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Law of War

Ohio Northern University law students received a rare glimpse into an area of the law that few law students get to explore during a recent January term seminar course visit to the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Va.

Taught by Professor Michael Lewis, the Law of War seminar gives law students an understanding of how the international treaties that govern the use of force around the world are applied in real life. Topics include jus ad bellum, the legal arguments used to determine the legality of waging war, and jus in bello, the legal parameters of conduct in warfare. It is jus in bello that concerns military JAGs and was the focus of the course.

“It’s not up to them to determine whether we go to war. That’s for the Commander in Chief and Congress to decide,” says Lewis. “Once we are in a war, how do we fight it? Those are the issues they deal with at the JAG school, and our students were able to sit in on a number of the classes that active-duty JAGs take, and see how that all works.”

Students also attended a seminar on cyber warfare and learned of the challenges in applying laws that predate the Internet. They also learned the difference between legality and policy. International treaties set a baseline for what is permissible in war, but many countries set policies that go far beyond them in order to make war more humane.

“One of the best parts of the class was learning about how U.S. policy constrains what our soldiers may do,” says Dan Jones, a second year law student. “This means that the Army puts more limitations on soldiers than international law requires to protect civilians and P.O.Ws. in the field.”

In wartime, JAGs serve as advisors to military commanders. If questions arise as to the legality of a target or a specific course of action, JAGs are consulted. They also educate the soldiers who fight, something Lewis experienced first-hand as a Naval Flight Officer in Operation Desert Shield.

“My first impression of the law of war was when we had a JAG tell us that Saddam had invaded Kuwait, and then explain what we could do in response while we waited for the UN to figure things out,” he says. “Later, I got to go to law school and find out a little bit more about how it all works, at least theoretically. But I got to see it in practice before I learned it in theory.”

Lewis’ contacts within the military helped arrange the special visit to the Army’s JAG school, and the unique structure of ONU’s January term made the course possible. The January term is an abbreviated three-week-long “bonus” semester that allows students to intensively study a subject that may exist outside the traditional scope of the Law College curriculum. The January term is offered before the full Spring semester begins, allowing courses to include the kinds of travel opportunities the Law of War seminar provided.