The Laws Governing Military Service Personnel in the United States

How Military Justice Operates in America

Military LawSoldiers must not only obey their commanders but also observe various other laws to ensure that their behavior is in the best interests of our country. Members of the armed forces are subject to the same state and federal laws as all U.S. citizens, but they’re also governed by military law. The primary objectives of military law are to promote and ensure discipline, order, and morale.

History of Military Law

The area of military law consists of federal laws that apply to the military and military personnel. In the United States, separate laws addressing the armed forces were put in place as early as 1775, when General George Washington helped the Second Continental Congress draft and enact the Articles of War. Under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the authority to “make rules for the government and regulation of land and naval forces.” The first statutory code of military justice was enacted in 1806. All members of the American Armed Forces are now governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the UCMJ), passed by Congress in 1951.

Uniform Code of Military Justice

The UCMJ governs the conduct of all active-duty members of the armed forces, including officers and enlisted personnel. It provides rules and penalties for civilian, as well as military crimes, including the following:

  • High crimes and misdemeanors—perjury, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, dereliction of duty, failure to supervise, conduct unbecoming of an officer, and refusal to obey a lawful order
  • Ordinary crimes—larceny, robbery, fraud, sexual offenses, and assault
  • Offenses involving non-judicial punishment—Article 15 of the UCMJ addresses minor breaches of discipline. Typically, the commander of a unit will hear evidence regarding the imposition of sanctions under Article 15, but the matter will not be heard by a military tribunal. Penalties include reprimands, extra duty, loss of pay, loss of rank, and restriction or loss of privileges.

The military courts are referred to as courts-martial, and conviction in a military court is referred to as a court-martial conviction. Such a conviction may be appealed through the military court system, including an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and the United States Supreme Court. Depending on the offense, a court-martial conviction can result in incarceration, discharge under less than honorable circumstances, dishonorable discharge, dismissal of an officer, or even a death sentence.

Persons Subject to Military Law in the United States

The provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice apply to all active-duty members of all branches of the military, including the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard, as well as the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Commissioned Officers Corps and the Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps. It also applies to any reserve or National Guard members who are activated for duty, as well as former active-duty members receiving military retirement benefits.

Unique Offenses Under American Military Law

Though members of the armed forces can be charged with crimes applicable to non-military personnel, there are a number of violations that are unique to the military and which are frequently the basis of military prosecutions:

  • Refusal to follow/comply with orders or for dereliction of duty (Article 92)
  • Failure to show proper military respect, or respect for chain of command
  • Conduct unbecoming of an officer (Article 133)
  • Desertion or absence without permission or leave (AWOL)
  • Adultery or extramarital affairs (considered harmful to good discipline and order) (Article 134)


Though military personnel in the United States are subject to state, local, and federal civilian laws, they are also subject to specific rules that apply only to members of the armed forces. Those rules are generally contained in the UCMJ, and violation of the provisions of the UCMJ may lead to discharge, incarceration, demotions, or even the death penalty. In addition, the military has its own judicial system, where military personnel are subject to court-martial and conviction.

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