I lost my temper. In retrospect I was out of control. Waving my pistol around like a damn cowboy and screaming at a frail old man who didn’t know anything. It was New Year’s Eve 2006, just south of Baghdad, and yet another roadside bomb had just exploded near my platoon’s patrol, in broad daylight on a main street. No one was seriously hurt, this time at least, but I, a young lieutenant, was livid. See we almost never caught the "triggermen" who set off these IEDs, and bystanders always "saw nothing." Just two weeks earlier one of my favorite sergeants had been shot in the back – paralyzed – barely a football field away from this latest attack. So I snapped.
Racing out of my HMMWV, my local interpreter trailing, I cornered this old man nearby and started screaming questions in his face:
"Who did this?"
"Tell me the name of the bomb maker in this neighborhood!"
"Don’t you dare tell me you don’t know!"
Out came my pistol. I didn’t put it to his head or anything, but my message – and veiled threat – was clear. That’s when my translator – who we called "Mark" – intervened, telling me to calm down and that the old man didn’t know anything. I knew Mark was right, deep down, and I snapped out of it then and there. I let the old man be, mounted my truck, and continued the day’s "mission," such as it was. When we returned to base I apologized to my subordinate sergeants for my behavior. They didn’t think it was a big deal, and they told me so, but knew I was wrong, felt obliged to admit it, and thus set a good example. They knew, I think, that I wouldn’t accept such behavior (or worse) from them.
Look the U.S. Army is highly flawed. It’s leadership is more than capable of covering up a scandal. Still, by the books and as enforced by most leaders, the military sets strict guidelines on how soldiers must interact with locals and even prisoners. No torture, no physical abuse of any kind, and no "muzzle-point" threats are allowed. Under my command, and that of many of my peers, such behavior was not tolerated and we treated Iraqis and Afghans with a fair degree of respect. And make no mistake, many troopers (though few leaders, unfortunately) have been disciplined in a variety of ways for infractions of human rights. It’s imperfect but at least there’s some standard of behavior.
The problem is that the US military missions, themselves, are inherently aggressive. America’s professional imperial soldiers occupy the streets and villages of several Greater Mideast locales and fan the flames of unrest, intolerance, and Islamist extremism. That military – usually through airstrikes – also kills many many civilians. And here’s the rub: that martial chauvinism abroad has come home to roost in the form of militarized police – a disproportionate number of whom are veterans – and their militarized tactics swiped from US wars and counterinsurgencies overseas.
What’s more, ironically, America’s highly lauded police face far less scrutiny – or consequences – for their behavior in impoverished, usually minority, communities than do their military counterparts. It’s a veritable perfect storm: Utilizing US military tactics – and increasingly outfitted with surplus military gear – today’s cops often treat the neighborhoods they police like occupied territory, "Indian Country," as some have cheekily admitted. Black and brown people are shot and often killed in shocking numbers by law enforcement personnel across this country. Of course that’s always gone on, but in today’s YouTube generation the incidents are disturbingly visual, caught, as they are, on camera. Almost no cops go to jail or face much, if any, consequences for this extreme behavior, and even less for their everyday banality of abuse and harassment. Sure, it’s not all cops who act thus; but it’s far too many.
No case better illustrates my point than the murder by asphyxiation of Eric Garner by the police, specifically Officer Daniel Pantaleo. It happened in 2014, in a rough section of my home borough of Staten Island. Garner was a black man, allegedly selling loose cigarettes, and he slowly died whilst audibly exclaiming "I can’t breathe," eleven times as his head was pressed to the concrete. The reality, though, was that Garner was little more than the wrong color, on the wrong corner, at the wrong time. For that, Pantaleo – a white cop from the affluent South Shore of the Island – took Garner’s life via a banned chokehold.
To date, some five years later, there has been little justice for Garner and no discipline for Pantaleo. A biased, conservative district attorney failed to indict the officer. Then the federal Trump-era Justice Department declined to press civil rights charges. But this past week, a senior NYPD judge finally recommended administrative charges – essentially the firing of Pantaleo. That seems scant price to pay for unnecessarily taking a man’s life, but at least its something. Still, it’s not over yet. The New York City Police Commissioner will have the final say within a month. And, mark my words, the city’s top cop will be under intense pressure from his rank-and-file, as well as white New Yorkers, to spare Pantaleo.
The latitude given to men like Pantaleo is mind-boggling. And, paradoxically, if he’d been a soldier patrolling Samara instead of Staten Island, and if Garner was named Mohamed, Pantaleo would likely face far swifter and harsher punishment for his actions. I know, personally, soldiers who’ve lost their careers for far less: smoking marijuana, failing a fitness test, an excessive drinking incident, etc. Yes, there are cover-ups, and yes these are unforgivable, but many soldiers and officers have been fired, punished, or imprisoned for the abuse of locals in America’s post-9/11 wars; far more, in fact, than their police counterparts at home.
It’s all related, foreign and domestic policy. Even if few recognize it. Militarized policing and the senseless murder of innocents like Garner is precisely what happens when empire comes home. To be truly antiwar is to be against all forms of warfare both at home or abroad. The core disease is aggressive war, but its symptoms include militarized policing and racist atrocities. This is no time to avert one’s eyes and look the other way. Imperialism is creeping ever deeper into the fabric of our society. So much so, in fact, that my own lewd behavior in yelling at an old Iraqi now seems mild compared to the regular actions of local police at home. Baltimore, so to speak, becomes the new Baghdad…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen