ISIS, the Laws of War, and Combat Lawyers

A thousand combat-loaded paratroopers leapt into the night in a recent exercise jump over Fort Polk, Louisiana, and among them was a slight, 37-year-old woman with a dark brown ponytail and black frame glasses.

Megan Wakefield. Major, United States Army. Paratrooper, 82nd Airborne Division.


When the U.S. military goes to war, its lawyers go up front. Their job is to help battle commanders conduct combat operations within the narrow and specific Laws of Land Warfare, the collection of binding international agreements and understandings that attempt to lessen the brutality of war and its impact on civilians.

It's a good-faith effort, even if it is imperfectly achieved. But it is one often cited by military commanders as a war-fighting essential. Counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, depended heavily on winning the support or at least the acquiescence of the local population. Considerate treatment of civilians paid off, for instance, as Afghan villagers began to tip off U.S. forces to IEDs and Taliban arms caches. On the flip side, it was al Qaeda's unprovoked atrocities against fellow Sunnis in Iraq's al-Anbar Province that led to the "Sunni Awakening," which drew tens of thousands of Sunni fighters to fight with Americans against al Qaeda.

It's also clear to me that the United States can't win on the battlefield unless its combat troops believe they are upholding the best American values, insofar as that is possible in war. At a minimum, this entails protecting and respecting civilians and avoiding wanton destruction of property.

But this practice of codifying moral standards in international law and integrating them into American combat operations may come under intense pressure in the looming struggle with the Islamic State militants. It's Mr. Fancypants confronting the schoolyard bully, except that in this case the bully beheads innocents for show, guns down its captives after raping the women and children, and uses women as sex slaves.

Maj. Wakefield's outfit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne, recently held 12 days of high-intensity war-fighting exercises at Fort Polk against 800 soldiers playing enemy forces resembling the Islamic State militants. The fighting at times was desperate. Crises tumbled atop crises as staff officers scrambled to manage dozens of firefights, coordinate air strikes and long-range artillery, and protect local civilians.

In the midst was Maj. Wakefield. In a sweltering corner of the tent that houses the brigade's Tactical Operations Center (TOC) she would listen intently to operations officers outlining planned missions: an enemy force with trucks and tanks to be destroyed with 155mm artillery fire; an enemy anti-aircraft missile position and dug-in heavy artillery to be destroyed; a cache of enemy weapons to be destroyed with one precision-guided bomb and four rounds of artillery.

Each planned mission prompted discussion among the staff officers, hollow-eyed from stress and sweating in their combat gear: how good is the intelligence identifying the target? Why is this a priority? Are there better ways to attack? When is moonrise -- how dark will it be? How far away is the enemy?

When Maj. Wakefield clears her throat, heads swivel. She too has questions: are the human targets positively identified as enemies? Are they demonstrating hostile intent? Because if not, you can't engage, she reminds them. And if you can engage, should you?

Then there is the issue of proportionality, she reminds them. You're not allowed to use excessive force when lesser force will get the job done. As the U.S. Field Manual on the law of land warfare puts it, "loss of life and damage to property must not be out of proportion to the military advantage to be gained" in any operation.

None of the seasoned combat officers quite rolls his eyes at this, but it's possible a slight chill has settled over the table. Any combat soldier wants to put as much punishing force on the enemy as possible. No one wants a "fair fight" when American lives are at risk. And certainly, the cold-blooded murderers who fight for the Islamic State militias in Iraq and Syria would scoff at such a fastidious approach to warfare.

But the U.S. military is betting that its decades-long effort to operate within the Laws of War will pay off. The conviction that ethical conduct is essential to successful combat operations is thoroughly engrained in this generation of war-fighters.

Even with that history behind her, Maj. Wakefield is no finger-wagging schoolmarm. She offers her advice in the form of questions, always delivered with a disarming smile. Around the brigade TOC, she is known as "Smiles." And her advice is heard.

Wakefield grew up outside Houston, in Cypress, Tex. and went to college at Penn State, where on a whim she took an ROTC course in military history. She was the only one in the class not wearing a uniform, but she found it fascinating. "I've always been a military history buff," she told me. She followed the law instead, getting her degree at the University of Richmond (Va.) law school. But when hijacked planes were flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, she knew her place was in the military.

She interned at the nearby U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School, in Charlottesville, Va. Eventually the JAG school hired her to teach young Army lawyers. That wasn't close enough to the action, and one day her boss happened to mention there was an open slot at the Army's airborne school at Fort Benning. She literally jumped at the chance. She deployed twice to Iraq as a trial defense counsel and served as the chief of military justice at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. before finding her dream job as a paratrooper-lawyer with the 82nd Airborne.

She is passionate about both aspects of her job, jumping and lawyering. "Being in the Army gives you a lot of confidence -- that if I can do this, I can do anything," she said. "Being a paratrooper for me is a huge source of pride."

Wakefield's unit, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne, goes on high alert this month as the "ready brigade" of the U.S. Global Response Force. That's an eight-month mission, shared on a rotating basis among the 82nd Airborne's brigades, requiring the paratroopers to be airborne toward battle within 18 hours of receiving orders.

Should ground troops be needed in Iraq or Syria, the 2nd Brigade would be at the top of the list. And if they go, they will take their lawyer with them.