THE COURT MARTIAL of Pfc. Robert A. Garwood is not likely to find a place among the Marines Corps' most shining hours. It is a tragic episode, although possibly it was an unavoidable one, in the aftermath of a war most people would like to forget. But, like that war, this court-martial raises questions that are not very accommodating, that will not go away simply because they are inconvienient to think about.
Once his trial began, the conviction of Private Garwood was almost inevitable. He did not dispute the evidence that he collaborated with the enemy while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. His only defense was that his mind had been so distorted during two years of isolated captivity that he should not be held legally responsible for his acts. That would be a difficult defense for any military jury to accept, and his jury, composed of five veterans of cambat in Vietnam, was no exception. Yet the verdict leaves some questions unanswered. For instance: Was this court-martial a large enough forum to deal adequately with the issues the case raised?Was Private Garwood, in that sense, treated fairly?
On one side is the need of the Marine Corps, and the other services, to a maintain the requirement that prisoners of war must resist, at all costs, efforts by their captors to turn against their fellow soliders. That is essential to both military morale and military security. No one can tolerate, let alone condone, an American solider's aiding an enemy during war time.
On the other side is the fact that the human will to resist can be broken, and the ability to resist varies from man to man. No one other than Private Garwood and some of his captors really knows what he from other American prisoners. Three psychiatrists testified they are certain that by the end of that time he had lost the mental ability to understand the criminality or the immorality of what he was doing.
What is the standard by which his, or any other POW's acts should be judged? How much brain-washing is required before a prisoner can be forgiven for repudiating the ideals and traditions of the service in which he was trained? Can the same standard of resistance to enemy pressure be applied to a senior officer, like Admiral Denton, and a 19-year-old recruit such as Pfc. Garwood? Do a soldier's early life and military training make a difference in his ability to resist. (Pfc. Garwood's history makes him appear to be a born loser.)
Perhaps these are matters that can more appropriately be considered in the selection of a sentence for Private Garwood than they could have been in the trial. Their exsistance points toward a light sentence; the vindication the Marine Corps sought for its traditions has been won through the conviction and cannot be strengthened by harsh punishment.
Certainly these questions must be considered as the conviction makes its way up the chain of appeals. The Garwood case privides an opportunity that should not be lost for the highest military authorities to define the standard of conduct that will be demanded of future POW's. It also offers them a chance to explain why Private Garwood was put on trial while others, including some career officers, accused of similar offenses, were not.