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Author with local roots makes case for military history

Chris Bray loves two things most in the world. The first is his family. The second is digging through archives, feeling history come to life as he sifts through old papers and artifacts.

Mr. Bray—a 2002 Pitzer graduate, onetime COURIER reporter and author—began diving into the latter pleasure in 2008. He was in Worcester, Massachusetts, working on a project at the American Antiquarian Society, when he decided to take a walk. One of the buildings he passed was labeled Massachusetts Military Archive.

“I thought, what the heck, I’ll go see what’s in there,” he said. “I started randomly flicking through stuff and came across a bunch of courts-martial.”

Mr. Bray spent the afternoon poring through records that were “just incredible.” One of his finds, mixed up with the Massachusetts papers, was the record of an 1817 Rhode Island court-martial.

It involved a man named Robert Cranston who, when called upon, served as captain of the Artillery Company of Newport. In his personal life he was a social climber, moving from one elected position to the next. So when he was asked to throw an unofficial dockside reception for the governor of Rhode Island, he agreed.

Mr. Cranston borrowed a US Army band and asked them to play a Rhode Island favorite as the governor’s ship pulled into the harbor. The band didn’t know the tune. When the captain urged them to play anything with a military flair, the drummer began beating the signal for a military retreat.

Mr. Cranston quickly requested a more appropriate tune, but the damage had been done. With an election for his office looming the next day, the Federalist governor decided the band had played a refrain of defeat to mock him, under the direction of a Republican captain.

Called before a court-martial, Mr. Cranston insisted the gaffe was inadvertent, and noted the incident took place when he was out of uniform. A man is a private citizen until the moment he is in the role of soldier, he asserted.

At that time, every white man between 18 and 45 could be conscripted by the militia at any time. Given that reality, Mr. Cranston argued it would set a dangerous precedent for him to be tried as a soldier. 

“In theory, at least, every man who owed an occasional militia duty could see his entire life brought under the threat of military punishment,” Mr. Bray wrote in his 2016 book, Court-Martial: How Military Justice Has Shaped America from the Revolution to 9/11 and Beyond.

The court took Mr. Cranston’s point and dismissed the case. This court-martial embodies a question that has arisen throughout the history of US  military law: “Where does the soldier begin and the private citizen end?”

The Cranston case was just one of countless intriguing courts-martial records lodged at the Massachusetts Military archives. “There was so much going on there, such a saturation of material, and no one was looking at the records. So I threw out my dissertation and started writing about that.” 

Mr. Bray, then a doctoral candidate at UCLA, returned several times to the Massachusetts Military Archives. He also haunted archives in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut as he put together a thesis about the early militia in New England.

In those days, a defendant couldn’t address the members of a court-martial during the proceedings. At the end of the trial, the defendant was asked to write a defense statement to be turned in by the next morning, which an official would read to the court. Those defenses, many as long as 30 handwritten pages, still carry an emotional charge. 

“They tore through the paper with their pen, they wrote so hard. They’re defending their honor,” Mr. Bray said. “This man stayed up all night writing, and you get to hold it in your hands and read it. That, to me, has always been an incredible privilege.”

Mr. Bray had planned to become a professor, and expected to adapt his dissertation into a scholarly monograph, to be published through a university press. After receiving his doctorate in 2012, he even taught a few classes at UCLA and at Pitzer College.

“I looked at the craziness of the academic world and decided to run away from it,” he said. “It’s an insane culture and I don’t want to be a part of it. The letter the students at Pomona College wrote to David Oxtoby is a perfect example of it. So are students preventing Heather Mac Donald from speaking and students preventing Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury and attacking a professor for hosting him.”

Mr. Bray has done a considerable amount of writing over the years, from book reviews for the Washington Post to op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. His first shot at journalism, however, was helming the city desk at the COURIER for an eventful eight months in 2003. “I loved that moment,” he said of his tenure at Claremont’s newspaper of record. 

The gig was sandwiched between his first term of military service and graduate school at UCLA.

“It was the end of the Irvin Landrum shooting—all that winding down and being settled. Those were the waning days of the Glen Southard period. It was a moment when a bunch of old-line folks on the city council were booted out of office.”

Mr. Bray decided to extend his thesis into a commercial book about the history of US courts-martial and he garnered interest, and a modest advance, from W.W. Norton & Company.

He resumed examining historical records, and describes one thrilling moment while immersed in the Florida state military archives.

“These very old judicial records are folded in fours and then bound with string. I pulled the string on a quarto, and the string crumbled into dust,” he recalled. “The paper was dark orange on the outside, but when I cracked it open it was creamy white on the inside.”

Mr. Bray relished writing for the general public. “There’s nothing I’ve ever hated more than the way academics are expected to write,” he said.

Free of academic jargon, Mr. Bray has created a vivid account of military judicial proceedings that echo, and sometimes precede, wider societal movements.

Some cases he describes—like the courts-martial that followed the My Lai massacre and the 1944 court-martial of future Dodger Jackie Robinson for refusing to move to the back of a military bus—are relatively well-known.

The book touches on myriad courts-martial, however, that will be new to the reader—cases involving everything from desertion to sexual misconduct to murder.

In one 1945 case, black members of the Women’s Army Corps assigned to a Massachusetts military hospital were given the duties of unskilled orderlies despite being trained medical technicians. The women went on strike, with four maintaining their stance even after being threatened with execution.

When they were sentenced to a year’s hard labor and dishonorable discharge, organizations like the fledgling NAACP and ACLU sprang into action. Between their protests, unfavorable press coverage—and concern about a potential widespread decline in morale among black servicemen—the military court dismissed the sentences.

Mr. Bray’s book also contains records of a post-Colonial culture, where one Federalist officer refused to cut his powdered coiffure, and Civil War courts-martial where officers argued that common soldiers couldn’t be punished for dueling because dueling was a gentleman’s occupation.

Mr. Bray lives in Los Angeles with his wife Ann, a TV writer, and their 9-year-old daughter Madeline. He plans to follow up his literary debut with shorter books focusing on individual courts-martial. He is currently pitching a book about the four World War II WACs who made a brave stand against discrimination.

“I think it’s such fascinating stuff and no one else is writing about it,” Mr. Bray said. “I read an interview with a journalist 20 years ago—he’d won some prize—and he said his only advice to journalists was to go to a place no one is talking about and say something about it.”

Court-Martial is available on Amazon and through most commercial book retailers.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com