The Empire Comes Home Counterinsurgency, Policing, and the Militarization of America’s Cities

By Danny Sjursen, a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Originally published at TomDispatch.

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’s The 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 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. 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? 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 (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 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. (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 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’rsquo;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 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.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Gabriel

    Excellent article. I would add, as a slightly more upper- or at least professional-class consequence of imperial wars, that there is also a blowback of counterinsurgency propaganda and surveillance techniques into the domestic political life of the imperial power. In the case of the United States, this goes as far back as the Philippines in the early 1900s. From Douglas Porch’s excellent Counterinsurgency:

    The bad news was that, as Mark Twain predicted, “trampling upon the helpless abroad” threatened the health of democracy at home. And he was more correct than he imagined. The Spanish–American War and the invasion and occupation of the Philippines introduced the US Army to media manipulation, civil-military fusion, and the requirement for methods of social control abroad that ricocheted home. The requirement to sell controversial colonial adventures to a skeptical US public saw General Leonard Wood recruit his personal press agent in the form of an English aristocrat and Associated Press correspondent, Captain Edgar Bellairs. Bellairs’ glowing dispatches praising the General as a far-sighted founder of America’s new empire laid the groundwork in Washington for Wood’s nomination as Military Governor of Cuba and later as commander of the Philippines Division. In Cuba, Wood paid reporters to write good stories about him, and excommunicated those critical of his policies. Alas, Bellairs was exposed as a con man and former Florida convict with a fake English accent named Charles Ballentine, in cahoots with Wood to discredit Governor of the Philippines William Howard Taft, and secure the Republican Party’s 1908 presidential nomination. Indeed, Alfred McCoy concludes that the Bellairs–Wood episode demonstrates “how U.S. national politics became entwined with colonial intrigues in this imperial age, seamlessly weaving together Manila intrigues, Ohio machine politics, New York media, and Washington policy.”

    Having parried Wood’s attempts to unseat him, Taft as the first civil governor of the Philippines understood the importance of information dominance as a precondition of colonial rule. The Philippine administration was militarized as officers, active and retired, took over the police, the courts, and the civil administration. The Division of Military Information (DMI) imported, in 1900 to collect intelligence on the insurgency, was expanded by Captain, later General, Ralph Van Deman into a formidable machine with “the capacity to weave discrete strands of data into a dark tapestry of threat.” This allowed the administration and its militarized constabulary to control the island elite, whose salient characteristic in the view of US intelligence was “the absence of integrity,” through infiltration of nationalist political organizations, the blackmail of uncooperative activists on the basis of information provided by DMI or constabulary informants, and lawsuits based, in the words of one US Senator, on “the harshest [libel and sedition laws] . . . known to human statute books.”

    This police state would have merely mocked the US democratic mission had it remained in the Philippines, where by a decision of the US Supreme Court, Filipinos enjoyed no constitutional rights, like freedom of expression. But the indefatigable Van Deman introduced both his internal security apparatus and his imperial mindset to the continental United States. From 1917, Van Deman transformed what became in 1918 the Military Intelligence Division into domestic spy agency staffed in part by veterans of the Philippines, whose job was to collect data on potential subversives to include anti-war activists and labor union militants, to underpin the Espionage Act of that year and the even more draconian Sedition Act of 1918. But the end of the war and a turf war with the Bureau of Investigation convinced the army to ditch the domestic surveillance business. Van Deman retired to San Diego, California in 1929. But he and his wife continued to collect information on subversives provided by “agents” and other walk-in sources, meticulously filed according to a colonial color and ideological code – Americans of Japanese and Italian descent, German Jewish émigrés in Hollywood, and union activists in the southern California aeronautical plants or in the agricultural industry. Such single-minded devotion earned Van Deman the American Civil Liberties Union’s classification as “a phobic nativist red hunter.” With the approach of war, Van Deman returned to the US intelligence community as adviser to the War Department. After the war, the general put his knowledge and card file at the service of Hoover’s FBI and right-wing Congressional attacks on alleged communist influence in Hollywood’s Screen Writers’ Guild and elsewhere, to the point that, in the opinion of McCoy, Van Deman might be called “father of the American blacklist.” In this way, counterinsurgency techniques designed to strengthen the mechanisms of colonial rule were bounced to the homeland, whose citizens were deemed subversives simply because of their ethnicity or ideas.

  2. Wukchumni

    I noticed some law enforcement started blousing their pants about a decade ago, and it means nothing really, not as if they’re gonna get their pantaloons muddy in a patrol car or run the risk of said garments snagging on the door of a C-47 as they’re parachuting down to the scene of a crime. It’s strictly to look the part.

    Visalia-the biggest burb around these parts, was given a $250k bomb removal robot by the Feds, funny that

    Perhaps the main reason to give all of this over the top military gear to local law forces, is a reason to make more of it?

    Looking up the MSRP on MRAP’s, they’re $500k a copy or more.

    I guess we’lll know it’s gotten way out of bounds when they start giving excess military gear to the Salvation Army…

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Reading this post I became curious about the Defense Department’s 1033 Program which started the transfers of military equipment to our local police — primarily to help with “counter-drug or counter-terrorism activities.” The !033 Program makes surplus DoD equipment and supplies available to a local police department “only if (1) it is drawn from existing DOD stocks, (2) the receiving agency accepts the material as-is, where-is,” (3) the transfer is made without expending DOD procurement funds, and (4) all subsequent costs are borne by the receiver.” This last item is the real kicker. Any police department [or campus — or school district] that took advantage of the 1033 Program to receive a piece of equipment like a HMMWV or and MRAP vehicle is looking at totally amazing costs for operating and maintaining the vehicles. Many of these vehicles were provided essentially for “free” from DoD but they run on large quantities of money which has to come from other than DoD budgets — probably from local police budgets. Just to make things interesting the equipment remains DoD property. If someone at the local police force figures out they made a bad deal they have to work with DoD in all their efforts to rid themselves of their toys.

      Just to add insult to injury — the 1033 Program made available: “… office furniture, household goods (e.g., kitchen equipment), exercise equipment, portable electric generators, tents, and general law enforcement supplies (e.g., handcuffs, riot shields, holsters, binoculars, and digital cameras). Heavy equipment, such as cranes, and various types of land vehicles are also available. Watercraft, aircraft, and weapons are eligible. Other property includes tool kits, first aid kits, blankets and bedding, lawn maintenance supplies, combat boots, and office equipment (computers, printers, fax machines, etc.)” [] I’m not sure how some this stuff helps with “counter-drug or counter-terrorism activities” but if the police could find a justification I spotted a lot of stuff on that list that might come in handy for responding to disasters like those in the news recently. And if someone in Police department procurement were especially creative they might take possession of a surplus LWP or maybe a couple of them:

      “The Lightweight Water Purifier (LWP) is the world’s most advanced lightweight mobile water treatment unit. The LWP removes nuclear, biological or chemical agents from the water supply, is set up in 45 minutes and operated by one soldier. It can be transported on a HMMWV or in a Blackhawk helicopter and is air transportable and air droppable. The system is capable of operating on highly turbid waters and can treat water contaminated by weapons of mass destruction.

      LWP units are presently operating throughout the world in support of armed forces and disaster relief.

      The LWP can produce water at US$ 0.07 per gallon, which is primarily the cost of diesel fuel to operate the system and chemicals for minimal, periodic cleaning.”

    1. justanotherprogressive

      Sadly, I don’t think this writer could ever become a police officer. He’d have to go through a law enforcement academy first, and with his views, he would be “washed out”. To be a policeman these days means you have to accept your training and your training is designed to make you as military as possible…..

    2. JohnM

      “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.”

      Oh my. This person, like so many others, just eats up the propaganda and thinks we invaded and occupied this country to spread democracy and all that other nonsense? Haven’t we endured enough clueless politicians?

      1. Matt

        Nothing on that quoted passage suggests the author believes we invaded Iraq for “freedom and democracy.”

  3. Disturbed Voter

    When you have a global plutocracy, they are going to even treat their home country as a target for neocolonialism. So … get rid of the global plutocracy. I don’t see neocolonialism going away, that would cause even more severe dislocation (global depression from ending of most FX and world trade).

    1. clinical wasteman

      I share your pessimism about neocolonialism, but not the implied optimism — if that’s what it is, apologies if not — about replacing global plutocracy with local plutocracies with neocolonialism intact. More or less the story of the postcolonial half of 20th century: must it really be repeated?
      Also, all journalists eager for Embedding should be made to read this great article and told: speak from ‘1st-hand experience’ when you’ve accumulated this much of it. Otherwise they should stick to spouting abject opinion like the rest of us.

  4. Jon Rudd

    What happens overseas never stays overseas. See the section on “Imperialism” in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

  5. griffen

    When I tuned in to hunger games sequel Catching Fire early this week ( more like stumbled to the channel ), the parallels described above nearly fit to the tone of the movie.

    You’ve got a successful class of business & professionals who stay generally clueless about such ongoing issues or tsk tsk that the problems are even that broad. Such as the oft cited Acela bubble.

    Good read.

  6. AB

    Accurate descriptions. Though I felt the missing piece in both cases was the background of continuous threat of violence, both toward the members of the “occupied territories” and toward the military/police. If you start with the presupposition that outside “peacekeepers” are needed, the results, as described in this article, have been the same across millennia. I like to think the author is suggesting a wiser approach to police actions, but I’m suggesting that what’s missing is a better understanding of the problem and a clearer mission.

  7. Polar Donkey

    I used to work for the city of memphis department of housing and community development. I was an analyst and did GIS mapping. In 2010 I went to a presentation by a criminologist who was also a consultant with memphis police department. He and mpd created operation blue crush. “Data driven policing. During the presentation, the criminologist talked about all the counter-insurgency tactics used at apartment complexes in high crime areas. He didn’t say COIN, but that’s what it was. I got pretty pissed and said if you substitute the names of these apartment complexes for basra, fallujah, or tikrit, how is what your doing any different than COIN. The criminologist’s girlfriend was also making a presentation. She said only one other person in all the presentations they had done made that same point, congressman steve cohen. It was on then. He and I agrued for 30 minutes. My main points were these are american citizens and COIN doesn’t work. Just like Iraq wasn’t going to run out of insurgents, memphis isn’t going to run out of poor black young guys with no future. The most interesting thing was how the attendees split. The people under 35 started to side with my argument and started peppered the criminologist with tough questions too. The older attendees got visibly angry that people were challenging the criminologist and his policies. I can probably safely say that was the first time the criminologist lost the audience at his own presentation. The scary thing was, he really believed he was doing positive work for the city. He couldn’t wrap his head around how a couple counter points to his argument blew up the presentation he had given dozens of times and turned most of the attendees against what he was doing.

    1. justanotherprogressive

      Another sad example of police militarization.

      I don’t have a problem with the data – I have a problem about how the data is being used. The more data you can capture about an area with problems, the better. But you had better be able to understand what that data is telling you – and apparently this criminologist had no clue……

      Obviously, if they are still having problems with these buildings, then the data is telling them that what they have been doing just isn’t working. Unfortunately, police thinking has gotten so militarized that the only solutions they can come up with (for their own failures) are military solutions, when community policing solutions might work so much better….

      Yea, I know, community policing doesn’t bring in the big bucks for corporations like selling military gear to the government to give police departments does… don’t expect any politicians to support it…..

    2. Ptolemy Philopater

      Bottom line, this is genocide. “There are always going to be young poor desperate black men.” Not if you kill and lock them all up. Just as all the operations in West Asia are about creating a land without people for a people without land, or people who want all the land, so too with the socially disadvantaged in this country. They are no longer needed. We have a genocidal plutocracy who are in the business of making the world a safe place for their multi generational dynasties. The United States too is now occupied territory. We need war crimes tribunals and we need them now. This is not politics, these are crimes against humanity. All the money laundered from the Central Banks need to be clawed back and civil society restored.

      1. Badtux

        If genocide, rather inefficient genocide. The residents of those buildings are breeding far faster than they’re being killed. Rather, it’s just a continuation of the terrorist tactics of the KKK as carried out by Southern police officers for over 100 years (note that most Southern police officers were members of the KKK until the 1970’s). The goal of the KKK was terrorism of black populations and removal of voting rights from black populations, not genocide. The War on Brown People, by making so much of the population of those neighborhoods felons and thus ineligible to vote, performs both chores.

        And yes, the KKK is all but dead in name, but the basic principles that it embodied remain in the Deep South.

      2. tony

        You would have to take out the young women who keep making more. That is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

        Even the Israelis have not done that, despite quite a few there wanting to.

      3. Foppe

        It’s mainly about the continued marginalization slash exclusion — makes for a smaller pool, and lower price of labor because of how felony convictions impact your job and income prospects. Also good for uneducated whites job prospects.
        Culling is welcome, but it must be procedurally justifiable, at least at first sight, so the media can continue to look away. Cf. What Mark ames describes in going postal – reality doesn’t matter so long as you can pathologize the actors, no one will want to recognize it as an indictment of the system, as that is way too scary.

    3. Olivier

      What was the professional background of the audience and under the umbrella of which institution did this presentation take place?

    4. Altandmain

      The most interesting thing was how the attendees split. The people under 35 started to side with my argument and started peppered the criminologist with tough questions too. The older attendees got visibly angry that people were challenging the criminologist and his policies. I can probably safely say that was the first time the criminologist lost the audience at his own presentation.

      For some reason, that reminds me of the Bernie Sanders vs Clinton split in the 2016 Democratic Primary. I suppose that may be due to her husband, Bill Clinton’s crime bill.

      There is also the matter of war, Wall Street, campaign financing, and frankly, inequality as a whole.

  8. Andrew Macpherson

    Militarized policing has become a business that is entirely separate from the community and it’s needs. This business will fight for its survival and when America looses the war of the worlds it is trying so hard to start, the police will be forced will turn to their new paymasters for their mandate, enforcing total control over a defeated and occupied population.

    1. djrichard

      I had the same thought. The old adage comes to mind, “Nothing personal, it’s just business.”

      And as we all know, the last thing that should be regulated is business. And perish the thought of being even more ambitious and suggesting that the fundamental premise of the “business models” behind these businesses are broken and corrupt, and that we should unwind these business ventures completely. Because that would be going backwards. Far better that we improve these businesses. Isn’t there a way that we can perfect them so they can focus more properly on the evil doers and perpetrators without collateral damage to the rest of the population? /sarc

      1. JTMcPhee

        Neoliberal business model: More and more work, from fewer and fewer people, for less and less pay, with more and more micromanagement, and more complete looting… “A certain amount of killing has always been a feature of good business…”

        And from a different comment here, what a wonderful phrase to apply to post-supra-national corporations: “Home country.” What’s the “home country” of “Monsanto” or “Academi,” or that Elysium place? Where’s our Max Da Costa? And failing that, where’s our Wall-E?

        I know, these are just silly sci-fi movies. And Greek myths and dramas are just tales told in the dark…

        From Wiki on “Academi”:

        Academi is an American private military company founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince[2][3] as Blackwater,[4] renamed as Xe Services in 2009 and now known as Academi since 2011 after the company was acquired by a group of private investors.[5] The company received widespread notoriety in 2007, when a group of its employees were convicted of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad for which four guards were convicted in a U.S. court.[6][7]

        Academi provides security services to the United States federal government on a contractual basis. Since 2003, the group has provided services to the Central Intelligence Agency, including a 2010 contract for $250 million.[8] In 2013, Academi subsidiary International Development Solutions received an approximately $92 million contract for State Department security guards.[9]

        In 2014, Academi became a division of Constellis Holdings along with Triple Canopy and other security companies that were part of the Constellis Group as the result of an acquisition.

      2. djrichard

        Hey JT, with respect to the war on terror and the war on drugs in particular, you can bet somebody is benefiting. And that’s as far as their business model needs to go; they get benefit from it. Of course, too bad for those on the short end of the stick. But hey, as long as you can keep others from identifying with those on the short-end of the stick, then this business can be perpetuated for as long as needed. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. When will the war on terror end? Never, if the people who benefit have anything to say about it. Ditto the war on drugs.

        And to your point, not really all that different for any business (not just the war-on-x variety). Any business can be abusive up to whatever the chattering class is willing to tolerate. And the chattering class is willing to tolerate a lot. Well maybe now not so much when it comes to casting couch quid-pro-quo in Hollywood. And sexism in Silicon Valley. But when it comes to deplorables, well too bad, so sad.

        I wonder if it would make any difference if we thought of businesses as simply regime by another name, just more privatized. Creative destruction? That’s just regime change, bringing a new equilibrium to the eco-system of regimes. AKA, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.

  9. nonclassical

    Malcolm X stated, “Chickens coming home to roost”, with reference to JFK assassination….Naomi Klein (“The Shock Doctrine-Rise of Disaster Capitalism” defined what is currently being perpetrated, and David Talbot provides (“The Devil’s Chessboard”) extensive historical documentation:

    “(Allen) Dulles saw himself as above the elected law, manipulating and subverting American presidents in the pursuit of his personal interests and those of the wealthy elite he counted as his friends and clients—colluding with Nazi-controlled cartels, German war criminals, and Mafiosi in the process. Targeting foreign leaders for assassination and overthrowing nationalist governments not in line with his political aims, Dulles employed those same tactics to further his goals at home…

    An exposé of American power that is as disturbing as it is timely, The Devil’s Chessboard is a provocative and gripping story of the rise of the national security state…”

  10. Michael

    A recent visit to my sister and her husband, a long-time NYC cop supports many of the author’s observations. An avid Trump supporter, my brother in law complained about the “animals” in the borough where he worked. They were all cheating the system, claiming to be single to receive benefits while the significant other really did exist, choosing not to work or, worse, to deal drugs rather than make the honest choices they all had access to but rejected. I tried patiently to explain that, as is the nature of his job, he just never saw the borough’s working poor that just tried to get by. Plus, even for those he did see, it was likely much more complicated than he claimed. Out of politeness, he did back away a bit, but you could easily see his worldview of “us” versus “them” with “them” being less human than those in his suburban, upstate NY neighbourhood.

    Darius Rejali, in his book Torture and Democracy, traces how much of the well-known examples of systematic torture in police forces can be traced to Vietnam torture programs coming stateside as vets found their ways back into civilian life (see John Burgess in Chicago). How can we expect anything different after the militarisation of police since Desert Storm and the glorification of gun culture (very much part of Police culture). The slogan of one NYC police night time patrol team involved “owning the night” and quoted Hemingway on the glories of hunting a man: “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

    Policing is among the most important roles for civil society and I’m amazed at anyone who can literally risk his/her life on a daily basis. But the role is abjectly uncivil as soon as it starts to view large parts of the population as a “lesser other.” Who exactly are they thinking of when they say their duty is to “protect and serve”?

    1. Badtux

      On the note of officer safety, on average over the past decade it is literally four times safer to be a police officer than to be an average resident of Oakland, California. Last year was an especially deadly year for police officers due to the Dallas ambush and the Baton Rouge ambush, but even only using that outlier year, the job of police officer is *still* twice as safe as living in Oakland. For that matter, twice as safe as being a garbage collector — yeppers, garbage collectors are twice as likely to die on the job as police officers. Yet you don’t see garbage collectors shooting unarmed men because “it’s a dangerous job and I was scared”… funny that, eh?

    2. Olivier

      The torture transmission belt works in the other direction, too. The infamous Graner of Abu Ghraib, for instance, was a prison guard before.

  11. Wukchumni

    One thing to consider about law enforcement, is the vast majority of
    police officers tend to be quite conservative in political outlook.

    A friend in LE in the National Park was sent to FLETC (federal law enforcement training center) in Brunswick Georgia, and he told me the dozens of tv monitors in the chow hall were always set to Fox news, with no exception~

  12. Fec

    As we saw in Donbas and Catalonia, local police defend local oligarchs against national forces. Whereas local police terrorize the poor, they do not fall in line with nationals. Therefore, local military equipment becomes part of the resulting insurgency.

    The coming civil war will not be put down by our pathetic military. Instead, we will have a hodge podge of loyal and seceded states with autonomous city-states where, like Barcelona, wealth is concentrated. The rest, like Spain, may as well be Greece.

    Kunstler will finally be right about geography ceasing to have meaning, as travel will be among the first casualties for all but the most powerful.

    But Yurp and China will go first.

    1. clinical wasteman

      Poverty is concentrated in cities like Barcelona, London, NYC or Mumbai too, although not always as demonstratively as the wealth. And that same wealth is positively furtive when concentrated in upscale exurbs and land ownership in general.
      Workers (employed or otherwise) are still workers (employed or otherwise) where we concentrate in large non-‘national’ minorities and therefore fail to qualify as salt of the national earth.
      And we’re not about to leave, either. It’s been tried in ‘le petit Paris’, Manhattan and some parts of London, but apart from Dubai, Monte Carlo and — by some accounts, from this distance I don’t know — San Francisco, no city boosters anywhere have successfully purged an entire Urban/’minority’ Deplorable class. That’s why they’ve switched to pretending rhetorically that we don’t exist.

  13. Jeremy Grimm

    Police in the US have lost sight of their mission. The US government’s endless wars on crime, on drugs, on terrorism have greatly aggravated this blindness. The Local, State and National government politics of getting tough on crime by defining new crimes and extending and further brutalizing our system of enforcement and punishments did little to help.

    Once when I traced the sequence of events bringing us to police departments which look less like police than the FLOT of an assault unit in a war zone — I might have asked what our Rulers were afraid. However I am beginning to wonder whether any plan — anything purposeful — created our militarized police. They are more provocative of unrest than successful in its control — much as our military has proven more effective at creating new enemies than accomplishing their missions — whatever those mission are — until the next stack of pubs roll out of TRADOC.

    It grows more and more difficult for me to believe these counterproductive outcomes result from some nefarious plot. Rather — plain old stupidity and mindlessness seem more likely causes. In a way this peculiar drift is more disturbing to me than discovering a nefarious plot. I am frightened by the speed and direction of this vehicle we ride toward our uncertain future and I grow more frightened that there is no driver. The twists and turns do not guide the vehicle — they are mere artifacts of our Rulers actions in cashing out before they jump off.

    1. sierra7

      ‘I am frightened by the speed and direction of this vehicle we ride toward our uncertain future and I grow more frightened that there is no driver. The twists and turns do not guide the vehicle — they are mere artifacts of our Rulers actions in cashing out before they jump off.”

  14. joe defiant

    Thanks for posting this Lambert.

    If anyone is interested Radley Balko wrote a damn good book on this subject called ‘Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces’

    I live in NYC and I can’t count the number of times I’ve discussed stop and frisk, broken windows policing, etc and brought up how similar it is to american military tactics abroad. Most times I’m labeled a nutcase anarchist and ignored by everyone except people who have personally been victims.

  15. JBird

    I have been reading him for around a decade and as far as I can tell he has always been honest in his reporting although his fact checking needed some real improvement. He started his coverage of police abuse on his own blog, wrote a book on it, and I think focuses on criminal justice at his Washington Post column. Whatever else he has been reporting on police abuse since before it was an issue, and especially on asset forfeiture, and various medical examiners and crime labs problems when almost nobody else was.

    Anyways that link was a little heavy on the “he’s a shill of the Koch brothers” attack instead of better reporting on his reporting.

    1. bob

      I will now dismiss your criticism, with the same opinion stated above- Balko is Rad.

      “that link was a little heavy on the “he’s a shill of the Koch brothers” attack instead of better reporting on his reporting.”

      Yes, it was wasn’t it. The guy is and has been sponsored, throughout his career, by the Koch Brothers. To dismiss that HUGE, GLARING coincidence while reporting on his reporting, is malpractice.

      It could be that his fact checking is clouded by his owners and their ideology. Anyways….

      1. JBird

        Smearing someone with guilt by association. Nice. And I’ve yet to see any reports saying he is wrong about police, and judicial, abuse, corruption, and fraud. However, his relationship with the Koch Brothers is what matters above all

        1. JBird

          Just to clarify.

          I agree on criticizing Mr. Balko’s sloppy attention to being accurate on his writings. That is a good thing. Even cautioning my interpretations because of possible bad influences. What I do not like is the smearing of both himself and all his decades of work because of who he has associated with and who has paid him. That is an effective, and common, way to discredit anyone and anything by using a small ball of mud and making a mudman. It’s something I am sick of seeing.

          He has improved although he is still loose, but I have always found him truthful in the basics of anything I have read and followed up on. Pretty much every story he has reported has turned out true and he still seems to cover, and follow up on systemic police abuse than, I think, but honestly I don’t know, any single newspaper, which is a damned shame.

          1. bob

            If you choose to go after the “militarized police”, you don’t do it with a half-assed leader who can’t be bothered to check his facts.

            It’s hard enough when the facts are correct to force change. Giving “them” an excuse to dismiss your complaint because it’s flat out wrong does a whole lot more harm, than good, to any sort of call to justice.

            If you choose to further that line of thinking into me calling him a rat, go ahead. I’d assume incompetence before malice, at least until proven otherwise. You can quote me on that.

  16. Greg

    In IRON HEEL Jack London writes about the mercenary class being the buffer between the haves and the have nots. The current transformation of our local police into a military organization has started.

  17. Mark Ó Dochartaigh

    From the very first scientific historian, Thucydides: “The tyranny that the Athenian empire imposed on others, it finally imposed on itself.”

    1. JBird

      Like I said to a classmate recently after a lecture on the nonstop mult decade disasters that’s American “diplomacy” the more things change…


  18. PS

    To paraphrase someone smarter than I (and I can’t remember who), “When you build the largest, most powerful war machine that the world has ever known, it will find wars to fight. And if it can’t find them abroad then it will find them at home.”

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