First Published: 2017-10-13

The Empire Comes Home
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, argues Danny Sjursen.
Middle East Online

“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.” —Major

"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

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?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

stereotyping. 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 forTomDispatch.

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


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