By Dave Hendrick
Lieutenant General Charles Pede, the 40th Judge Advocate General of the United States Army, leads what he refers to as “the oldest and largest law firm in the United States.” The Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps — or “JAG Corps” — was established in 1775 to assist George Washington in maintaining discipline among the ranks. Today, it is comprised of 10,000 attorneys, paralegals and legal administrators supporting commanders and soldiers in legal offices around the world.
The JAG Corps’ lawyers advise commanders in the field on everything from how congressionally appropriated dollars can be spent, to how soldiers who have committed infractions can be disciplined to how the laws of armed conflict are applied, up to and including who can be targeted on the battlefield.
“As part of our Constitution, as part of our law of the land, we are trained as lawyers to understand what the law means, how to interpret it and how to advise a commander,” Pede said during a recent appearance at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, where he addressed Professor June West’s and Steve Soltis’ “Leadership Communication During Times of Disruption and Transformation” course. The class brings in top corporate and government leaders throughout the course, offering students the opportunity to engage directly with leaders in a variety of fields.
Pede, a double ‘Hoo with undergraduate and law degrees from UVA, spent the bulk of his time in the Darden classroom engaging in a Q&A session with students, touching on issues ranging from when a country can legally wage war to career paths for prospective military lawyers.
While the JAG Corps’ charge has remained relatively constant from its founding, the scope of its work has increased dramatically, and the Corps now finds itself at the forefront of determining what constitutes the rule of law in emerging arenas such as cyber warfare and how artificial intelligence will shape the future.
“The real elephant in the room is AI, and what that will do not only to our computing power but our data marshaling and how we use data and connect data to make decisions,” said Pede. “It’s transforming the way we practice.”
In some respects, cyber capabilities are simply “new features on the battlefield,” Pede said, likening emerging digital capabilities to the advent of the machine gun in World War I, for example. Some future treaty may further rein in digital capabilities as a tool for war, but in the near term, Pede said, international regulation in the cyber arena is unlikely.
Asked whether “the ends ever justify the means” in legally questionable acts of war, Pede said no.
“Everything we advise the commander comes from what is the right thing to do,” said Pede. “Not what’s convenient, not what’s comfortable, but what the right thing to do is.”
The JAG Corps has to talk about doing the right thing, believe in the principle of doing the right thing and practice the right thing “when no one is looking,” Pede said.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. Army or the JAG Corps is a morally perfect institution, Pede said. What it is, however, is “an accountable institution.”
Asked how JAG lawyers advise commanders in high-pressure situations where time may be scant, Pede said experience and expertise certainly help, as does being a student of history and recognizing new iterations of previous events.
“I encourage all of you to never underestimate the power of reading,” Pede said. “I know you’ve got classroom material to read, but be eclectic readers of almost everything. It makes you smarter, it opens your apertures, and it exposes you to uncomfortable thoughts and thoughts that you never consider.”
About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.