I’m an Iraq Veteran. The Cops Are Treating Citizens Like They’re Under Occupation.

Rafael Noboa y Rivera
Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast/Getty

Seeing police across America escalate violence against protesters made me think of my service in Iraq. In retrospect, I both did and didn’t expect that we’d be treating Americans, and especially black Americans, like they were under occupation. The difference is that in the military, we had rules of engagement and training, even if they didn’t always succeed, to stop us from making an awful situation worse. The cops don’t seem to have that. 

I joined the military in 1999. I was deployed to Balad, north of Baghdad, as the occupation of Iraq started to unravel in 2003 and 2004, the end of my Army tenure. I was scared every time I did a cordon-and search. But I received training—from basic training up through field exercises. To the small degree we did cordon-and-search in training, we were trained to exercise fire discipline, response discipline, and to observe the rules of engagement. There’s an Army value system that rewards restraint, that says, “This is the way we behave and we’ll punish transgressions.” It’s why so many veterans had such a negative reaction to Eddie Gallagher’s clemency.

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A formative memory of mine is the Los Angeles uprising in 1992. As a person of color, I have had equivocal relations with the police. Whenever I have to deal with law enforcement, it’s drilled in me to be deferential and not give them any excuse. We all know that’s not always going to do the trick, and that goes to an unhealthy rot at the heart of policing. It’s a multifaceted problem, but cops are walking around like storm troopers, with an assumption that getting more weaponry will allow them to take on gang violence. Meanwhile, you’re looking at white civilians walking around with AR-15s, cosplaying as Call of Duty characters, and cops don’t stop them when they try to occupy statehouses

When I saw the video of Minnesota police and National Guard shooting paint canisters into quiet houses on a residential street, it showed me a throughline in all these police reactions. No matter the department or the locality, there’s a total lack of discipline. I can empathize: Walking the beat can be very scary. So does feeling as though an attack is imminent. The timbre of the cop’s voice, growling “Get inside now!” shows a ton of terror that governs how you act and respond. It won’t be proportionate.  

The scared people on their porch put me in mind of what Iraqi, and surely Afghan, civilians must have felt every single time we kicked down the door searching for a high- or even low-value target. To the degree all these police departments have rules of engagements, they’ve been thrown out the window. 

A lot of people will point out exceptions, where the cops are communing with the crowd. Those are exceptions that prove the rule, because we see all these other police officers acting in such an undisciplined manner. 

It’s important not to whitewash the Iraqi occupation or pretend like what the cops are doing is categorically different. It’s easy for people like me to say, “We wouldn’t have done it like this.” But our presence in Iraq, or for that matter Afghanistan, is itself an act of violence—imperial violence. 

There was dehumanization in the occupation. People would call Iraqis hajjis, ragheads, and worse. As a sergeant, I was tasked with keeping up our discipline and our standards. I went out of my way to make sure my men treated Iraqis like human beings. Someone in my unit was from Tennessee, so I would ask how he would feel if an Iraqi guy came kicking in doors in Nashville at 3 a.m. 

But to be honest, basic training is a project of dehumanization, because that’s how you get to the point psychologically of being able to pull the trigger. And you see it with police—whether it’s Punisher logos on their cars or the rise of the “warrior cop” mentality or trying to be tactically cool. Vet-bro culture feeds into that in an inflammatory way, valorizing Spartans and all this nonsense. And it’s connected to structural racism. Consider the legacy of policing, in the 19th century, that was connected to the Fugitive Slave militias.

There’s a rot at the heart of policing. We’ve forgotten what it means to protect, to de-escalate a situation, to preserve the peace as opposed to inflicting violence. I saw the absolutely incredible statement by the NYPD commissioner. It was laser-focused on the safety of his officers as opposed to the safety of the public. But when you choose to be a police officer, you accept risk. I don’t mean to minimize the dangers police face, but it reminded me of when generals would focus on force protection—keeping us safe, as opposed to keeping the Iraqis safe. If it’s overriding your mission to serve and protect—the key word is “serve”—you need to find another line of business. 

We’re dealing with a very human situation. It’s difficult to accept that your organization might be at fault if you yourself feel like you’re one of the good guys. And we all like to think of ourselves as the good guys. It's tough for cops to take a step back and say, “My actions are leading to an escalation.” There’s rationalization. Overcoming it takes leadership. It’s been really disheartening to see the absolute lack of leadership from putatively liberal, putatively progressive leaders in helping to de-escalate the situation, whether it’s Bill de Blasio in New York or Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles. 

It’s extremely dangerous for American citizens to feel that they’re under occupation. Then you’re talking about a crisis of democratic legitimacy. That is profoundly corrosive. I think that’s really at the heart of much of what’s happening here. We’ve got way more than 103,000 dead in this pandemic and probably way more than 40 million unemployed. The American people don’t feel like their government institutions are at all responsive to their most basic needs and desires—bottom of the Maslow Pyramid stuff like feeling safe and protected. And the summer hasn’t even started yet.

Transcribed and edited by Spencer Ackerman.

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