A judge advocate is a military lawyer &emdash; that is, an officer with special military legal training &emdash; who serves as legal adviser to the command to which he or she is attached. In this role, a judge advocate may also act as the unit commander's personal legal adviser. In the United States, each branch of the service &emdash; the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard &emdash; has its own Judge Advocate General, or “JAG” &emdash; the chief legal officer of that service. In the Army, Air Force and Navy, the JAG commands the JAG Corps. The Marines' JAG Department is subordinate to the Navy JAG Corps, and the Coast Guard maintains an Office of the Judge Advocate General. Each branch's JAG serves as chief counsel to the branch's chief of staff and may also advise the department's secretary.
A judge advocate generally has already graduated law school when he accepts an officer's commission in the armed forces. After commissioning, the new JAG officer takes a special course of training in military law, especially the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the United States' system of military law applicable to all branches of the service. Upon completion of the course, the new JAG officer will be assigned to a command.
Judge advocates perform a wide variety of legal duties for the command to which they're assigned, including such routine matters such as helping enlisted personnel deal with military and civilian legal matters and ensuring that all members of the unit have up-to-date wills on file. The prosecuting and defending attorneys in courts-martial are both judge advocates, and experienced JAG officers may be appointed to preside over such trials. The modern judge advocate, though, fulfills a number of other functions, often practicing civilian and military labor law, as well as international, environmental, tort, contract and administrative law.
As the 20th century drew to a close, the role of judge advocate became significantly more important to the military's accomplishment of its mission. During the Vietnam War, for example, the Air Force consulted only a single judge advocate for operations law advice. Judge advocates were involved in every phase of strategic planning for the 1991 Gulf War, and over 250 were stationed in Saudi Arabia during that war. Judge advocates were also essential to the planning and execution of the the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Judge advocates have been especially critical in developing the rules of engagement &emdash; that is, the circumstances under which the military may use force &emdash; and in training troops in those rules. Judge advocates' input is especially critical in target planning &emdash; that is, determining those targets that actually have military value to the enemy and the extent to which the loss of civilian life or property, or “collateral damage,” is acceptable.