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JAGs Take a More Central Battlefield Role

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JAGs Take a More Central Battlefield Role


JAGs Take a More Central Battlefield Role

JAGs Take a More Central Battlefield Role

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The soldier-lawyers called JAGs (members of the military's Judge Advocate General Corps) are trained to offer legal advice in the heat of battle. These days, they're playing a far greater role than before in making combat decisions.


With the war in Iraq now its in fifth year, U.S. military lawyers are playing a more hands-on role. The men and women who make up the military's Judge Advocate General Corps, or known as JAGs, and they're advising American commanders on combat decisions.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the changing and growing role of JAGs at war.

(Soundbite of footsteps crunching through leaves)

ARI SHAPIRO: A small group of uniformed men and women are on patrol, cautiously making their way through a thicket of bare trees. Suddenly they see motion up ahead and drop to the ground.

Unidentified Man #1 (U.S. Army): You worry about IEDs when you've got guys digging in the ground there.

SHAPIRO: IEDs - improvised explosive devices. They decide to slowly approach.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello.

SHAPIRO: With their translator.

Unidentified Man #2 (Translator): (Foreign language spoken)

SHAPIRO: The strangers tell the troops they're not doing anything wrong.

Unidentified Man #2: He says that is the sheikh. He says the boss must speak to the sheikh.

SHAPIRO: As they approach, a man jumps out of the bushes with a gun. Mujahideen. The troops take him down. Chaos.

(Soundbite of many people yelling)

SHAPIRO: The sheikh's daughter runs away. The soldiers grab her. The sheikh's bodyguard raises his gun, and the Americans take their hands off the girl.

Unidentified Man #2: He says it's his sister. Do not hurt the sister.

Unidentified Man #3 (U.S. Army): We're not.

SHAPIRO: Finally, the simulation ends and the instructors gather everybody around.

Lieutenant Colonel MIKE LACEY(ph) (U.S. Army): All right; pretty good job, guys, pretty good job.

SHAPIRO: These soldiers are young military lawyers in their last week of training at the Judge Advocate General school in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through a series of simulations like this one, they're trying to translate their book knowledge to the chaos that they may find in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Lacey tells the students they made the right decision not to kill the sheikh's bodyguard.

Lt. Col. LACEY: It would not have necessarily been the wrong answer for you to shoot that guy once he leveled his weapon at you. That's probably hostile intent, but you used excellent judgment in knowing that the weapon came down once the female was threatened. That's why he took the weapon down and started pointing it, because they felt threatened.

SHAPIRO: The lessons here are not just about what's legal; they talk about what's culturally appropriate, what's strategically effective, and what makes sense in a counterinsurgency. Lacey says traditional Army training teaches that if there's a threat, you eliminate it.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Well there's a lot of threats out there that if you eliminate it you're going to up the ante. And if you kill this sheikh's son, who is his bodyguard, or kill the sheikh with the collateral damage, you have probably alienated this entire province, this entire region for the rest of the time you're here.

SHAPIRO: Well over half the lawyers in the Army have no military experience at all when they graduate from law school. So for someone like Matt Besmer, this culture is totally foreign.

Mr. MATT BESMER (U.S. Army): It was a difficult decision. It's been a difficult transition for me to go from my old civilian life - that sounds kind of funny for me to say - into this new military role, because it's pretty foreign to me. I didn't really have any family members or any real close friends that had ever been in the military before.

SHAPIRO: After the simulations, with adrenaline still pumping, Besmer says he has a better sense of the pressures soldiers are under as they try to follow his legal advice.

Mr. BESMER: It's kind of reinforcing, you know, how difficult it really must be for people who are over in a different, you know - in Iraq or Afghanistan - who are real - fighting and doing these exact same things in real life where it's not just pretend, but people are dying or, you know, losing limbs or being seriously injured.

SHAPIRO: Besmer and his classmates operate under the mantra soldier first, lawyer always. Brigadier General Butch Tate runs the Army JAG School. He says until recently JAGs didn't think of themselves as soldiers in combat, and neither did their bosses.

Brigadier General BUTCH TATE (U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School): When I started, commanders didn't quite know how to use us in a deployed environment.

SHAPIRO: JAGs handled military justice issues back on base - trials and legal paperwork. Tate says they still do that, but now…

Brig. Gen. TATE: Lawyers are embedded now closer to the ground commander than they've ever been before.

SHAPIRO: Lawyers may be advising their commanders on every decision in the field. Colonel Lacey says that means JAGs now have to be generalists on a massive scale.

Lt. Col. LACEY: He's giving the commander advice on military justice - you know, sir, you should court martial that guy. He is giving him environmental law advice. He is giving him advice on fiscal issues - you know, sir, you can use money to do that, but that is not what that money was appropriated for. He is giving him advice on the law of war. He is doing every area of the law that you could possibly imagine.

SHAPIRO: Lacey runs a 24-hour question and answer operation called CLAMO: the Center For Law And Military Operations. Military lawyer send in their questions from anywhere in the world and Lacey's team answers them. The school uses those questions to update the curriculum. So each batch of new students gets trained in the pressing issues of the day.

In the last few years, there have been lots of questions about detainees and interrogations. And then there are some thorny questions that have no good answer, like, what if your commander is advising an Iraqi mayor who wants to impose a curfew on his city. Iraqi law doesn't say what to do and U.S. law doesn't apply.

Col. LACEY: So you try to do law by analogy. You look to other sources of the law, like the European Human Rights Convention, and you try to draw out the best parts of that treaty and apply it to the situation in Iraq. Of course, you can't always apply it to an Iraqi mayor who's trying to do something. You have to try to convince him it's in his best interest to do the right thing. And that can be challenge too.

SHAPIRO: The JAG School in Charlottesville is specifically for Army lawyers. But in every branch of the military, JAGs are now in the thick of combat decision-making. Charlie Dunlap is the Air Force deputy JAG.

Major General CHARLIE DUNLAP (Air Force Deputy Judge Advocate General): The good news is the senior commanders very much value the advice of the judge advocates. The bad news is they very much value the advice of the judge advocates. And it puts a tremendous burden on us to make sure that we have people not only in conversant in the law, but expert in the military piece, the aircraft, and the weapons, and so forth, the strategies.

SHAPIRO: He says it's not a bunch of guys in pinstripes haggling over the legality of a bombing target.

Maj. Gen. DUNLAP: What really happens is you're sitting there in the command post, for example, and the commander will turn to you and ask you a question in what I call fighter pilot speak.

SHAPIRO: The commander expects an instantaneous response.

Maj. Gen. DUNLAP: And so you have to be that familiar not just with the law, but with the methodologies, the strategy, the weapons, and so forth, and munitions and what their effects are, so that you can get that instantaneous advice.

SHAPIRO: And the same shift has taken place in the Marines, where Gary Solis was a judge advocate. He now teaches law of war at Georgetown.

Dr. GARY SOLIS (Former Marine Judge Advocate; Professor, Georgetown University): We had one judge advocate, a Marine lieutenant colonel, who was shot three times investigating a suspected war crime.

SHAPIRO: When the military has high profile public failings like the Abu Ghraib abuses or the massacre at Haditha, JAGs investigate. They also ask whether the lawyers themselves could have prevented the failing by providing better training or more legal advise.

Mr. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Retired Air Force Jag; Professor, Duke University): Every one of these soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are advised on the law of war at least annually.

SHAPIRO: Retired Air Force JAG Scott Silliman runs the Center for Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University. He says failings will happen.

Mr. SILLIMAN: But nonetheless, we have the best trained armed force that we've ever had, and part of that training is to try to ensure that the law of war is factored into every single decision that's made. It's difficult, but nonetheless, that's the goal.

SHAPIRO: As demand for JAGs increases in the military, interest in the profession is increasing too. The Army brings in about 150 new lawyers a year. Last year, five times that number applied.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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