out of line” (p. 350).

Abandoning Military Executions

Some nations, including Canada (1998) and the United Kingdom (2001), have abandoned military executions. Although at first glance this development may appear to have little if any implication for the U.S. military, as Sullivan and Fidell (2002) note, “no factor is likely to affect U.S. military justice more powerfully during the coming century than internationalization” (p. xxiii). As the United States continues to maintain troops abroad, the U.S. military will increasingly be subject to the human rights norms of its host nations. According to Sullivan and Fidell, “Some European nations have already indicated a reluctance to turn over U.S. servicemembers for trial by death-eligible courts martial” (p. xxiii). The United States will also likely find it increasingly difficult to prevent its peacekeeping soldiers from being called before the new International Criminal Court. At the time of this writing, the Bush administration views the new global court as a threat to national sovereignty, whereas many European critics view U.S. resistance to the court as an indication of opposition to universal human rights law. Whatever the outcome of this issue, it is all but certain that the U.S. military has conducted its last capital court-martial on European soil (Sullivan and Fidell 2002:xxiii).

There is little doubt that the world learned more about military executions during the late 20th and early 21st centuries than at any previous time. The reason for this is that the wars of the 20th century, especially World Wars I and II, are relatively recent, well documented, often controversial, and interesting enough to a number of broad audiences to encourage ongoing amateur and professional research. One important additional contribution to the military execution learning curve in recent years has been the availability of material on the Internet, especially the existence of Web sites devoted to the topics of military executions and civilian capital punishment (see, for example, (Of course, researchers should approach the material presented on such Web sites with considerable caution; depending on the source, it may be incomplete or misleading.)

Interest in military executions continues to expand, in part because, with the benefit of hindsight and close examination, we can increasingly understand these deaths as an integral part of the great human tragedy—war. As we know so well from recent research on wrongful death convictions in civil society, innocent soldiers undoubtedly have been found guilty of and executed for crimes they did not commit.