Civil-Military Relations and Police Violence

The escalation of violence in the aftermath of protests against police brutality has stirred up some feelings in me. I am on the other side of the world, in Kazakhstan, watching the US burn. What strikes me is not the images of protesters, or even rioters, but of police continuing to make the situation worse and to prove the protesters right. Police in many areas are the problem. I don’t say this lightly. My older brother is a policeman. I am sure he is one of the good ones. But what I see in pictures time and time again is that for lack of training, lack of empathy, lack of professionalism, and lack of accountability, the police in many areas are simply out of control.

I have been out of the army for nearly eleven1 years. The sight of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs walking in DC like it’s a war zone and he is in charge chilled me. I teach civil-military relations, and I am not confident that the current leadership realizes just how harmful this kind of “leadership” is to CMR and to the trust and goodwill that the military has with much of the population. I would like to share three examples from my nine years of military service that illustrate the divide between what is happening with police and military responses in many places (I’m really looking at DC now, but LA, Minneapolis, and other areas have similar problems.)

2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games

I returned to Utah from my initial army training (Basic Training and my Military Occupational Specialty - MOS - school) as a Russian Linguist counterintelligence Agent right before Christmas in 2001. The 9/11 attacks had occurred while I was at school in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Shortly after my return, the Utah Army National Guard was nearly fully activated to provide security for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Our brigade, the only linguistic brigade in the entire US Army, was tasked with MACDIS - Military Assistance to Civil Disorder. We spent our drills and the few days before the Olympics began training to be riot police.

What did I learn in this training? Well, our job was to protect people and sensitive areas from violent protesters. We did this by standing in a line and being prepared to be aggressive. We were equipped with face shields that attached to our standard army helmets. We had gloves, shin and ankle guards (much like baseball catchers or hockey goalies wear). We also had knee and elbow pads. While we did learn coordinated action to push groups of people away from an area, mostly we were trained to be a buffer. We were also trained in how to go and rescue those who were hurt or caught up in the violence.

Luckily, we spent the Olympics playing ping pong, watching movies, and simply being on call for a riot that never took place.

Baghdad, April 2003

The year after the Winter Olympics I found myself in Iraq during the invasion. Our unit had been activated piecemeal to support various units. My group was assigned to the 205th MI Brigade from Germany. By the time the invasion took place, I had been assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. Before the final push to Baghdad, I was assigned to an infantry company as part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. I was a part of the Thunder runs into Baghdad, and with the first US unit to stay overnight in Baghdad. Our first day we took a palace in what became the Green Zone. The next day we were assigned to secure one of the bridges in the city.

We secured the key intersection and the bridge with concertina wire and heavy infantry - Bradley fighting vehicles. We watched while the buildings around us were looted. We had no instructions from higher on how to deal with the issue, so we simply held our place. This unit engaged Saddam’s forces, taking on the Republican Guard and the Saddam Fedayin fighters in the capital. They were not trained or equipped to deal with civilian unrest, so they did not.

In late April 2003, I was reassigned to the 101st Airborne Division before they made the drive from south of Baghdad (Iskandiriya) to Mosul to cover the area where the 4th ID was supposed to cover before Turkey shut down that plan. I spent the next four months in Mosul with the light infantry. Mosul 2003 was the poster child for good counterinsurgency. It’s where General Petreaus made his bones. The light infantry did presence patrols. Rather than driving through the city in huge armored vehicles, they walked through markets, bazaars, and other areas. They were empowered to help solve problems, to shop, talk, and interact with the locals. My job was force protection and I spent half my time outside the base doing similar patrols. It was policing as a beat cop and not as a soldier - and it worked pretty well while we were there.

Camp Bucca 2007-08

My last deployment was with a field artillery unit from Utah that was deployed to be guards at the largest detainee camp in Iraq, Camp Bucca. We had two intense months of training in detainee operations. We learned how to use non-deadly force, to use pepper spray, bean bag bullets, rubber pellet grenades, and other tools of riot control that I see being deployed today.

At Camp Bucca, our unit was assigned to the most extreme compound. The detainees there were ones that had been identified as Jihadists. They were the ones that became ISIS later on after the US had left. The week before we arrived, a prisoner had been murdered in the compound. We had a prisoner who was completely maimed - all his limbs broken, eyes gouged out, and tongue cut out - as retribution during our first month in control. These were not nice people. On November 9, 2007 (a day I remember well, since it was my 29th birthday), we discovered an escape tunnel, and when we tried to lock down the compound to do a count and fill in the tunnel, the prisoners rioted. For nearly 12 hours we had a non-lethal battle with 1000 detainees. It was a hell of a day. The soldiers on that compound displayed more restraint than I see from many police officers in the riots happening in the US.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I am a small government conservative. I am socially conservative. I also am a man of faith who believes that we are all God’s children. I may disagree with many people politically, but the solution to most problems involves people dealing with people as individuals and not demonizing huge groups of others. The treatment of African Americans at the hands of the government and by individuals and groups of racists is shameful. The militarization of police to treat people as threats or the enemy will only exacerbate tensions that already exist.

Involving the military in any way that discusses the “kinetic environment” or “battle space” or any other military jargon will only serve to deepen divides in the country.

I wanted to share my experiences with policing in the military to show that even in the military, policing doesn’t have to be violent and antagonistic. It may have to be firm and it may be defensive, but the militarization of the police without proper training and with a shift in mindset of police departments is a very bad direction. When I see police going out of their way to make contact with those that are not directly threatening their life or the life of others, I am angry. More angry than I’ve been in a long time.

I want to thank anyone who came and read this piece here because of the Twitter thread I wrote summarizing the content.

  1. My first post had this listed as nine years. I was in for nine years and have been out nearly 11. ↩︎