I’m not sure where my fascination with JAG comes from. Maybe I just watch it because Colonel McKenzie was in it. Maybe I find the workings of the US Navy fascinating. Maybe I wanted to see how ridiculous the plots would get, just so they would have an excuse for Rabb to fly F-14s and be the hero, no matter how farfetched.
Maybe it was a combination of all these things.
But these days I look at the show with a different perspective.
The above link goes to an episode involving the malfunction and crash of a military plane. There is subsequent investigation and dispute to whether the error was caused by negligence of the flight maintenance officers or malfeasance by the military contracting company providing plane upgrades. I won’t spoil the results (at least not explicitly), but I can’t say that I can recall a single JAG episode that ever questioned the Navy as an institution. To be sure, it does make clear that there are less savory realities of it, particularly the often political nature of how the Uniform Code of Military Justice is applied. Interestingly, though, this is presented as something almost outside of the Navy itself: when political pressure comes to decide cases one way or the other, it comes from the civilian Secretary of the Navy. Those in uniform are typically beyond reproach. If there are any bad apples, they are isolated incidents reflecting only the character of those involved.
JAG does seem to try to delve into controversial issues, mostly those having to do with women in the military (though it did have an episode with a gay Navy SEAL who had another SEAL flack him in a firefight because he was diagnosed with AIDS and didn’t want to live with the shame of it). But I would really like JAG to wrestle some other institutional things about military life that have been around for so long that nobody questions them. More than one episode involves cases of desertion. But why is it “desertion” and not simply “resignation”? As Jeffrey Tucker brilliantly points out in “The Myth of the Voluntary Military,” one is not free to leave. In any private business contract, you may be subject to civil penalties for not fulfilling it but you cannot be forced to work. So should we think of what the military does as forced labor (that is, slavery) or as a necessary measure to protect the lives and property of Americans? (After reading this last sentence, I feel as though I have presented a false dichotomy, as the latter assumes that protection is the primary purpose of the military, rather than to carry out the orders of the politicians.)
Or, better yet, why doesn’t JAG question US involvement in Bosnia or other conflicts during the 1990s? Staying out of those kinds of issues was probably better for the show.
After mulling it over, I think that JAG is no apologist for the military-industrial complex, but it seems to underestimate the influence it has. Indeed, the episode in season six involving a mishap with the Osprey aircraft and the zealous Congresswoman Bobbie Latham demonstrates this. Whereas in TV world, a lone Congresswoman trying to make sure the military doesn’t waste money on equipment can be seen as a well-intentioned budget hawk, in reality, anybody in Congress seriously questioning military spending is usually painted as anti-military. That is why unpopular measures are connected to military spending bills – if someone votes against them they risk being accused of being “against the troops.”
In the end, though, JAG presents the Navy much like it does Cmdr. Rabb. If he has any faults whatsoever, it is that he is too tenacious and obsessed with accomplishing his goals. It’s an oversimplified view of the military, one I wish would be challenged.