Lawyers in War


One day I was a law conference. I don’t remember anything about it anymore, but I do remember what happened at lunch.  I was having lunch with a round table of about 6 lawyers. A young woman was sitting next to me wearing a Canadian military uniform. This was interesting, I thought. I was right.

I asked her what type of law she practiced in the military. I didn’t have a clue. “Well,” she said, “My job is to advise soldiers in the field.”  “In the field?” I asked. “How do you do that?’

She was advising Canadian soldiers in the Iraq war. Then she explained that any time a group of soldiers went on a sortie it was her job to be available in case they phoned and needed legal advice. I was shocked. Shows you how naive I was.  She said for every mission soldiers had to be able to phone someone, like her , to give them legal advice about what they could and could not do on the ground in the heat of battle. She would have to be available to the phone for as long as the operation was active. For example, she told me, they might ask something like this: “We are in this town in Afghanistan with 6 soldiers.  We see at the end of the block a school.  Next to it are 3 heavily-armed Afghan soldiers.  They are looking our way. They see us. It looks like they might shoot at us at any time. “Can we shoot at them?”  “Do we have to wait for them to shoot first?”  What about the school, it is likely filled with students. Does that matter? Can we shoot at them? Help me!

Then it was her job to give them legal advice. On the spot in the heat of battle! She couldn’t wait for someone to research the law. She had to advise on the basis of minimal facts and then had to do this fast before they got shot. And these were all life and death decisions. Either for the Canadian soldiers or “the enemy.”

I know that every country has lawyers in war that are called upon to help the soldiers in their killing business.

Wow!  This sure beat my job of practicing law in a small city in Manitoba. I might send money out to pay a mortgage. Or prepare a will and power of attorney. Boring stuff. Not really. I never had a boring day at work in nearly 50 years of practicing law. But I never had anything as exciting as this young lawyer. That was really a life-or-death situation for them. Not for her, but for them and the laws of war are tricky.  I know very little about the laws of war.

I have been thinking of her now as there is so much controversy in Gaza about Israelis attacking. Are they following the rules of war?

I suppose Israel has lawyers like that. I can’t imagine giving legal advice under such circumstance.

Was is not how it used to be.


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