Scott Holcomb helped draft the rules of engagement for Operation Iraqi Freedom; now he's bringing the fight home
Published in 2006 Georgia Rising Stars magazine
on September 15, 2006
Updated on February 14, 2017
A siren blast alerted everyone at Camp Doha, north of Kuwait City, to an incoming missile, but the piercing, urgent sound didn’t disturb Scott Holcomb, one of the chief advisers to the war planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I might have been nervous if I’d just gotten there, but I’d been through this drill many times before,” says Holcomb. “I never let it bother me.”
Except this time someone at the computer monitor yelled, “Holy shit, this one’s coming right at us!” That’s when Holcomb and his pal Jeff Phillips both hit the floor. According to Holcomb, an Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps captain at the time, the missile sounded like an aircraft coming in, and the Patriot missile sent to intercept it sounded like a jet taking off, and when the two met the ensuing explosion shook the building. It was the first night of the Iraq War.
Phillips, another JAG captain back in March 2003, remembers it well. “We tried to get as low as possible,” he says. “For about five very tense seconds we stared at one another. Then Scott says, ‘I can’t believe the last thing I’ll see before I die is your ugly mug.’
“That was Scott. Pretty unflappable. I never once saw him lose his cool.”
During his stint in the military, Holcomb wanted what most JAGs want: to be a trial attorney, preferably a military prosecutor, and preferably stateside. “But there’s this pattern in my life. I just find myself in the middle of big things and I don’t know why,” says Holcomb, 33. “My sense of timing is either absolutely deplorable or completely wonderful.”
He graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in political science and studied law at West Virginia University. In September 2000 he deployed to Bosnia, serving as military attorney at remote Camp McGovern, where he tried a few theft cases and helped organize and facilitate peaceful elections in the rebuilding country.
“The Bosnian people were looking to the U.S. for leadership on how to conduct an election,” Holcomb remembers. “[But] November 2000 was not one of the shining moments in this country’s election history. Ultimately, the Bosnian people were hopeful, demonstrated courage and commitment, but I felt that most of them didn’t think the simple act of voting would change their lives.”
By the spring of 2001 Holcomb was back in the United States. That summer he married Kathleen Oh and landed an easy assignment focusing on contract law at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Everything changed that autumn.
“September 11th happened,” says Holcomb, “and I knew it was a question of when, not if, I was gonna be deployed.”
The Army didn’t waste any time. On Sept. 12 Holcomb was appointed legal adviser to the team planning the Army’s response to the terrorist attacks. He was a valuable commodity — a JAG with experience in international law. “We immediately started looking at two contingencies: one for Afghanistan, and one for Iraq,” he says.
During the Middle East campaigns, Holcomb was stationed at Camp Doha, where he was a chief adviser for commanders and war planners, reviewing proposed targets before missions were approved, counseling generals on the relevant international and operational legal issues, raising life-and-death concerns and considerations. His advice was sometimes appreciated and followed, other times ignored.
In February 2002 he became part of the initial planning group for Operation Iraqi Freedom. “I distinctly remember Lt. Gen. [Paul] Mikolashek saying to us, ‘Get the plan ready, we’re going to do this. We’re going to remove Saddam Hussein from power.’ We looked at each other as if to say, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Holcomb helped draft the rules of engagement, which tells soldiers what and whom to engage. But a number of legal issues cropped up during the extensive, year-long preparation for the war: questions about co-opting Iraqi troops (and how to define ‘coopt’ — does it mean surrender or capitulation or something else?), analyzing targets, and the differences between declaring oneself a liberating force or an occupying force. Holcomb concluded the United States should define itself as an occupying force.
“I remember the testimony of a general who was in Bosnia, who had firsthand knowledge of what it takes to run a country after a war,” says Holcomb. “He said it would take a few hundred thousand troops and he was roundly criticized by [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld.
“They just didn’t get it in Washington. They didn’t understand that [to be an occupying force] takes a different set of skills than it does to conduct combat operations — skill sets that take more time to train for, like understanding languages and governing. [But the people in Washington] were very clear: We were not going to prepare for the responsibilities that come with an occupation.”
Holcomb says the nature of war is also becoming more complex. As media coverage becomes more immediate and international scrutiny becomes more intense, the role of the military attorney will only increase.
“Obviously it was challenging and difficult and ultimately very important work,” says Holcomb. “You had seconds or minutes to make a decision, not months. You’re working all of the time, devoting all of your energy. You’re talking about life and death situations, and if you get it wrong, situations with international consequences, where the rest of the world is coming down on you — yeah, it could be stressful.”
Holcomb was often the only attorney working in the room during the planning stages and the combat phase, surrounded by 40 or 50 other soldiers — strategists, tank and infantry commanders, fighter pilots, mostly senior officers. These were combat veterans — war fighters — asking a lawyer whether they should pull the trigger.
“Sure, there was some resentment,” says Col. Richard Gordon, Holcomb’s boss in Kuwait and now a military judge at Fort Benning, Ga. “But I’ll say this much about Scott. All of those other officers had great respect for his opinion and his judgment. He spoke their language.”
There is a natural gap between the military attorneys and the war fighters, a gap that Holcomb was able to bridge.
“One of the things that puts you over the top as a JAG is your ability to communicate and connect with a commander on a level that causes him to trust you as a soldier, not just as a lawyer,” says Lonnie McAllister, Holcomb’s bunkmate in Kuwait, and now a legal adviser in Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) office. “There is sometimes a divide between the infantry officers, the war fighters, the tank commanders and us, because we are none of those things. But Scott has the ability to scale that wall, break that divide.”
There was a memorable meeting in which Holcomb was briefing a general on the rules of engagement. Instead of introducing himself “Sir, Scott Holcomb, Captain, JAG Corps,” he went the astrological route: “Sir, Scott Holcomb, Scorpio.”
“Everybody rolled with laughter,” Holcomb says. “It sort of broke the ice. But it could easily have gone the other way.”
Gordon relied so much on Holcomb’s experience, insight and advice that during daily briefings he’d let Holcomb deliver the JAG response. It got to the point where high-ranking officers like Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of the Coalition Forces Land Component at Doha, would simply bypass Gordon, point to Holcomb and say, “Scott, what do you got?”
You could say Holcomb’s ability to bridge the gap between attorneys and fighters is in his genes. His forebears came to this country in the 1630s and have been engaged in American warfare for centuries. They fought for independence in the American Revolution, on both sides of the Civil War, and in both World Wars. His father, Michael, was serving as an aircraft mechanic for the Air Force in Vietnam when Scott was born, Nov. 2, 1972, in New Haven, Conn. Michael survived the war, and he and his son have now run in six marathons together.
When it was Holcomb’s turn to go to war, he picked up his law books and went.
Cicero, the political conscience of ancient Rome, once wrote Silent enim leges inter arma: Laws are silent in times of war. It’s a maxim that Holcomb remembered and refuted throughout his deployment in Bosnia and Kuwait.
“It was our responsibility to speak up, to talk about international law and bring it to the forefront of the discussion,” says Holcomb.
The story of Abu Ghraib broke after Holcomb left the Army — he heard nothing about it while he was deployed — but the news left him angry and disappointed. “When I used to teach the law of war,” he says, “I would conclude by saying that these rules might not seem important, but if you violate the law of war, you could cause an international incident and your name would be on the president’s desk within an hour. Unfortunately, we now have too many real-life examples to bring that point home.” At the same time, he reminds us, “the vast majority of men and women in uniform conduct themselves honorably, even in the most trying of circumstances.”
In early 2004, Holcomb began his civilian career as an attorney with the Atlanta office of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, where he advised business leaders on compliance issues with state and federal corporate and securities laws and regulations. He handled cases before the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, the National Association of Securities Dealers and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But the urge to be involved in something larger than himself was strong this spring, and he decided to run for Georgia secretary of state.
Holcomb’s friends are not surprised.
“This is par for the course,” says McAllister. “It’s part of the whole service theme with Scott.”
During his campaign, Holcomb became friends with former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran, and they attended rallies for Band of Brothers, a political organization formed to assist Democratic veterans running for office. “I was impressed with Scott’s determination to contribute something after he’d already made a magnificent contribution with his military service,” says Cleland. “War ages you very quickly, and Scott brings that personal, gut-level experience back to Georgia.”
Phillips saw this coming during the 15-minute walks he and Holcomb would make to chow at Camp Doha.
“He had the total number of days he’d been married and the total number of days he’d been deployed memorized,” says Phillips, who now works with the U.S. Justice Department. “Then he’d say, ‘When I get back, I’m gonna put all of this experience to a cause. I’m gonna go into civilian service.’ He’s already seen policy translate into real action, and his only question was how to get involved.”
There are risks to running for public office. Holcomb comes from a blue-collar background, and the leave of absence from Sutherland cost him a regular paycheck. He took a home-equity loan. He views it, like an education, as an investment in the future.
“I also think it’s important for people who are not wealthy to get involved in politics,” says Holcomb. “It’s important to have leaders who understand a wider range of experience.”
One of seven Democrats vying for the nomination, Holcomb lost the primary on July 18. Although he has no immediate plans to run for office again, his former bunkmate McAllister says, “He truly believes that he has something to contribute in a meaningful way to the lives of other people. That’s what motivates him.”
During his childhood Holcomb spent a lot of time visiting historic sites with his grandparents, Edward and Dorris Kimberly, who passed on their love of history to their grandson. But Holcomb’s perception of history, and those historic sites, has changed slightly because of what he’s experienced.
Last spring, before a Band of Brothers event in D.C., Holcomb revisited Arlington National Cemetery. He went to visit the grave of a friend, a helicopter pilot who was killed in action.
“He’s not the first of my friends buried there, but I hope he’s the last,” says Holcomb, visibly emotional. “Arlington used to be this great historic memorial to me, a famous place I visited with my grandparents. Not anymore. Now it’s a place I go to remember old friends.”