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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Embracing Our Inner Empire

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

"Bring the war home": once, a long, lost time ago -- in October 1969, to be exact -- that slogan represented a promise made by the most radical wing of the vast movement against the war in Vietnam. Wearing football helmets and wielding lead pipes, that tiny crew of extreme leftists carried out what they termed the "Days of Rage" in Chicago, smashing cars and store windows in an attempt to give Americans a small sense of what war felt like, of what their military had delivered to the Vietnamese. Those radicals, who came to be known as Weathermen (in honor of Bob Dylan's line "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"), would later graduate to the bombing of a Pentagon bathroom, a bathroom on the Senate side of the Capitol, and themselves.

Just in case you haven't caught on yet, in bringing up that ancient slogan and that long forgotten group, I'm heading directly for irony in the world of 2017. So consider yourself warned because, as far as I can see, the dream of the Weathermen has, in some strange fashion, been fulfilled in twenty-first-century America by... the U.S. military. Unlike in the Vietnam era, the U.S. has been fighting its unsuccessful post-9/11 wars for 16 years in distant lands with barely a trace of an antiwar movement to show for it. The last significant protests in the streets of America came more than a decade ago, and this country -- mass murders like the one in Las Vegas aside -- has remained remarkably peaceful and eerily unconcerned about the wars being fought in its name. And yet in that strange vacuum, those distant wars have been brought home in a host of ways.

I was struck by this on a recent trip to Santa Fe during which I set off one of those airport metal detectors and promptly had my hands swabbed and tested for explosive residue. Obviously, we all now live in a strikingly more militarized and securitized world. Who in twenty-first-century America hasn't been wanded (something unheard of in the Vietnam era)? Who hasn't felt the rise of the national security state up close and personal in a country in which military drones are in the air, our borderlands have been turned into fortresses, military-style surveillance is a way of life, taxpayer dollars pour into the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, and sports events are a riot of militarized activities (paid for by the Pentagon)? And of course, the secretary of defense, the national security advisor, and the White House chief of staff, arguably the three most powerful figures in Washington other than the president himself, are generals from America's losing wars. Though no one seems to notice, these truly could be considered our days of rage.

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Today, U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen, TomDispatch regular and author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, focuses on one striking way in which our wars have indeed come home, via the militarization of the police and police practices nationwide. This country, as he says (from his own experiences in those wars), is being "Baghdadified." Tom

The Empire Comes Home
Counterinsurgency, Policing, and the Militarization of America's Cities
By Danny Sjursen

"This... thing, [the War on Drugs] this ain't police work... I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors... running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts... pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your f**king enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you're supposed to be policing, that's just occupied territory." -- Major "Bunny" Colvin, season three of HBO's The Wire

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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.

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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.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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