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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Leavenworth: Prologue

The following is by my FIU colleague Eric Carpenter. It is the first in a series of regular posts blogging the new Starz documentary "Leavenworth." Eric teaches Crim, Evidence, and Military Justice at FIU and served in Army JAG before coming to law teaching. He covered the second season (Bergdahl) of "Serial."

Thank you, Howard, for the opportunity to provide some running commentary on another true-crime docuseries that covers a military justice case. Leavenworth follows the story of Lieutenant Clint Lorance, an American infantry platoon leader who ordered his soldiers to open fire on three Aghans who were riding a motorcycle, resulting in two deaths. In this blog series, I hope to explain some of the peculiarities of the military justice system that will pop up. As I expect the director will offer criticisms of the system, I will give my thoughts on those, too.

I also hope to discuss some of the bigger themes that this case raises. First, this case is nested among several others where service members allegedly committed or did commit crimes against host-nation nationals (Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, Major Matthew Golsteyn, for example) and then had their causes championed by Sean Hannity and others. Trump had considered stopping the prosecutions or granting pardons last Memorial Day but changed his mind after facing significant criticism.  One of my questions is, what explains that support?

Are we placing service members in complex situations where the enemy looks like the local population and does not play by the rules, and then forcing our troops to choose being buried by six or tried by twelve? If so, that might explain it. It is just not fair to prosecute them. Or are servicemembers well-trained on the rules and counter-insurgency operations, and Lorance (and the others) just ignored the rules? If the second is true, why are some still championing their cause?

A related theme is that there is nothing new under the sun. The problem of using force in counter-insurgency warfare is not new. I start my military justice class by playing the movie Breaker Morant, a true story from the Second Boar War in South Africa in 1902 (available for free in Kanopy and well-worth the watch). The basic issues in Lorance are the same as those faced by those British and Australian soldiers. U.S. service members dealt with these problems in Vietnam. While the Lorance shooting cannot be equated to the My Lai massacre (where several hundred civilians were killed), the facts leading into both are similar. Nothing is new. We just forget.

Several years into the war in Iraq, the American military finally recognized that it was fighting a counter-insurgency. David Petraeus (featured in Leavenworth) then wrote a manual on counter-insurgency operations that rejected the colonial “use force to get them to do what we want” approach and instead recognized that we need to provide the local population with security from insurgents. He put that doctrine into action while commanding forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But adopting that strategy involves having soldiers assume risk that they did not have to before. And that is the world that Lorance worked within. Perhaps his champions’ real issue is with that assumption of risk and the rejection of the colonial approach.

The main legal issue will feel familiar: did Lorance act in self-defense of his unit? While he was deployed to Afghanistan, the rules of engagement were basically the same as the elements of common law self-defense. These rules are unclassified. The force has to be necessary: if unit commanders are on the receiving end of a hostile act, they can fight back; if they are moments away from facing a hostile act (they see a hostile intent), they can engage before the other side has a chance to act on that intent. The force used must be proportional, and if unit commanders can de-escalate the situation without using force, they should.

There are some interesting side issues. Lorance didn’t pull the trigger. Someone else did. If that soldier—the one who pulled the trigger—were put on trial, would he have a defense of obedience to orders? If he refused the order, could he be tried for failing to obey an order? I use the Lorance appellate case when teaching that defense and that crime to my military justice students. I hope to unpack those along the way. It turns out that some soldiers refused his orders to commit crimes and others did not. (Most were granted immunity to testify.)

Last, and in keeping with Prawfs origin story, I hope to share some lessons I learned while participating in this project. I gave a four-hour interview and the producer filmed my criminal law class and evidence class as they discussed issues in the case. I have no idea how the director put these scenes together, though. We’ll learn together.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 23, 2019 at 09:31 AM in Criminal Law, Law and Politics | Permalink


All of it is the result of how politicians fought the war. These wars, Vietnam, even the Boer War. Awful strategy put people into terrible situations (i.e. fighting a counter-insurgency).

Bottom line: if you end up fighting a counter-insurgency, you have failed and you should pull your soldiers out immediately. They are unwinnable.

Posted by: thegreatdisappointment | Oct 24, 2019 8:10:01 PM

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