What Combat Veterans See in Ferguson, Missouri
Watching the tragedy-turned-drama of this week unfold in Ferguson, Missouri—five hours up the road from my home in Arkansas—an eight-year-old scene kept replaying in my mind.
It was a little after dawn on Thanksgiving morning when the Afghan National Army soldiers and the Afghan National Police officers pointed their AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades at each other, jabbering threats in angry Pashto and Dari. They were about 30 feet away from where I was monitoring the radios in the passenger seat of my gun-truck. Suddenly, the hot turkey dinner my infantry platoon had been promised that afternoon at our remote outpost in the middle of Taliban-country in Ghazni province seemed pretty far away, given the inevitable turkey shoot. It had happened before, the A.N.A. and A.N.P. shooting at each other.
I set down the magazine I was reading and walked over to the tent reeking of farts and feet where the rest of my infantry platoon was sleeping to wake up my lieutenant.
“Uh, sir, the A.N.A and A.N.P. are. . . . well, you should get out here.”
Next I woke up our interpreter, who took one look at our poorly trained, trigger-happy, likely-stoned allies and said, “Fuck this shit, I go get my body armor first,” in his Hollywood-meets-Afghanistan voice. I walked back to the up-armored Humvee, shut the heavy steel-plated door as quietly as I could, got on the radio and told headquarters the fireworks would begin, oh, any minute.
My lieutenant, a jacked 24-year-old Puerto Rican guy from Queens, marched between the two groups, wearing nothing more than a t-shirt, fatigue pants and flip-flops, and pushed the barrels of the lead AK-47s to the ground. Then he grabbed an R.P.G. from the hands of a policeman, pointed, and shouted some choice phrases in universally understood English until the two factions dispersed, embarrassed and chagrined.
There’s a stale old joke—the difference between the Boy Scouts and the Army is that the Scouts have adult supervision—but on Thanksgiving Day, 2006, my Lieutenant proved that wasn’t true. As I observed the chaos in Missouri this week, I kept wondering where the adults were.
I couldn’t get past the fact that the police in Ferguson were wearing better battle-rattle and carrying more tricked-out weapons than my infantry platoon used in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. Looking at the lines of cops facing off against angry protesters, I was alarmed at their war-like paramilitary posturing.
In Afghanistan, as infantrymen facing a determined and dangerous, though largely faceless foe, our business was killing people and business was good that year. When people shot at us, we shot back until they were dead or their heads were down, then we got on the radio and dropped bombs or mortars on those heads until nothing remained but bits and pieces of bodies stuck in trees that still stood among the craters, black birds alighting on their branches for an easy meal. When people weren’t shooting at us, we passed out backpacks and sacks of rice and tried to win friends, which turned out to be a pretty hard thing to do for some reason.
To my eyes the police, whose business is peace, have no business strutting through the streets carrying M-4 carbines with reflexive-fire sights on top, surefire tactical flashlights on barrel-mounted rail systems slung from three-point harnesses, or white zip-tie flex cuffs over black-body armor, their eyes and faces obscured by gas masks and their heads covered with Kevlar helmets. A bunch of other combat veterans I stay in touch with online agreed. Indeed, besides black Americans, to whom these kind of disturbing images are hardly new, these veterans seemed the most irate, but also the most attuned to the danger posed by the cognitive dissonance of peace officers dressed for war—and not just in Ferguson, but in Boston in the wake of the marathon bombing.
I sent a message to a former Special Forces friend in Oregon.
“I was wondering what would happen if a bunch of us vets kitted up without weapons and stood in-between the cops and civs.”
His message came back: “I’m doing that this weekend! I’m kitting fully up armor helmet everything. And showing police what they look like. I fully support you!”
With another infantry veteran in Oklahoma on Wednesday night, I joked about “kitting up and going to Ferguson” to watch things unfold.
“No. I’m out now and I don’t do stuff that could get me killed anymore. I have, however, donated to the ACLU.”
***I called an old friend from the Army, Justin, who’d served with me in Afghanistan, as part of the 10th Mountain Division’s Delta Company, 2-87 Infantry (Catamounts!). Justin’s been a cop in a town in Iowa roughly the size of Ferguson for the past four years. I wanted his opinion as a cop planning to make it a career following his stint as the self-described “worst soldier in the Army.” (He wasn’t, he just didn’t give a hoot about the dog and pony show aspects of spit-and-polish soldiering.)
“The trend nowadays is thinking we’re in a police state, and we’re not,” he said. “Why are these cops lined up like Stalingrad?” That said, he is glad the equipment is available to those who have to serve high-risk warrants and respond to mass shootings. “We didn’t have this kind of gear 10 years ago because we didn’t need it then, but now, you’d be surprised what is out on the streets—we’re dealing with cartels, sophisticated criminals who didn’t exist on small-town radars before—there are SAWs [the same type of belt-fed, small caliber machine gun that killed Pat Tillman] missing from military arsenals.”
I asked him if he thought there was a difference between wearing the military style gear and the regular blue or brown police uniform and shield in how the officers regarded themselves—whether, in essence, the clothes make the man.
“Why they’re wearing woodland camo is beyond me,” he said, much less pointing their weapons at people. We’d both been well-trained that when you aimed your rifle at a person, that meant you were prepared to kill them. “If someone tells me what to do without telling me the reason, I’m liable to be resistant too. So, when I’m dealing with people I try to let them understand why, show them some compassion. If you don’t treat people like savages, you can get people to do anything.”
Justin has grown up quite a bit since the Army.
“Sometimes, it seems that everyone likes to imagine being a part of the military. . . . It must be great fun to imagine yourself a soldier without the risk of physical, mental, or moral damage,” wrote Paul Fussell, a veteran of infantry combat in World War II, in a chapter on “Weirdos” in his book, Uniforms: You are What You Wear.
“These people, having missed World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, never tasted the thrill of being machine-gunned and mortared and thus escaped, unlike former ground troops, lifelong bodily and spiritual damage,” Fussell wrote. “Not having endured real military experience, they get excited by faking it.” Fussell’s scorn was directed not at the police but at people dressing like G.I. JOE with far less serious repercussions: war re-enactors, couture design wearing models strutting down the runway in military-derived designs, hipsters wearing surplus Eisenhower jackets at coffee shops.
What would Fussell have made of all this? Boys with toys, I thought, dressing like Delta force wannabes, I thought, reading hyperventilating posts about police militarization on Wednesday and Thursday. Being a contrarian and an experience snob, I wasn’t sure what to make of all the outrage from people who’ve never had handcuffs slapped around their wrists and double locked. I didn’t have a seamless transition to civilian life after leaving the military and found myself wearing a jail jumpsuit a couple of times for non-violent misdemeanors. I’ve been arrested by cops that were assholes, and cops that were not, and it makes a difference.
As Fussell writes, “Playing soldiers used to be appropriate only among small boys.”
Many actual solders wish it had stayed that way.
Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Full Band Version)
It Will Be Live Streamed!!
Civil Liberties Under Assault in Ferguson As Police Attack Peaceful Protesters
Published on Aug 20, 2014
Attorney Jessica Lee describes witnessing police launch unprovoked attacks on peaceful protesters and Glen Ford explains why discord in Ferguson is about more then the killing of Mike Brown
Police Continue to Violate Press Freedom In Ferguson
Published on Aug 20, 2014
With 11 journalists arrested thus far, Truthout.org investigative reporter Mike Ludwig describes how Ferguson police are using intimidation tactics against journalists
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