Myths and Illusions: The Myth of Warrior Wisdom
I am not going to launch into a disclaimer about how much I respect Our Troops. I don’t think I have to; I pay my taxes. But I have been watching with alarm these past few years the creeping militarism of our society, the adulation and the cult of personality that swaddles American soldiers and the growing belief that mere civilians are brainless turds who don’t know the first thing about the “real world” despite, you know, living in it. Nevermind that there is a real argument to be had whether the insular environment of a military base, or the unique conditions of a war zone represent the “real world” as it relates to anything that a society at peace experiences on a daily basis.
So this modern-day Rambo, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Grrrr), who opposes prison reform and believes we don’t incarcerate nearly enough people would give more power to the police and keep Americans on a short leash, for security. Trust him, he knows stuff; he’s seen war.
The money quote:
I saw this in Baghdad. We’ve seen it again in Afghanistan. Security has to come first, whether you’re in a war zone or whether you’re in the United States of America.
Excellent: let’s govern the United States as if it were war-torn Kandahar. Love Sen. Cotton’s take on the US Constitution here, with the need for security overriding Due Process (but not the Second Amendment, presumably).
Here is something that I know no reporter will ask Cotton: How does your military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan qualify you for peacetime civil administration? Because there is a difference, you know. By what thought process did this man come to the conclusion that your town in the United States needs to be
governed administered as if it were a war zone? America is not Afghanistan. Civilian law enforcement isn’t an invading military force. Americans aren’t living under foreign occupation. We live under civilian law, not martial law. And I’ll go out on a limb here and venture a guess that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of politican persuasion, would like to keep it that way.
There has been, of course, an alarming militarization of American police forces since 9/11. Whenever we talk about excessive force, unjustified killings and the disproportionate targeting of people of color, there is one aspect of that discourse that’s rarely addressed that’s especially troubling to me. It’s a small thing at first glance, but as anyone familiar with this blog knows, I always look for the devil in the details. The standard justification for the use of deadly force is that the officer was merely protecting himself from an apparent threat. The problem here isn’t so much that black lives are seen as mattering less than white lives (though undeniably, that’s true), but that police lives are presumed to matter more than everyone else’s.
That’s where the key difference between military and civilian administration comes in. During a military occupation, soldiers generally prioritize their own safety and the safety of their comrades over that of local civilians. This isn’t to say that local civilians don’t matter, or that they are treated badly, etc. — but their safety and comfort matter less than those of soldiers. Whether you agree with the goals of a given occupation doesn’t matter. Military adventures are driven by larger geopolitical goals (regardless of how they are “sold” to taxpayers), and while armies are bound by various treaties and conventions with regard to their treatment of civilians, the well-being of those civilians isn’t really why they are there in the first place. There are practical reasons for such prioritization, but this doesn’t make it any less true that life for a civilian under military occupation is hell.
By contrast, when it comes to police, the well-being and safety of civilians is the law enforcement’s whole raison d’etre. It is the job of police officers to jeopardize their lives for the sake of the community. The safety of those entrusted to their protection is more important than their own. The lives of civilians come first. Because if not, then what the hell do we even need cops for?
This is a distinction that’s gotten increasingly blurred over the past decade and a half. Whatever happened to “Serve and Protect”? Not denying there are good cops, but as an establishment, the police no longer even acknowledge the fact that they are civil servants. Rather, they are presented as a special, privileged caste; and cops argue with a straight face that they should be given leeway in killing people who in no way deserve it for the sake of keeping cops safe, and keeping cops feeling safe. The argument is always about merely whether a particular officer’s perception of a threat was reasonable. No one, not even liberals, take issue with the underlying assumption that the officer’s life and safety are more important than the life and safety of a civilian.
This shift in values is troubling indeed. It explains why, increasingly, police departments act like military invading forces; view communities they are supposed to serve as a hostile enemy population; and conduct their police business as if were a military occupation. For obvious reasons, this situation is especially bad in places where police departments do not represent a fair cross-section of the community.
That’s what the much-touted military “wisdom” of people like Tom Cotton gets us: the baghdadization of America. Thanks a lot, Audie Murphy.
Perhaps there is such a thing as spending a little too much time in a war zone to have a sane and practical idea for how to run a place that isn’t one. I think it’s definitely skewed Tom Cotton’s perspective on what’s appropriate in civil government.
Problem is, pretty much everyone else’s perspective on this has gotten skewed too.