Counterinsurgency, Policing and the Militarization of America’s Cities
Empire comes home
I can remember both so well.
2006. My first raid in South Baghdad. 2014. Watching on YouTube as a New York police officer asphyxiated — murdered — Eric Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner not five miles from my old apartment. Both events shocked the conscience.
It was 11 years ago next month. My first patrol of the war and we were still learning the ropes from the Army unit we were replacing. Unit swaps are tricky, dangerous times.
In Army lexicon, they’re known as “right-seat-left-seat rides.” Picture a car. When you’re learning to drive, you first sit in the passenger seat and observe. Only then do you occupy the driver’s seat. That was Iraq, as units like ours rotated in and out via an annual revolving door of sorts.
Officers from incoming units like mine were forced to learn the terrain, identify the key powerbrokers in our assigned area, and sort out the most effective tactics in the two weeks before the experienced officers departed. It was a stressful time.
Those transition weeks consisted of daily patrols led by the officers of the departing unit. My first foray off the forward operating base was a night patrol. The platoon I’d tagged along with was going to the house of a suspected Shiite militia leader. Back then, we were fighting both Shi’ite rebels of the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgents.
We drove to the outskirts of Baghdad, surrounded a farmhouse, and knocked on the door. An old woman let us in and a few soldiers quickly fanned out to search every room. Only women — presumably the suspect’s mother and sisters — were home.
Through a translator, my counterpart, the other lieutenant, loudly asked the old woman where her son was hiding. Where could we find him? Had he visited the house recently? Predictably, she claimed to be clueless. After the soldiers vigorously searched a few rooms and found nothing out of the norm, we prepared to leave.
At that point, the lieutenant warned the woman that we’d be back — just as had happened several times before — until she turned in her own son.
I returned to the FOB with an uneasy feeling. I couldn’t understand what it was that we had just accomplished. How did hassling these women, storming into their home after dark and making threats, contribute to defeating the Mahdi Army or earning the loyalty and trust of Iraqi civilians?
I was, of course, brand new to the war, but the incident felt totally counterproductive. Let’s assume the woman’s son was Mahdi Army to the core. So what? Without long-term surveillance or reliable intelligence placing him at the house, entering the premises that way and making threats could only solidify whatever aversion the family already had to the U.S. Army.
And what if we had gotten it wrong? What if he was innocent and we’d potentially just helped create a whole new family of insurgents?
Though it wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind for years, those women must have felt like many African-American families living under persistent police pressure in parts of New York, Baltimore, Chicago or elsewhere in this country.
Perhaps that sounds outlandish to more affluent whites, but it’s clear enough that some impoverished communities of color in this country do indeed see the police as their enemy. For most military officers, it was similarly unthinkable that many embattled Iraqis could see all American military personnel in a negative light.
But from that first raid on, I knew one thing for sure. We were going to have to adjust our perceptions — and fast. Not, of course, that we did.
Years passed. I came home, stayed in the Army, had a kid, divorced, moved a few more times, remarried, had more kids — my Giants even won two Super Bowls. Suddenly everyone had an iPhone, was on Facebook or tweeting or texting rather than calling.
Somehow in those blurred years, Iraq-style police brutality and violence — especially against poor blacks — gradually became front-page news. One case, one shaky YouTube video followed another. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and Freddie Gray, just to start a long list.
As in Baghdad, so in Baltimore. It’s connected, you see. Scholars, pundits, politicians, most of us in fact like our worlds to remain discretely and comfortably separated. That’s why so few articles, reports, or op-ed columns even think to link police violence at home to our imperial pursuits abroad or the militarization of the policing of urban America to our wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
I mean, how many profiles of the Black Lives Matter movement even mention America’s 16-year war on terror across huge swaths of the planet? Conversely, can you remember a foreign policy piece that cited Ferguson? I doubt it.
Nonetheless, take a moment to consider the ways in which counterinsurgency abroad and urban policing at home might, in these years, have come to resemble each other and might actually be connected phenomena.
The degradations involved. So often, both counterinsurgency and urban policing involve countless routine humiliations of a mostly innocent populace. No matter how we’ve cloaked the terms — “partnering,” “advising,” “assisting” and so on — the American military has acted like an occupier of Iraq and Afghanistan in these years.
Those thousands of ubiquitous post-invasion U.S. Army foot and vehicle patrols in both countries tended to highlight the lack of sovereignty of their peoples. Similarly, as long ago as 1966, author James Baldwin recognized that New York City’s ghettoes resembled, in his phrase, “occupied territory.”
In that regard, matters have only worsened since. Just ask the black community in Baltimore or for that matter Ferguson, Missouri. It’s hard to deny America’s police are becoming progressively more defiant. Just last month St. Louis cops taunted protestors by chanting “whose streets? Our streets,” at a gathering crowd.
Pardon me, but since when has it been okay for police to rule America’s streets? Aren’t they there to protect and serve us? Something tells me the exceedingly libertarian Founding Fathers would be appalled by such arrogance.
The racial and ethnic stereotyping. In Baghdad, many U.S. troops called the locals hajis, ragheads or, worse still, sandniggers.
There should be no surprise in that. The frustrations involved in occupation duty and the fear of death inherent in counterinsurgency campaigns lead soldiers to stereotype, and sometimes even hate, the populations they’re doctrinally supposed to protect.
Ordinary Iraqis or Afghans became the enemy, an “other,” worthy only of racial pejoratives and petty cruelties. Sound familiar? Listen to the private conversations of America’s exasperated urban police, or the occasionally public insults they throw at the population they’re paid to “protect.”
I, for one, can’t forget the video of an infuriated white officer taunting Ferguson protestors. “Bring it on, you f**king animals!” Or how about a white Staten Island cop caught on the phone bragging to his girlfriend about how he’d framed a young black man or, in his words, “fried another nigger.”
Dehumanization of the enemy, either at home or abroad, is as old as empire itself.
The searches. Searches, searches, and yet more searches. Back in the day in Iraq — I’m speaking of 2006 and 2007 — we didn’t exactly need a search warrant to look anywhere we pleased.
The Iraqi courts, police, and judicial system were then barely operational. We searched houses, shacks, apartments, and high rises for weapons, explosives, or other “contraband.” No family was safe from the small, daily indignities of a military search.
Back here in the United States, a similar phenomenon rules, as it has since the “war on drugs” era of the 1980s. It’s now routine for police SWAT teams to execute rubber-stamped or “no knock” search warrants on suspected drug dealers’ homes — often only for marijuana stashes — with an aggressiveness most soldiers from our distant wars would applaud.
Then there are the millions of random, warrantless, body searches on America’s urban, often minority-laden streets. Take New York, for example, where a discriminatory regime of “stop-and-frisk” tactics terrorized blacks and Hispanics for decades.
Millions of mostly minority youths were halted and searched by New York police officers who had to cite only such opaque explanations as “furtive movements,” or “fits relevant description” — hardly explicit probable cause — to execute such daily indignities. As numerous studies have shown, such “stop-and-frisk” procedures were discriminatory and likely unconstitutional.
As in my experience in Iraq, so here on the streets of so many urban neighborhoods of color, anyone, guilty or innocent, was the target of such operations.
And the connections between war abroad and policing at home run ever deeper. Consider that in Springfield, Massachusetts, police anti-gang units learned and applied literal military counterinsurgency doctrine on that city’s streets.
In post-9/11 New York City, meanwhile, the NYPD Intelligence Unit practiced religious profiling and implemented military-style surveillance to spy on its Muslim residents.
Even America’s stalwart Israeli allies — no strangers to domestic counterinsurgency — have gotten in on the game. That country’s security forces have been training American cops, despite their long record of documented human rights abuses. How’s that for coalition warfare and bilateral cooperation?
The equipment, the tools of the trade. Who hasn’t noticed in recent years that, thanks in part to a Pentagon program selling weaponry and equipment right off America’s battlefields, the police on our streets look ever less like kindly beat cops and ever more like Robocop or the heavily armed and protected troops of our distant wars?
Think of the sheer firepower and armor on the streets of Ferguson in those photos that shocked and discomforted so many Americans. Or how about the aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon Bombing? Watertown, Massachusetts, surely resembled U.S. Army-occupied Baghdad or Kabul at the height of their respective troop “surges,” as the area was locked down under curfew during the search for the bombing suspects.
Here, at least, the connection is undeniable. The military has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in excess weapons and equipment — armored vehicles, rifles, camouflage uniforms and even drones — to local police departments, resulting in a revolving door of self-perpetuating urban militarism.
Does Walla Walla, Washington, really need the very Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected trucks I drove around Kandahar, Afghanistan? And in case you were worried about the ability of Madison, Indiana to fight off rocket-propelled grenades thanks to those spiffy new MRAPs, fear not, Pres. Donald Trump recently overturned Obama-era restrictions on advanced technology transfers to local police.
Let me just add, from my own experiences in Baghdad and Kandahar, that it has to be a losing proposition to try to be a friendly beat cop and do community policing from inside an armored vehicle. Even soldiers are taught not to perform counterinsurgency that way — though we ended up doing so all the time.
Torture. The use of torture has rarely — except for several years at the CIA — been official policy in these years, but it happened anyway. It often started small as soldier — or police — frustration built and the usual minor torments of the locals morphed into outright abuse.
The same process seems underway here in the United States, as well, which was why, as a 34-year old New Yorker, when I first saw the photos at Abu Ghraib, I flashed back to the way, in 1997, the police sodomized Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in my own hometown.
Younger folks might consider the far more recent case in Baltimore of Freddie Gray, brutally and undeservedly handcuffed, his pleas ignored, and then driven in the back of a police van to his death. Furthermore, we now know about two decades worth of systematic torture of more than 100 black men by the Chicago police in order to solicit often false confessions.
Police in Ferguson. Curtis Wallen photo
Unwinnable wars at home and abroad
For nearly five decades, Americans have been mesmerized by the government’s declarations of “war” on crime, drugs, and — more recently — terror. In the name of these perpetual struggles, apathetic citizens have acquiesced in countless assaults on their liberties.
Think warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot Act, and the use of a drone to execute an (admittedly deplorable) American citizen without due process. The First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments — who needs them anyway?
None of these onslaughts against the supposedly sacred Bill of Rights have ended terror attacks, prevented a raging opioid epidemic, staunched Chicago’s record murder rate or thwarted America’s ubiquitous mass shootings, of which the Las Vegas tragedy is only the latest and most horrific example.
The wars on drugs, crime and terror — they’re all unwinnable and tear at the core of American society. In our apathy, we are all complicit.
Like so much else in our contemporary politics, Americans divide, like clockwork, into opposing camps over police brutality, foreign wars and America’s original sin: racism. All too often in these debates, arguments aren’t rational but emotional as people feel their way to intractable opinions.
It’s become a cultural matter, transcending traditional policy debates. Want to start a sure argument with your dad? Bring up police brutality. I promise you it’s foolproof.
So here’s a final link between our endless war on terror and rising militarization on what is no longer called “the home front.” There’s a striking overlap between those who instinctively give the increasingly militarized police of that homeland the benefit of the doubt and those who viscerally support our wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
It may be something of a cliché that distant wars have a way of coming home, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Policing today is being Baghdadified in the United States. Over the last 40 years, as Washington struggled to maintain its global military influence, the nation’s domestic police have progressively shifted to military-style patrol, search and surveillance tactics, while measuring success through statistical models familiar to any Pentagon staff officer.
Please understand this. For me when it comes to the police, it’s nothing personal. A couple of my uncles were New York City cops. Nearly half my family has served or still serves in the New York Fire Department. I’m from blue-collar, civil service stock. Good guys, all.
But experience tells me that they aren’t likely to see the connections I’m making between what’s happening here and what’s been happening in our distant war zones or agree with my conclusions about them. In a similar fashion, few of my peers in the military officer corps are likely to agree, or even recognize, the parallels I’ve drawn.
Of course, these days when you talk about the military and the police, you’re often talking about the very same people, since veterans from our wars are now making their way into police forces across the country, especially the highly militarized SWAT teams proliferating nationwide that use the sorts of smash-and-search tactics perfected abroad in recent years.
While fewer than six percent of Americans are vets, some 19 percent of law-enforcement personnel have served in the U.S. military. In many ways it’s a natural fit, as former soldiers seamlessly slide into police life and pick up the very weaponry they once used in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere.
The widespread perpetuation of uneven policing and criminal injustice can be empirically shown. Consider the numerous critical Justice Department investigations of major American cities. But what concerns me in all of this is a simple enough question.
What happens to the republic when the militarism that is part and parcel of our now more or less permanent state of war abroad takes over ever more of the prevailing culture of policing at home?
And here’s the inconvenient truth. Despite numerous instances of brutality and murder perpetrated by the U.S. military personnel overseas — think Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the infamous retaliatory massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines and Panjwai, where a U.S. Army sergeant left his base and methodically executed nearby Afghan villagers — in my experience, our army is often stricter about interactions with foreign civilians than many local American police forces are when it comes to communities of color.
After all, if one of my men strangled an Iraqi to death for breaking a minor civil law, as happened to Eric Garner, you can bet that the soldier, his sergeant and I would have been disciplined, even if, as is so often the case, such accountability never reached the senior-officer level.
Ultimately, the irony is this. Poor Eric Garner — at least if he had run into my platoon — would have been safer in Baghdad than on that street corner in New York. Either way, he and so many others should perhaps count as domestic casualties of my generation’s forever war.
What’s global is local. And vice versa. American society is embracing its inner empire. Eventually, its long reach may come for us all.
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government. This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.