The Empire Comes Home

Danny Sjursen

“This... thing, [the War on Drugs]
this ain't police work... I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon
everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors... running around on a
damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts...
pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your f**king enemy. And
soon the neighborhood that you're supposed to be policing, that's just occupied
territory.” —
"Bunny" Colvin, season three of HBO’sThe Wire
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 FOB (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 Shiite 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
(“tossed”) 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 sonwasMahdi
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. So many of the clips reminded me of enemy propaganda videos
from Baghdad or helmet-cam shots recorded by our troopers in combat, except
that they came from New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco. Brutal connections
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
: 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?Ourstreets,” 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
The racial and ethnic
. In Baghdad, many U.S. troops called the localshajis,ragheads, or worse
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 (sometimes) 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 — guilty or innocent (and they were nearly all
innocent) — was safe from the small, daily indignities of a military search.
Back here in the U.S., 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 (and a judicial ruling found), 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 (mainly 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 (MRAP) trucks
I drove around Kandahar, Afghanistan? And in case you were worried about the
ability of Madison, Indiana (pop: 12,000), to fight off rocket propelled
grenades thanks to those spiffy new MRAPs, fear not, President 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
The use of torture has rarely — except for several years at the CIAbeen
official policy in these years, but it happened anyway. (See Abu Ghraib, of
course.) 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 U.S. 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. 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
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 less than 6%
of Americans are vets, some 19% 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 (in)justice 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 Haditha (the
infamous retaliatory massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines), Panjwai
(where a U.S. Army Sergeant left his base and methodically executed nearby
Afghan villagers), and of course Abu Ghraib — 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 ofmymen
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. Major Danny Sjursen writes
regularly for
He 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 in Lawrence, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright ©2017 Danny Sjursen