Americans have recoiled in shock as they turn on their TVs to see U.S. Army military police deployed in combat fatigues, and threats from President Trump for a more wide-spread deployment of regular ground combat forces to help police our restive streets that have erupted around the country in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
A low point certainly came when the nation’s senior military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, appeared at Trump’s side in combat fatigues during Trump’s bizarre and brazen photo op in front of St. John’s Church that faces Lafayette Park just outside the White House.
After also attending the photo op with Milley, Defense Secretary Mark Esper on June 3 thankfully distanced himself from Trump’s threats to mobilize the military to suppress the right to free expression of political dissent. One suspects, however, that we haven’t seen the last of this troubling issue of the constitution, executive power, and the role of the soldier in a democracy.
It is worth noting that as Americans seem rightly offended by the reality of their military being used to police their own neighborhoods, they have also stood by and yawned as this same military has waged counterinsurgency and been constabularies in neighborhoods around the world during the forever war launched following the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, America’s land forces have become experts in quelling disturbances in varied neighborhoods across the Middle East and Afghanistan throughout the past two decades.
Instead of protests at home against such operations in the name of American security and forward defense of the “homeland” against jihadists, the public has chosen to wrap its military institutions in yellow ribbons and the stars and stripes and thank our soldiers “for their service” at every turn.
At the same time, however, the shouldering of the combat burden and the deprivations of service in Iraqi or Afghan forward fire posts has been done by a small percentage of American citizens, who have come to see themselves as neglected and abandoned, especially when they return home with the psychic and physical traumas of war.
Another uncomfortable truth is that the record of a small number of America’s warrior elites that, if anything, is worse than the Minneapolis police, and has scarcely caused a ripple of concern at home. Where were the protests when President Trump pardoned Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher and others for illegal acts of violence that are vastly more repugnant than the awful murder of Floyd?
Post-9/11, anti-jihadist campaigns and our police forces at home have also been militarized with equipment, training, tactics, and intelligence gathering expertise learned on our foreign battlefields — so much so that Esper this week inelegantly referred to American cities as now being now a “battlespace” not so wholly different than Fallujah or Mosul.
As in former times of paranoia, civil unrest, and civil military fusion in the epoch of the 1920s and 1930s (anti-communists in the intelligence branch of the U.S. Army) or in the more noteworthy epoch of the 1950s and 1960s (ditto), there can be little doubt that domestic intelligence units today are at work using social network analysis to map real and imagined domestic groups involved in the disturbances to build a more fine-grained picture of the protests. Today, the former dark invader of the jihadist has become an anti-facsist demonstrator in dreadlocks with baggy pants and a copy of Noam Chomsky tract in hand. These practices on domestic espionage linked to the use of force also were skills honed by our land forces in the forever war that have bled over into our policing at home.
As much as we might want to believe these circumstances of security sector repression of constitutional freedom are unique — this is far from the case. Every democratic nation that has engaged in protracted colonial wars of counter insurgency invariably feel the blow back at home in ways that they didn’t anticipate.
Like the French and British before us in Algeria in the 1950s and Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, imperial policing operations as warfare have come home, whether we like it or not — at a time of national crisis. This process unfolded famously in the U.S. in the 1960s, but those who actively recall these events represent an ever-smaller part of civic life — but the record remains equally vital to the life of our freedom and our citizenship.
A characteristic of the imperial wars as practiced by the West to police restive societies invariably devolved down to a grand tactics of combat and military organization called counterinsurgency — a so-called battle for the “hearts and minds” of the people. This quasi-Orwellian term enabled us to grasp attractive metaphors to make us feel better about our narratives of senior military leaders conscious of the perils of defeat in such conflict and eager to assure their reputation at home. These savior generals and the clique of think tank war mongers centered around a strange praetorian iconography that gripped the public’s imagination for a group of senior leaders that failed to achieve the objectives handed to them by civilian political leaders.
Such generals as seen on serious TV shows about world affairs and at executive lectures for civilians with no military experience, of course, encouraged these images as they cycled back home to comfortable jobs on boards of big corporations, six-figure speaking tours, and offices at Harvard and other hallowed halls of the academy mesmerized by “principles of leadership” in which the long grey line at West Point is made to solve every conceivable challenge of management in globalized capitalism.
Another of the deleterious impacts of the forever war has been the further politicization of these institutions that are now openly involved in domestic politics. Many scholars have written extensively about the concept of “civil-military fusion,” in which authorities between civil and military organizations become increasingly blurred in the midst of imperial warfare and, in turn, blows back on the democratic nation that wages such a counterinsurgency.
In America’s case, the last two decades of war in the developing world have further spurred this phenomenon, a new American militarism with its armed forces taking on roles in their attempts to re-engineer the politics of other societies that in the West usually fell to civilian institutions.
With the novel coronavirus mingling with the damaged structure of American society and economy, we face the same prospect as many states around the world that we had always hoped to avoid: the tyranny of military discipline and grape shot fired at citizens in a struggle for their rights when other forms of government have collapsed.
Esper may have tried to distance himself from President Trump’s calls to deploy the 82nd Airborne and other units to police American citizens, but if recent history is any guide, Trump will further abuse his powers to find a politicized stooge/empty suit further to corrupt high offices of the national defense. The strain on honor of the soldier in the frame of the U.S. Constitution will reach a breaking point if such officers receive orders that fundamentally violate the Constitution and its experience, all blather about the Insurrection Act of 1807 notwithstanding.
It would be easy to say that the onus for these decisions falls on the political and military elite, but the reality is more complicated. America’s citizens have stood by and watched the forever war for the last 20 years with scarcely a murmur of dissent. Now the war has come home, and they are faced with the consequences of that disinterest and detachment — a “horror” that, to quote Joseph Conrad, they’ve helped to create.
The at once laughable and tragic spectacle recently in Lafayette Square may yet devolve into the kind of slaughter ground as Fallujah or not. Such a decision rests with the citizens of this nation and also with its soldiers who remain loyal to the Constitution and who treasure the rights of citizenship above the vanity of a disgraced tyrant.