A former Army military lawyer who began his career as an intelligence officer, Corn now teaches law at Texas Tech.
Following a career of more than two decades as a U.S. Army officer, Geoffrey Corn now shares with others his experiences and the many lessons learned in uniform.
Corn is the George R. Killam Chair of Criminal Law and the director of the Center for Military Law & Policy at Texas Tech University's School of Law. He also is a prodigious author, having penned multiple books on national security and constitutional law, and was the Army's top adviser for law of war issues. Prior to joining the Texas Tech family this past summer, he taught law for 17 years at South Texas College of Law Houston after serving in the Army for 22 years. He started as a private first class and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2004 and spent one additional year as a civilian attorney-adviser to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the Army.
Corn's classes focus on criminal law, national security law and the legal regulations of war, but his guiding light for teaching is helping students fulfill their potential to become servants to their future clients and leaders in the community.
As a Veterans Day salute to one of the many distinguished military veterans on campus, we sat down with Professor Corn to let him share his story with the Red Raider community.
You were an intelligence officer before your legal career in the Army. Did you want to be a lawyer prior to being an intelligence officer, or was being a JAG officer just an opportunity?
I was an undergraduate history major at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. I didn't have any strong burning desire to become a lawyer. Still, for students like me, I think law school is always something in the realm of consideration, but I had no interest in continuing on to law school immediately after graduation. I worked a summer as an intern for Citibank on Wall Street, which led me to conclude the business world was not for me. My neighbor was a Navy reserve officer who helped me get the internship, and I told him I didn't know what to do after graduation. He said, “Go learn to be a leader.” I said, “What do you mean?” and he told me to go into the military for a while and become an officer.
I considered the Navy and the Marine Corps but ultimately settled on becoming an Army officer through Officer Candidate School (OCS). I was accepted to Army OCS which resulted in my commission in June 1984. During my time at OCS I asked my tactical officer if the Army ever sent anybody for graduate education. She told me about this program called the funded legal education program (FLEP), through which the Army selects a very small number of officers to attend law school and transition to become JAG officers, so that program seemed like something to consider. But first I had to move on to my military intelligence course and then my first operational assignment.
My first assignment as a second lieutenant was as a tactical intelligence officer supporting infantry units in Panama. During that assignment, I started to look at the FLEP process. I really had no idea how competitive it was. I was a good student in undergrad, and I did a good job in OCS, so I thought I'd be competitive. I had a very small window for selection, and I was turned down two years in a row. It was very discouraging. The Staff Judge Advocate in Panama – the senior military lawyer for the command who wrote my recommendations – told me after my second non-select that he doubted I would be selected (I had one more year of eligibility). In short, he told me it was very rare that the board selects officers who were commissioned through OCS; it was mainly a West Point and Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) heavy program.
Like anything else, the Army has its biases. If you look at the list every year, around 70% of the selectees are West Point graduates and 30% are ROTC. At that time, the Army was only selecting about 10 to 12 officers a year from a pool of probably about 1,000 applicants. So, I kind of gave up on the idea. I was thinking, “What am I going to do? Maybe I'll get out of the Army and go to grad school.” I liked international affairs and international relations.
I finished my tour in Panama and I was sent back to the intelligence school for six months at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where I learned imagery exploitation. It was my last year of eligibility, and I figured why not? I mean, you can't score unless you shoot, but I had no expectation of getting selected. Still, I went to the senior lawyer at that base – he didn't know me from Adam – and he said, “I'll call the lawyer down in Panama because I'm friends with him and propose a joint recommendation.”
This was the fall of 1988, before we invaded Panama and before Desert Storm. And my unit in Panama – the 1st Battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment – had conducted some hostile security operations against the Panamanian defense forces when the problems with Gen. Noriega first began. My battalion commander noted in the first lines of the final evaluation he wrote for me that I “provided tactical intelligence support to combat operations.” I had to be the only person in front of the board that had that line. Perhaps because of that, or perhaps because of something else, lightning struck and I was selected as a “FLEP.”
I then spent three years as a law student at George Washington University in exchange for six years of service following graduation. It was a pivotal moment in my life, and I loved being a JAG. But I'm glad I started as I did. I think being an intelligence officer suited me very well for being a JAG because there are a lot of similarities between what a tactical intelligence officer does and what a lawyer does, particularly in relation to trials, where you're trying to predict the enemy's course of action. It was actually a very good foundation for law school and for being a lawyer.
I'm also glad I went through OCS, because it gave me a short insight into what it means to be at the bottom rung of the proverbial ladder. I started as a private because to go to Army OCS, you must enlist and commit to a four-year Army contract (this is different than any other service where you immediately to OCS). Even though I was only a private first class for the 10 weeks of basic training before the 14 weeks of OCS, I think it created a slightly more empathetic understanding of what it means to be a low-ranking enlisted soldier in the military. When I was a JAG that always impacted me and the way I treated people and thought about the challenges these young men and women face. The law, even in the military, is intended to serve the best interests of society, and I knew quite frequently lower-ranking service members were oblivious to how the law actually serves their interests. Helping them understand that is an important function of every JAG officer.
What do you take from your military career, be it character or values or whatever else you took away from your career, that you believe is crucial to pass on to your students?
It's a great question and what makes this job so meaningful to me.
First off, I want students to understand that their role in the future is not just going to be as an expert in the law; it's going to be as a leader. There are too many stories of new law school graduates who are motivated and excited, and then they go out to their first job and work for people who are poor leaders. This sours them on the law and perhaps even worse it often leads to emulating those poor leadership qualities.
For me, what I learned in my years in the military is that if you want people to be good leaders, you have to model what you expect of them. I try to serve my role as a professor in a way that inspires students to reach for their full potential. I want them to love the law; I want them to see the role they're going to play in people's lives; I want them to understand that they've made a commitment to join a selfless profession, a profession of service; and I want them to know the hard work to become a lawyer matters for the future clients who are waiting for them. Ultimately, I want students to feel like I'm invested in their future and that I'm contributing to them, building on their potential, which is what the great leaders I had in the military did for me. That's No. 1.
No. 2, you mentioned character or values. In my experience, not too much of the substantive law studied in law school will be routinely used in daily practice. Law school is about studying a wide variety of topics; students don't “major.” When they begin their careers they will focus on discrete areas of the law and continue to become experts in those areas. But the lesson that runs through all this study is that an expertise on a given legal topic is just the beginning of the process.
Some of the skills highly prioritized at Texas Tech – like advocacy and legal writing (often treated as an ancillary function at other law schools) – reflects this reality. No matter how well you know the law, you have to be able to leverage it through these skills. But what I really want students to see is that the law is a weapon system – a weapon system designed to produce a very specific outcome: justice. In a very real sense, the law is like any other weapon system: its efficacy is contingent on the competence, diligence, courage and honor of the person into whose hands it's entrusted. Without these character traits, that weapon – like any other weapon – is at best ineffective and at worst dangerous.
How does this translate into a law school classroom?
First, whatever it is you're doing in the law, you have to make yourself an expert on that law. And that's really what law school classes are about. Students are learning the process of learning: how to master different topics in the law, not because you're going to go out and use that every day in your practice, but because it's a process of intellectual natural maturation.
Second, if you have somebody who's very competent on a weapon system, and they're not courageous, then it's inert. The best grenade thrower does me no good if he's hiding behind a tree in battle, right? For lawyers, the courage that is demanded of them is not normally physical courage; it's moral courage. It's the courage to know the right thing and to stand up for the right thing, even when it means you're going to face public criticism or condemnation.
It's John Adams representing the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. It's Sam Liebowitz, the New York Jewish lawyer who was born in Romania, hired by the Communist Party of America to go to Decatur, Alabama in 1932 to defend the African American men whose prior conviction for raping two white women was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932 because they were denied effective assistance of counsel. It is the military lawyer who, two days after returning from Iraq as part of a unit fighting the insurgency in 2003, is detailed to defend a detainee at Guantanamo Bay being tried by a military court for alleged war crimes against our own forces.
I tell my students 99% of the time they are not going to be challenged like this. But there will come a moment where their moral courage will be tested, where they have to stand up in court and say, “Your Honor, your decision is harming my client and we are challenging it.” Or you're going to have to sit in a boardroom and tell your senior partner “No, I will not take that document out of the file even if it's going to hurt our case because that's unethical.” The weapon system requires more than competence; it requires that it be leveraged courageously.
Honor is doing the right thing when you're tempted to do the wrong thing and you know you can get away with it. For the soldier, honor is following the rules under any circumstances, even when there is a powerful temptation to cut corners. The lawyer, like the soldier, is expected to embrace the concept of honor. Students start to learn that in law school. When a professor calls them and says, “Are you prepared?”, do they have the honor to say, “No, professor. I'm sorry, I wasn't able to get to the reading.” Or will the student take a different course because it seems easy to get away with? We want students who understand the value of doing the hard “right” when tempted with the easy “wrong.”
Ultimately, this is all about selfless service I want students to realize everything they go through in law school – all the work, all the anxiety, every moment of challenge – really has very little to do with them. It has everything to do with what they are preparing for: service. Remember, when a lawyer stands up in a courtroom, the first words he or she says are, “I represent.”
When I started my assignment as the intelligence staff officer for an infantry battalion in Panama, my commander – a Silver Star recipient from the Vietnam conflict – made my daily existence simple: “Geoff, all I ask of you is that you come to work every morning expecting us to go to war the next day.” His message was clear: your job is to prepare yourself as best you can to perform the service to the nation, the Army and this battalion you committed to. That lesson transcends a parachute infantry battalion and applies to any person who joins a profession of service.
So, my message to students is similar: all of this preparation, all of this work, is to make students better to serve somebody else. So set your ego aside. Stop worrying about how you look. Stop worrying about how you feel. Stop worrying about whether you're embarrassed and ask yourself one simple question: Am I doing what I need to do so that when that moment comes and I'm the one trusted with the weapons system of justice, I've got the courage, the competence and the honor to leverage it in a way that will contribute to the outcome our community expects from me?
That's my azimuth.
Given that this interview is for Veterans Day and you're a veteran with a long military career, is there anything else you would like to say?
When we think of Veterans Day, we honor the people who served. But I think one thing we should never forget is that the service of veterans has profoundly transcended their time in uniform. It's the values and the devotion to the higher ideals of our nation that have made them so influential in our communities, in our families, in our societies, in our workplaces and throughout our history.
When you talk about the greatest generation, they weren't just great because of what they did in World War II, they were great because of what they did when they came home. Veteran's Day is a good moment for all Americans to reflect – particularly now, so close to election day. We can have our differences, politically. What we can't have is a difference in our ultimate motivation, which is to aspire that our nation fulfills the values that it was founded upon.
When American servicemembers put on that uniform with that flag on their shoulder, that flag doesn't mean Democrat, Republican or Independent. It means American. It means we represent the values of this nation. On Veterans Day, I think it's a good moment for all Americans to step back and read the preamble to the Constitution. This is who we are, this is what the veterans you honor swore an oath to serve: a singular oath to the Constitution of the United States. It is that service we honor, and it is the devotion to the ideals of our nation we should all seek to emulate.