Year Ahead – When You Least Expect It…

by | Jan 11, 2023


Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember Candid Camera will remember this opening to that classic television show. So, what exactly does that have to do with an Articles of War post on the year ahead? In my view, everything, because it reminds us that in the realm of national security and military affairs, it is often the unexpected that should be expected.

Just imagine a British Royal Marine Commando in March of 1982. His mission, training, and equipment were, like the rest of the U.K. armed forces, focused almost singularly on confronting the Soviet threat in a potential hot war in Europe. Could he have even imagined that a few weeks later he would find himself on a barren island in the South Atlantic fighting the Argentine Armed Forces? Unexpected.

And who in the U.S. military could have expected in the Summer of 2001 that by that winter they would be engaged in ground combat operations in Afghanistan? Unexpected. For me personally, it was Panama. When I assumed duty as the S-2 of the 1/508th Airborne Battalion, my commander, a highly decorated Vietnam combat veteran, had a simple mandate for me: come to work every day assuming we would go to war the next day. My reaction to this was to think, “Sir, this is Panama! Nothing happens here.” Six months later it was time to draw live ammo to respond to intrusions of our bases by Panamanian Defense Force units supported by Cuban special forces. Unexpected? In the extreme.

It seems, at least for me, nearly impossible to predict what challenges the United States and other aligned armed forces will confront in the coming year, and how these challenges will implicate understanding, application, and respect for the law of armed conflict. But I will concede it is possible to predict some things. First, respect for international law will continue to define strategic legitimacy and remain a key pillar of overall military success. Second, that the arc of legal complexity in every domain, phase, and level of military operations will continue to trend upward as it has over the past few decades. Third, and perhaps most importantly, responsible leadership will – as it has always been – remain the sine qua non of both legitimacy and mission success.

Responsible leadership is indeed the common thread that runs through all the unexpected challenges of the past: leaders who enable their forces to walk the proverbial tightrope between decisive combat action and respect for humanitarian obligations. The precise form of the challenges these leaders face in the future may be unpredictable, but they will undoubtedly be complex and demand an ever-increasing competence and commitment to the operational implementation of international legal obligations.

It therefore seems fitting that the Lieber Institute, and this effort to identify future challenges, is so indelibly connected with both the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA) and a genuine “A List” of international humanitarian and operational law experts from around the globe. Ultimately, it will be the USMA graduates and their contemporaries from other military academies and officer training programs that will bear the heaviest burden of confronting unexpected challenges. But it will also be the expertise of those who have come before them that will enhance their competence in the field and the impact they will have on complex intersection of legal concept and operational reality.

My wish for the 2023 is that it turns out to be militarily and legally mundane. But if it is not – if what we “least expect” rears its challenging head – leaders who understand and demand respect for the law the Lieber Institute strives to illuminate will inevitably be a pillar of tactical, operational, and strategic success.


Geoffrey S. Corn is the George R. Killam, Jr. Chair of Criminal Law and Director of the Center for Military Law and Policy at Texas Tech University School of Law.


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