ANNAPOLIS, Md. –
Lt. Cmdr. Dennis E. Harbin – a judge advocate currently serving as a joint legal observer and trainer for the J7 Directorate in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – joined academics and historians from around the globe to present at the U.S. Naval Academy's (USNA) McMullen Naval History Symposium Sept. 23-24, 2021.
Established in 1973, the symposium has been described as the largest regular meeting of naval historians in the world. The History Department at the USNA in Annapolis hosts the world-renowned event biennially to highlight the latest research on naval and maritime history.
Harbin authored a paper focused on the 17th-century Dutch jurist and philosopher, Hugo Grotius, who is considered one of the fathers of the international law and is the author of “Mare Liberum” (translated as “The Free Sea”). Harbin's paper – and his symposium presentation – discussed how Grotius’s legal defense of Dutch sea power in the South China Sea 400 years ago arguably served as the origin of maritime lawfare.
“In my current assignment, I’ve been researching ‘lawfare’ as a doctrinal concept, and I thought the symposium was a great opportunity to think and write about its origins – especially as it relates to freedom of navigation,” said Harbin.
One of the major themes of the 2021 symposium was the importance of studying history in order to develop military professionals.
“History’s lessons help us anticipate challenges and guide us to solutions. Listening to many of the presentations, I was pleasantly surprised how prevalent legal issues are in naval history,” said Harbin. “Whether prize law and privateering in the Civil War; designing fleets in compliance with inter-war arms limitation treaties; or enforcing navigational rights 400 years ago, sailors have grappled with challenging legal problems throughout history. Just as the rest of the military community studies history to ready themselves to make decisions, as legal professionals we should do the same.”
Harbin was commissioned in 2008 through the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps at the Virginia Military Institute, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in International Studies. His served his first tour of duty aboard USS Bainbridge (DDG 96), where he earned his surface warfare officer qualification. While working as the auxiliaries officer and assistant operations officer, he deployed to the Indian Ocean and participated in anti-piracy operations. Harbin then served as the operations officer for Patrol Coastal Crew Kilo. Deploying to Bahrain aboard USS Firebolt (PC 10), he participated in maritime security operations in the Arabian Gulf.
After his selection for the Law Education Program, Harbin graduated from Penn State Law in 2014. During law school, he also earned a diploma from the Rhodes Academy of Ocean Law and Policy. More recently, Harbin earned a Master of Laws in Military Law, with a concentration in national security law, from the Army’s The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School.
Harbin’s JAG Corps assignments include tours at Region Legal Service Office Mid-Atlantic and Defense Service Office Southeast while completing the First Tour Judge Advocate program. He also served as a command judge advocate for Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach, Va. Additionally, he served as trial counsel at Region Legal Service Office Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia, Detachment Rota, before later advancing to serve as the detachment’s officer-in-charge and the staff judge advocate for Commander, U.S. Naval Activities Spain.
While Harbin’s presentation at the symposium discussed the origins of lawfare, other papers and presentations at the event were relevant to JAG community practice areas. For instance, one historian presented on the London Conference of 1909, which set the rules for the laws of naval warfare in the early 20th century. Another historian’s presentation examined British officer accountability and courts-martial during the Age of Sail, raising legal issues that apply today.
Harbin is admitted to practice law in Virginia. His previous papers on topics such as the law of the sea, targeted killings, and leadership have been published in the U.S. Naval-Institute’s “Proceedings.”
Looking ahead to the 2023 symposium, Harbin said: “I hope more judge advocates will participate in McMullen Symposiums at USNA in the future.”
You can listen to Harbin’s symposium presentation, here
(Presentation begins at the 17:42 mark).