The Past As Prologue: Major General George S. Prugh, Jr. (Ret.) (1942-1975)--Witness to Insurgent War, the Law of War, and the Expanded Role of Judge Advocates in Military Operations

Author:Lieutenant Colonel George R. Smawley




A lawyer without history or literature is a mechanic, a mere working mason; if he possesses some knowledge of these, he may venture to call himself an architect.

- Sir Walter Scott3

I. Introduction

Forty years ago, the American Army faced an enemy unlike any they had previously fought. The Vietnam War was a conflict in which culture and politics blurred battle lines and where evil blended with innocence as the enemy moved almost seamlessly among and between civilian populations. The World Wars and Korea offered few lessons for fighting this new kind of war, where technology and overwhelming mass were no longer the keys to victory. Vietnam was also a war in which the traditional paradigms of international law seemed to reach the limits of its ability to order and define the disparate treatment of detainees,

insurgents, terrorists, saboteurs, freedom fighters, and domestic criminals. It was a war unlike any other, and the lessons of those who witnessed the conflict in Southeast Asia have resurgent value as a new generation of military leaders adapt to the new paradigm of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

One such witness was Major General (MG) George S. Prugh, Jr., former The Judge Advocate General of the Army (TJAG) and a giant in the history of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAGC), whose tremendous legacy of integrating the law into military operations is still studied three decades after his retirement. Major General Prugh's remarkable career included a tour as General (GEN) William C. Westmoreland's legal advisor, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV),4 service as a formal delegate to the Diplomatic Conference of Government Experts on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law in Armed Conflict,5

tenure as The Judge Advocate General of the Army, and seven years as a faculty member at University of California (U.C.), Hastings College of Law. His military experience spanned World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Cold War. This period included an evolution in military justice from the Articles of War to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and a transformation military jurisprudence exemplified by the establishment of an independent military judiciary and creation of a separate criminal defense service.

During and following his thirty-three years of military service, MG Prugh remained one of those rare leaders who continually sought new ways to integrate judge advocates and the law into military operations, and who provided a legacy of his experience for use by future generations. In his book, Law at War: Vietnam 1964-1973,6 over two dozen publications, and countless lectures and speeches, he articulated a vision for military law that is more relevant that ever. The contextual framework between Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and Prugh's own description of Vietnam, are striking.7 In 1974, Prugh wrote of Vietnam:

The battlefield was nowhere and everywhere, with no identifiable front lines, and no safe rear areas . . . It involved combatants and civilians from a dozen different nations. Politically, militarily, and in terms of international law, the Vietnam conflict posed problems of deep complexity. The inherent difficulty of attempting to apply traditional principles of international law to such a legally confusing conflict is well illustrated by the issue of prisoners of war.8

Given the increasing attention paid to the role of international law in military operations, it is appropriate to remember Prugh at a time when

his experience in Vietnam and elsewhere is increasingly cited for its insights on difficult legal issues surrounding the status of insurgents, detention operations, application of the Geneva Conventions, and related issues. His career and work foreshadowed many of the issues the U.S. armed forces see today, which occupy headlines in an age when tactical decisions have enormous strategic implications.

This article introduces three separate but related stories: MG George Prugh's life and career; the role of judge advocates in Vietnam and its aftermath; and the importance of the law in military operations. Emphasis is given to Prugh's leadership philosophy and the institutional changes in the practice of military law observed throughout his service.9

In particular, this article introduces Prugh's direct involvement and work as the MACV Staff Judge Advocate (SJA). It is an introduction to one man's remarkable life and journey from the sandlots of San Francisco to the Pentagon, and of the Army and JAGC during the post World War II period.

II. 1920-194810

A. Background

George Shipley Prugh, Jr. was born on 1 June 1920 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father's medical school education was interrupted a year short of graduation when his National Guard unit was federalized under General Pershing to pursue Poncho Villa along the Mexican border.11

After several years as a provisional regular officer in the Infantry, including service in Panama and Europe, George Prugh, Sr. resigned his commission and ultimately took a job in 1928 with the Bausch and Lomb Optical Company in San Francisco, California. Prugh's mother, a

teacher by education, remained at home after her marriage and applied high personal and academic standards to her two sons.12

Major General Prugh enjoyed an active childhood, characterized by athletics and membership in the Boy Scouts, where he earned the status of an Eagle Scout at the early age of 16,13 awarded by the founder of the scout movement himself, Lord Baden Powell.14 The young Prugh played baseball with Joe DiMaggio and the DiMaggio brothers in the sandlots of San Francisco's Marina District.15 He held part-time jobs as a paper boy for the Saturday Evening Post, and later as a bagman for Prohibition-era bootleggers, fondly remembering "accepting small amounts of money to carry packages that gurgled for some of the fellows that were delivering things around the neighborhood."16

This early period growing up in San Francisco included the increasing awareness of the rise of Hitler's National Socialist Movement, and the threats it posed.

I remember a German submarine coming to San Francisco, a Nazi submarine, and how . . . German people welcomed the Nazi seamen in town; they came all around, and we saw the swastika for the first time. This was about 1935 or '36. [It was] [v]ery ominous and the sort of thing that youngsters paid a lot of attention to. What was going on in Europe was really quite apparent, and everybody was thinking that there was going to be a war someday.17

His father's military experience helped inspire Prugh to seek and obtain an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, but poor eyesight disqualified him from attending.18 In 1938, he enrolled at the San Francisco Junior College as an engineering major, where tuition was free; he later switched to pre-law when he received official word that he was medically ineligible for West Point.19 The next year he transferred to U.C. Berkeley, because of its fine reputation, proximity to San Francisco, and relative affordability at $27.50 a semester. He majored in political science and minored in economics and history.20

During his year at junior college, MG Prugh enrolled in a National Guard commissioning program and entered the Coast Guard Artillery Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program when he transferred to U.C. Berkeley.21 He received his bachelor's degree in May 1941, but still had a year to go before completing the ROTC commissioning requirements. The following fall he enrolled in law school at U.C. Berkeley, Boalt Hall, where he began his final year of pre-commissioning training.22 But in 1941, Pearl Harbor23 changed everything, and realizing his law school education was about to be interrupted, Prugh took a leave of absence to focus on completing his pre-commissioning program. Also during this time, Prugh met his wife, Katherine "Kate" Buchanan, during a fraternity-sorority exchange. Katherine was the daughter of Rear Admiral Patton Buchanan.24 The

couple was engaged in the spring of 1941 and married in September 1942.25

B. The Coast Guard Artillery & WWII

In March 1942, Prugh received his commission as a second lieutenant (2LT) and entered active duty four months later with the 19th Coast Guard Artillery Regiment (CGAR), stationed at Fort Rosencrans, San Diego.26 The unit's mission focused on the harbor defense for the city of San Diego, armed with two batteries of twenty-year-old sixteen-inch guns.27 Major General Prugh recalls his two-year service with the 19th as "a great experience . . . dug in on the side of a hill, firing [often] and training Marine artillery on [the] guns."28

Shortly after arriving at the 19th CGAR, and despite only completing one semester of law school, Prugh was identified and detailed by his chain of command to serve as a criminal defense counsel. "[I] was one of the stable of about five defense counsel; the chief defense counsel was the only one in the group who was a lawyer."29 During the first six

months he tried roughly a case a month, including a rape contest resulting in an acquittal.30 Thereafter, he was detailed as a trial judge advocate for his regiment, where he participated in numerous special courts-martial.31 Line officers without legal training were commonly detailed to this level of criminal trial work. Soldiers charged with offenses were not entitled to representation by an attorney for special...

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