Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 36, Number 1

A Year of Service

Called to active duty in the National Guard, civil litigator Platte Moring, '83, supports the drafting of a new Afghan constitution

by Grace Renshaw Platte Moring, '83

The summer before his freshman year at Princeton, Platte Moring received an ROTC brochure in the mail. He promptly trashed it. When another brochure arrived the following spring, Moring's father fished it out of the trash can and urged his son to reconsider. America would be involved in other wars, Moring's father told him. He had been drafted as an Army private immediately after graduating from the University of North Carolina, and didn't want his son to suffer the same fate. Serving as an officer, he assured Moring, would be a lot better. Moring joined the Army Reserve, attended Officer Basic Training the summer after he graduated from Princeton, and spent the next four years as reserve Military Policeman, which chiefly involved two weeks of annual training each year. After graduating from Vanderbilt Law School in 1983, he transferred into the JAG Corp. He found he enjoyed the camaraderie of his National Guard unit, and as the only legal officer of the 213th Area Support Group of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he filled a genuine need. In civilian life, he was a litigator defending doctors in malpractice lawsuits and corporations in product liability cases and managing partner of the Allentown, Pennsylvania, office of White and Williams.

Until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Moring had not anticipated the possibility of a lengthy deployment. He spent his entire career in the Reserves representing soldiers one weekend each month. "The most difficult cases I handled were discharges from service for absence without leave and positive urinalysis," he recalls. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would end up helping to establish a code of military justice for the Afghan National Army. But after September 11, I knew it was likely that I would be called to active duty."

However, Moring, who had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during his 25 years of service in the Reserves, was not certain he would accompany his unit if it were mobilized. Twice before, his unit - the 213th Area Support Group, Pennsylvania Army National Guard - had been called to active duty, first during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and again as peacekeeping forces in Kosovo. Neither of these missions had required an Army lawyer. "That meant I stayed home both times," he says. "So, at age 45, I was about to serve as a full-time soldier for the first time in my life."

The entire staff of his law office came to the National Guard Armory to see Moring off when his unit was deployed on March 19, 2003. The unit's arrival in Afghanistan on June 25, 2003, after three months of pre-deployment training at Fort Dix, marked the beginning of Stage Four of Operation Enduring Freedom, a U.S.-led coalition operation aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan's government and infrastructure in the wake of the Taliban's defeat.

Initially housed in a tent at a U.S. Army base in Bagram with seven other officers, Moring - a graduate of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and of the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he earned a Master's before earning his law degree at Vanderbilt - was soon tapped to help ensure that the concept of a unified, civilian-controlled military was integrated into the Afghan constitution, a task that required him to spend much of his time in Kabul. "The commanding general of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, asked Colonel David Gordon and me to make certain that the legal concept of civilian control of the military was incorporated into the new Afghan constitution," Moring says. "Afghanistan is a mix of many tribal and ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazara, Uzbecs and others. After the defeat of the Taliban, the situation there quickly devolved into fighting between local militias. Establishing a national army controlled by a unified, democratic, civilian government in which all of these ethnic groups were represented was an essential step toward achieving a lasting national unity in Afghanistan."

Over the course of the 270 days Moring served in Afghanistan, he helped write a section of the fledgling Afghan National Army's military justice code, taught a class on the role of an independent defense council at Kabul University, and served as an escort officer for the 9-11 Commission when it toured Afghanistan.

But his most important project - one of his first after arriving - involved drafting a white paper explaining the merits of civilian control of the military for the benefit of the Afghans who were drafting the country's first democratic constitution, and then promoting the concept in individual meetings with Afghan officials. "Afghanistan had been ruled by a king for hundreds of years, and arguably, the king was a non-military leader who controlled an army, so in some very rudimentary form, there had been civilian control of the military," Moring says, "but not as we would understand it, where the goals, objectives and budgets are controlled by a popularly elected group of representatives at large. Afghans had never experienced a democratic government. They had been governed either by kings or military dictators, like Musharraf. To convince them to incorporate the concept of civilian control of the military into their constitution, we drew upon examples from the former Soviet empire where former socialist republics had converted from government control of the military to civilian control. We also made the argument that, in order to join NATO - which Afghanistan wanted to do - the Afghan military needed to be central and civilian-controlled."

Moring found a solid ally in an Afghan expatriot, fluent in English, who had been a professor of law in the United States and former dean of Kabul University. "We had to do a lot of research to determine who was on the commission, who spoke English, who would be the most sympathetic ear to an American, because you have to establish relationships to try to influence decisions," he says. "He was enormously helpful."

The course Moring taught at Kabul University grew out of his realization that the Afghan judicial reform program did not integrate any training for defense lawyers. "A report published by Amnesty International in 2003 stated that there were fewer than 90 lawyers in all of Afghanistan," he recalls. "The court system had operated primarily by administration of bribes. In order to have rule of law, both sides of a case must be presented, but Afghans did not understand the role of the independent defense council."

Moring's class of 95 university students quickly earned his respect and admiration. "When I give presentations about my experience in Afghanistan, I like to joke that Afghan students were unlike American college students: They were more mature, always prepared for class, eager to learn and sober," Moring says.

Moring was awarded the Bronze Star during his service in Afghanistan. He credits the support of his firm and partners for ensuring that "unlike some of the less fortunate lawyers with whom I had served in Afghanistan, I had a law practice to return to," while acknowledging that readjusting to life as managing partner of the Allentown, Pennsylvania, office of White and Williams took longer than he had anticipated. "The first personal injury file I opened after my return was a slip-and-fall at a Unimart," he recalls. "As a soldier, the United States government had trusted me with the responsibility of rebuilding a war-torn nation. As a civilian, I was helping an insurance company decide how much a 55-year-old fat man should be paid for a bruised knee." Moring ultimately wrote a personal memoir, Honor First: A Citizen-Soldier in Afghanistan, documenting his experience.

The worst aspect of his service, he recalls, was his separation from his wife, Susan, and his children, Leigh and William. Moring was 45 when he was deployed to Afghanistan, and he retired from the National Guard soon after returning home.

He continues to follow events in Afghanistan with interest and remains concerned about numerous threats to the stability of a democratic Afghan government, including resurgence in the opium trade and the presence of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in neighboring Pakistan. "In several critical areas - including corruption, justice, law enforcement and the narcotics trade - the Afghan government remains weak," he says. "There's still a lot of hard work left to do."