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Of Law and War

Jennawe Hughes / West Point


Walking into a dusty and seemingly abandoned courtroom in Tuz, Iraq, I shook my head, thinking to myself that Iraqis could not possibly understand the law. My naïve prejudices had blinded me to the truth—I was the one who didn’t understand law. The realization came as I turned the corner and saw a long line of local nationals standing outside the judge’s office, patiently waiting for their moment with him. They carried with them a list of grievances, ranging from criminal complaints to land and property disputes. In Iraq, the judge’s ruling was the embodiment of law.

Understanding the successful application of the rule of law was a critical component of my mission in Iraq, as well as during my deployment to Afghanistan. During one bleak winter’s day in Iraq, I remember watching helplessly as an injured soldier limped out of his damaged vehicle. With the assistance of my Iraqi partners, I was able to develop evidence and secure a warrant for the person responsible for the attack against my soldier. Later, as the suspect was driven to jail, it occurred to me that the most powerful weapon in my arsenal to be used against terrorists was not a rifle, but the proper application of the rule of law.

During my deployment to Afghanistan, the Afghans’ inability to keep insurgents in prison has exposed several flaws in their legal system. Establishing an effective judicial system that holds insurgents criminally liable for their actions was essential to the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The attorney and I helped accomplish this by merging our efforts in intelligence and law to redesign the arrest and search warrant forms. Under the system we put into place, Afghan security leaders had to demonstrate to the Afghan prosecutors that there was sufficient evidence to support an indictment. On several occasions, the progress we had made was jeopardized by others who were advising the Afghan police to obtain a warrant with little regard to ensuring the evidence would support a conviction. Their efforts in the end proved futile since they could not successfully prosecute any of their targets, thus demonstrating the importance of respecting local laws.

My studies at West Point and my experiences as an army officer have significantly altered my perception of the application of international law. During one of our final missions in Iraq, our convoy rolled past a series of villages that appeared to be frozen in time. Unlike the vast majority of villages we had traveled through, there was no group of eager children running to the vehicle hoping to get candy from soldiers, and there were no farmers in the fields or herders watching their livestock. The provincial mayor explained that these villages had been abandoned after Saddam Hussein’s regime launched a gas attack that killed hundreds of local Kurds. I could see the pain in his eyes as he recounted the horrors of watching his fellow Kurds desperately running away from the village. From my high school history class to my law classes at West Point, I have always been fascinated with the implementation of international law to prevent and deter acts of genocide. Witnessing the remnants of genocide had taken the subject from words in textbooks to real life experience.

Because of these profound encounters, I have developed an unbreakable determination to use the law to prevent acts such as genocide. Through my studies in law school, I wish to continue to serve my country as an attorney.