The interactions between policing, racism, and the U.S. military vary enormously across time and place. In some instances the relationship is positive. In particular, the two world wars of the 20th century led to advances in international human rights law, such as the Geneva Conventions and the global human rights system constructed after World War II. Both within the United States and around the world, veterans of color returned home to demand that they and their communities should enjoy the same rights that they had been fighting for. Their actions contributed decisively both to the U.S. civil rights movement and to anti-colonial movements around the world.
Nevertheless, violence against racial “others” has been pervasive, with the history of conquest and slavery feeding into contemporary policing and U.S. wars. This is amply confirmed by recent scholarship and commentaries on the history of U.S. policing, usefully summarized in a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore.
A few examples, ranging over the course of U.S. history up to the present, well illustrate the point.
Let us briefly consider the iconic Second Amendment, the violent displacement of Native Americans over centuries, the territorial expansion of U.S. empire in the late 19th century, and the growth of domestic policing and its international expansion in the 20th century.
The Second Amendment was adopted in 1791, after almost two centuries of colonial settlement in what was to become the United States. It reads in full: “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explains, this historical context is still relevant despite the passage of more than two centuries and the expansion of U.S. power across the continent and around the world:
“The elephant in the room in these debates has long been what the armed militias of the Second Amendment were to be used for. The kind of militias and gun rights of the Second Amendment had long existed in the colonies and were expected to continue fulfilling two primary roles in the United States: destroying Native communities in the armed march to possess the continent, and brutally subjugating the enslaved African population.”1
The violent displacement of Native Americans within the territory that is now the United States began with Spanish settlers in Florida and New Mexico in the late 16th century, even before English settlers first arrived in Virginia in 1607. The violence continued with conquest of the East Coast and New Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries. Then came the forced expulsion of Native Americans from the South in the infamous Trail of Tears, under the Jackson administration in the 1830s, to make way for white settlers to occupy the land and grow cotton on plantations using slave labor.
The conquest of the American West, then home to many of the continent’s indigenous peoples, followed in the second half of the 19th century. The assault on Native lands continued in the second half of the 20th century with displacement for construction of dams and, in recent years, pipelines—intrusions that are still being contested.2
From the Spanish-American War of 1898 onward, U.S. wars included not only the iconic World Wars I and II, but also the construction and defense of a formal and informal empire that spanned the globe.
August Vollmer is not a household name, but his career trajectory reflects the historical links between policing and the military. He served as the police chief of Berkeley, California, from 1909 to 1923. Vollmer was influential in shaping law enforcement around the country, becoming known as the father of modern American policing and a pioneer in the academic field of criminal justice. His drive to professionalize the police was built on his experience in counterinsurgency in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War.
Vollmer was not an exception. According to historian Stuart Shrader,3 writing in 2014 in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri:
“A close look at the history of US policing reveals that the line between foreign and domestic has long been blurry. Shipping home tactics and technologies from overseas theaters of imperial engagement has been a typical mode of police reform in the United States. … From the Philippines to Guatemala to Afghanistan, the history of US empire is the history of policing experts teaching indigenous cops how to patrol and investigate like Americans. … But the flow is not one-way: these institutions also return home transformed.”
This mutual influence has manifested itself in open wars in Southeast Asia in the 20th century and in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century. But it has also spawned pervasive global structures to manage not only these wars, but also the war on drugs, the policing of immigration, and the post-9/11 war on terror.
A global military
The Breathe Act, proposed by the Movement for Black Lives, includes a demand to dramatically reduce the budget of the U.S. Department of Defense. This is echoed in more detailed proposals put forth by antiwar activists and defense analysts. The global reach of the Black Lives Matter movement implies that a similar reckoning must come for the global security system. Progressives must scrutinize, expose, and challenge the endless wars pursued by the United States military along with the parallel failures of global counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies.
United States military spending far exceeds that of any other country, adding up to more than the total of the next nine countries. Despite rising criticism of wasted money and endless wars, however, in late July 2020 significant majorities, including Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress, defeated an amendment to cut 10% from the total Pentagon budget of $740.5 billion. The vote was 324 to 93 in the House of Representatives and 77 to 23 in the Senate.
In contrast to the Vietnam War era, there is currently no strong antiwar movement in the United States with links to progressive movements focused on domestic policy. The default assumption in public debate is that U.S. wars are waged in order to protect the security of the United States. And with no military draft to spread the pain widely throughout society—as during the Vietnam War—the loss of U.S. lives in wars abroad remains largely invisible to the media and the public. Nonetheless, there are abundant critiques, across a wide political spectrum, of the U.S. military posture, and a widely shared uneasiness about “endless wars.” 4
The toll of U.S. wars, of course, is by no means limited to the U.S. personnel who lose their lives. The wars involve a scale of violence against civilians that systematically violates international human rights law, primarily targeting those seen as racially “other.” In the Indochina wars of the 1960s and 1970s, in covert interventions throughout the post-World War II period, and in the Middle East wars and the global war on terrorism of the years since 9/11, there has been little accountability to international standards.5 Moreover, U.S. policy systematically rejects any international obligation to allow independent review of the U.S. military presence around the world.
Violent repression but no security
Impunity for abusive state violence and failure to provide security are more common around the world than respect for the rule of law. The United States is no exception. It is important to explore the unique U.S. history and legacy of white supremacy that underpins the resistance to change. But it is also important to recognize that the United States, however powerful, is far from alone in its failures. No nation can claim to have found the solutions or to be above the need for accountability.
Because of the global scope of its military force, the United States is indeed the largest force for state violence outside its own borders in the current era. But in many active conflicts this country is neither the exclusive nor even the primary factor driving these wars, which are also shaped by internal forces and by other outside actors. As Elizabeth Schmidt has extensively detailed in her two-volume study, the scope, nature, and impact of foreign intervention in Africa varies enormously across cases.6 However iconic, U.S.-dominated interventions such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq are the exception rather than the rule worldwide.
Much more common, throughout the years of the Cold War as well as the post-9/11 era, is U.S. complicity with authoritarian regimes to wage aggression without the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground. U.S. involvement in such cases can unfold largely without attracting the attention of the U.S. media. The slaughter of as many as one million Indonesians in 1965–1966 has no resonance in U.S. public memory, unlike the Vietnam War. But U.S. officials both encouraged and collaborated with the slaughter of as many as half a million people, directed by the military forces that brought General Suharto to power and kept him in office for 31 years. “Jakarta” became a code word in Latin America for anti-communist mass killings, which the United States supported over decades.7
Whether the United States is actively involved or plays a secondary role to other actors, however, the post-9/11 counterterrorism and counterinsurgency wars tend to operate with the same logic. With a relatively low toll in American lives, they have little visibility to most of the U.S. public. But these forever wars have produced mounting costs in U.S. resources as well as violence and insecurity in the nations where the wars are staged. At best there have been occasional military victories and temporary restoration of a semblance of normality. More often, escalation has increased insecurity and civilian suffering, whether or not U.S. involvement is front and center.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the region with which the two of us are most familiar, that pattern is most visible in three long-running conflicts: the Nigerian army against Boko Haram in Nigeria, the African Union military mission in Somalia, and French and regional military forces fighting in Mali and other countries in the West African Sahel. In all these cases, unlike in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the United States has a minimal presence of combat troops on the ground. But U.S. involvement is significant nonetheless: the United States is training African military forces, flying armed as well as reconnaissance drones, and mounting occasional actions by special forces, most notably in Somalia. Neither the U.S. government nor the affected African governments are willing to prioritize diplomacy and development over military aid and arms sales. 8
During the Cold War, extreme repression sometimes bought years or decades of stability for authoritarian governments at the expense of their citizens. In the period following the Cold War and particularly in the post-9/11 period, even nominal stability is elusive, as state violence often provokes increased insurgent violence and/or the growth of organized criminal violence, such as drug trafficking.
This then provides the incentive and the excuse for security forces to double down on violence. Despite revelations by investigative journalists, monitoring by human rights organizations, and calls for reform,the mission and the organizational culture of both the police and the military ensure that reform efforts are strong on rhetoric and weak on implementation.
Structural obstacles thwart internal “reforms”
To some extent, racism, violence, and impunity can be tempered by reforms within police and military institutions, such as policies to encourage diversity in the ranks and to prohibit or change certain practices. The U.S. military is subject to codes of conduct such as the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Convention against Torture, and the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. Some local jurisdictions have attempted to reform their policing through measures such as barring chokeholds, requiring use of body cameras, and establishing civilian review boards to investigate misconduct.
These reforms can have some limited effects, but they are by no means universally applied. There are significant differences among agencies, within both law enforcement and the military, with respect to the rule of law. Many officers in the U.S. military hold strong personal commitments to professional codes of conduct; this is reflected in the rising tensions between some levels of the military and the lawless Trump administration.9 Among federal and domestic law enforcement agencies, norms, policies, and practices are highly variable. In times of crises, these differences between agencies will continue to be central in the choices either to escalate violence or to deescalate violence while considering alternatives.
However, the organizational culture of security agencies is most often highly resistant to significant reforms or checks, and credible penalties for violations are rarely enforced. Moreover, the criteria for “success” in achieving their missions—numbers of enemy forces killed in war, arrests made in policing—are not measures of success in achieving actual security. Continued threats are turned into justification for increased budgets and for doubling down on failed strategies.
Without external accountability for violations of human rights and for ineffective policies, internal reforms can only have marginal impacts. And vested interests in violent organizational cultures, growing in proportion to exorbitant budgets, create strong incentives for politicians to avoid enforcing outside accountability.
Shifting resources through divestment and investment
The domestic debate on police violence has significant momentum, with continuing local protests and high national visibility. A central question is whether, how, and to what extent localities should divest from violent policing and reinvest some funds in alternative means to ensure community security.
With U.S. military engagement abroad largely invisible to the wider U.S. public, there is no parallel, high-profile debate on the role of the U.S. military in fomenting global violence, nor much public discussion of redirecting the Pentagon’s budget or priorities. The U.S. military itself is unlikely to question the fundamental premises of its global engagement, which centers on the competition with major powers such as Russia and China. The traditional conception of security—as protection against violent threats from enemies—largely persists. And the vested interests and policy assumptions that protect funding for the military-industrial complex are even more strongly entrenched than those that defend local police budgets.
But there is also a strand of strategic thinking and internal criticism within the defense community that is open to considering other threats to security, most notably global disease pandemics and climate change. A notable example is the internal military investigations of the impact of climate change. In his new book All Hell Breaking Loose, Michael Klare analyzes internal Pentagon documents, finding evidence that “of all major institutions in U.S. society, none is taking climate change as seriously as the U.S. military.”10
Military planners realize that they must prepare for complex clusters of climate disasters, such as the sequence of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017. Such events have already stretched the military’s capacity for humanitarian response and pose a growing threat to military bases, both within the United States and around the world. The military has focused its planning more on adaptation to climate change than on mitigation by reducing carbon emissions. But it has also taken steps to diminish its reliance on fossil fuels through proactive research and investment in renewable energy. And it is acutely aware of the likely increase in instability due to the effect of climate crises in areas already plagued by other causes of conflict.
These Pentagon reports and their implications have not been widely publicized, given the imperative not to openly contradict the climate-denying commander-in-chief. But under different national political leadership, some military voices could potentially be advocates for addressing the causes, rather than only the consequences, of rising conflicts. This would also require rethinking the mission of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.
No single conflict, in Africa or elsewhere, currently has the potential to shift thinking about fundamentals of the U.S. global military posture. Even Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which earned bipartisan condemnation, is discussed only as an exceptional case. Nor is the movement to curb violence within the United States likely to fully extend its scope to the global arena. What can have significant effects, however, are the fiscal pressures from new initiatives on other issues, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. And changes in the Pentagon’s priorities may also come, in indirect ways, from its own research and planning to deal with the climate crisis, the threat of pandemics, and other humanitarian crises. Those factors, together with the emerging consensus against endless ground wars, have potential to eventually change the minds of Republican as well as Democratic voters.
Credit: Costs of War Project
The costs of the post-9/11 wars have been well documented by the Brown University Costs of War Project, with a budgetary cost of $6.4 trillion through fiscal year 2020. Peace activists and analysts have advanced credible alternatives to save on military spending.11Polls from foreign policy establishment organizations may highlight support for ongoing military alliances as essential to U.S. global engagement. But when other pollsters asked more detailed questions, 58 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats supported ending U.S. ground wars.
When asked to identify the top threats to our security, a plurality of voters (46 percent), and 73 percent of Democrats, said that the US primarily faces nonmilitary threats. In light of the covid-19 pandemic, along with disastrous hurricanes, fires, and floods, public pressure for spending on such other threats is likely to grow. And critics will find many in the military who agree with them.
Trump has vowed to end wars, but this is a false promise, notes Peter Certo in Foreign Policy in Focus. Democratic candidates, for their part, have not yet taken full advantage of public disenchantment with shooting wars to advance a robust agenda of funding for alternative security initiatives.
A new social contract?
In the previous essays in this series, we argued that significant shifts in views on the home front open an opportunity for similar changes in policy paradigms at the global level. Such is the case for action on the climate crisis, gross economic inequality, and economic rights, such as the right to health and the right to a living wage. The major obstacle is political will rather than lack of compelling alternative visions, which are now highly visible in public debate. The same applies to state violence, although the potential for domestic change on this front is still much more visible than the alternatives to global U.S. military overreach.
The current convergence of global crises, none of which shows any signs of ending, threatens mass devastation on the scale of the Great Depression and World War II, in the United States and around the world. In rapid succession in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic, its economic repercussions, and resistance to state violence have had unprecedented cumulative effects. While further turmoil is inevitable, this might also offer the opportunity for fundamental changes—if urgent demands for immediate action are grounded in an understanding of the deep roots of injustice and the global scope of the challenge.
One of the most striking signs of hope is the fact that progressive activists as well as many mainstream analysts are seeing the issues not as isolated and competitive but as linked and complementary. The Black Lives Matter movement has continuously stressed the intersectionality of identities and issues. More and more activists are following their lead, which implies focusing on providing mutual aid and solidarity across boundaries of all kinds, including national borders.
Policy changes to implement such a vision will not be easy. One measure of success, whether at the local, national, or global level, will be to what extent government budgets begin to shift from investing in state violence to social investment in fulfilling a new social contract.
This article has been republished with permission from AfricaFocus.