Iraq Vet: Small-Town Cops Have Better Armor and Weaponry Than We Carried in a Combat

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In this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 file photo, U.S. Army Lt. Daniel McCord, left, Staff Sgt. Marc Krugh, center and Sgt. Christopher Torrentes, right, from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment pray before heading out on a patrol at Contingency Operating Site Kalsu, south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

In this Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 file photo, U.S. Army Lt. Daniel McCord, left, Staff Sgt. Marc Krugh, center and Sgt. Christopher Torrentes, right, from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment pray before heading out on a patrol at Contingency Operating Site Kalsu, south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

In my year in Iraq, I lost track of how many times my guys asked me why so many Iraqis viewed us with distrust when we were trying to help them. The question would arise while we were walking the beat with Iraqi police officers, manning checkpoints, or in our forward operating base after we went off-duty.

Invariably, my response went something like this: “Imagine that you’re back home, OK? Suddenly, you got a whole mess of Iraqi soldiers in your town. They’re all over the place, doing the same things we’re doing right now. How do you think you’d react? You’d probably get pretty hot, right?”

The notion that my illustration would become anything other than that scarcely crossed my mind. Yet, here we are in August of 2014, 10 years after I got back from Iraq, and the police agencies that have patrolled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri – until they were relieved of duty on Thursday amid public outrage over their heavy-handed tactics — have the kind of armor and weaponry that my men and I would have envied in the performance of our duties in an actual combat zone.

Let me repeat that: the police in Ferguson have better armor and weaponry than my men and I did in the middle of a war. And Ferguson isn’t alone — police departments across the US are armed for war.

The gear and weaponry worn by police officers in Ferguson aren’t just clothing and tools. They’re meant to accomplish certain tasks, and they will elicit certain responses from the people who encounter them. When my men and I donned our helmets and body armor, and carried our weapons out on patrol, we were at war. Our gear wasn’t just protective, it was meant to be downright unwelcoming. That was the point — it’s combat gear, not a costume you wear to look “tactical.”

But it goes beyond that. Nearly 40 years ago, Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage conducted the first study aiming to demonstrate something called “the weapons effect.” As Berkowitz pithily said, “Guns not only permit violence, they can stimulate it as well. The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger may also be pulling the finger.”

There’s truth in those words. I distinctly recall, even now, the small jolt of energy that ran through my body as I readied my weapon, put on my body armor and settled my helmet upon my head. Part of it was anxiety; nothing tenses you up more than not knowing where danger lies. Part of it, though, was anticipation; the motivation needed to face danger, and perhaps death, squarely in the eye. I remember the deep breaths I took to settle my spirits, but it was hard not to swagger a little bit while walking. I recollect that fraction of my soul making my eyes dart around, seeking out anyone who would challenge my authority.

That’s when the discipline and all those countless hours of training kicked in. Military discipline hones you to a point where you can acknowledge fear, yet not give in to it. That’s the difference between taking control of a dangerous situation — and lessening tensions; or losing control of the situation, and creating an even bigger disaster.

It’s that kind of training and discipline that’s been markedly absent from everything we saw this week in Ferguson. We saw police officers pointing weapons at civilians, firing their “less than lethal” ammunition in wild abandon, and posing ostentatiously on armored vehicles. I contrast those images with the photos I took of myself in Iraq; helmet off, smiling towards the camera, my weapon within easy reach but never in the frame. I count on one hand the number of times I raised my weapon in order to use it, and my ears still ring with the tongue-lashing my first sergeant delivered to a lieutenant whose weapon went off accidentally.

That’s how seriously we take this stuff in the military. It certainly doesn’t look like the police in Ferguson took it that seriously. And that matters, because it made a bad situation utterly disastrous.

Our rules of engagement (ROE) — the instructions for how to deal with enemy forces, never mind Iraqi civilians — were far more restrictive than what we’re seeing from the police in Ferguson. Primary among them: Treat all civilians and their property with respect and dignity.

This was drilled into our heads even before we left for Iraq. We were all issued “culture smart cards” intended to help us deal with Iraqi civilians. These cards — I still have mine — contained tips like, “Appear relaxed and friendly; social interaction is critical in building trust,” and “Be gracious; do not appear anxious to leave.”

We’ve seen a lot of things from the police response in Ferguson, but respect and dignity for the people living there aren’t among them. That lack of respect for civilians only serves to inflame the situation even more, and to me, at least, is indicative of a lack of discipline and professionalism.

There is no need to bring this level of militarization — or any level, really — to deal with what have been largely peaceful protests. One of the things we learned while we trained in crowd control techniques was that our mere presence could make an already-tense situation much more difficult. The emphasis, therefore, was on finding ways to de-escalate the situation in whatever manner we could, as quickly as possible.

This meant that we handled much more dangerous situations in Samarra, Balad, and Kirkuk with far less violence than we’ve seen from the police over the last few days. Our training emphasized the prevention of confrontation and violence, rather than exacerbating it. From “Civil Disturbances (ATP 3-39.33)”, the Army’s crowd control manual (PDF):

Winning in this environment is not like winning in combat. US forces may appear to be invincible and formidable, but they risk being portrayed as oppressors. Thus, US forces can lose by appearing to win. Winning in this environment is about seizing and holding the moral high ground. US forces must maintain the authority and legitimacy of what they are doing.

I look at the police in Ferguson, and all I can do is shake my head. If the primary goal of the police was to win the trust of local citizens in order to calm the roiling waters caused by the murder of Mike Brown, then they have utterly failed in accomplishing that goal.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Rafael Noboa y Rivera is a writer living in New York City. He served in the U.S. Army for seven years, and deployed to Iraq from 2003-04. Follow him on Twitter @noboa.
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  • DrFilth

    Great piece, Rafael.

  • Janice DeHaas Rodrigues

    Thank You Rafael for your insight into how all this works—i would have linked this on my FB page except for one small quibble—-I wish you had said “Death” instead of “Murder”, not because I necessarily disagree with it, but we are in such a frenzy of information on this incident & we don’t really know all that transpired yet. I have too many friends/relatives that would have honed in on that word & the whole article would have been biased in their minds. Having seen the video of MB pushing the clerk & being a bully/stealing doesn’t help. Please know that I am not suggesting because of his actions in the store mean he deserves being shot, on the contrary, but it just adds fuel for those that think that way.

  • Jim

    Since at least the nineteen sixties, real training in police crowd control has been to show overwhelming force. That is a political reality, which is why it isn’t done that way in the military. The idea is to show the darkies and hippies who the boss is.

  • Jim

    By the way, I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that at least half the cops in Ferguson have never held a job that didn’t require them to carry a gun.

  • Anonymous

    Amen! Thank you for speaking out so profoundly on this issue.

  • JonThomas

    This reminds me of Marshall McLuhan… “The medium is the message.”

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your perspective on a troubling situation. I knew it felt so wrong, but was having trouble putting my finger on it. The combination of using every tool you have (particularly when it’s overkill in the first place) and ignoring psychological implications is like a match to tinder.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent article!

  • Anonymous

    Anyone that says this was alright because of a video that we have NO context for, is rather lacking in the intelligence department.

  • Jana Baker Smith

    Is Ferguson the exception or is it a prototype to what might be occurring in other towns? If so then there is another more worrisome phenomena, the militarization of American no?

  • NotARedneck

    “The idea is to show the darkies and hippies who the boss is.”

    And more and more, looking ahead, everyone else who have been ripped off by wealthy right donors to the political process. These people know that they have enriched themselves at the expense of everyone else but they are determined to keep their ill gotten gains, no matter how many need to be gunned down to achieve this.

    Changing this will not be easy. In czarist Russia, it took the cataclysm of WWI followed by years of civil war to get change. What succeeded these criminals was hardly much better.

  • NotARedneck

    Racist, bigoted bullies are particularly dangerous.

  • NotARedneck

    The police are at the beck and call of the wealthiest sector of society in every community. They know which side their bread is buttered.

  • Anonymous

    I am also concerned about the militarization of this police force and many others around the country. I have generally viewed police officers with some disdain but I also know that there are some good ones out there. In fact, I am concerned at this moment that the stupidity and arrogance of the Ferguson, MO police force puts many decent, professional police officers in danger. I consider myself somewhat liberal but not to the point of dogma. When I was 19, my then boyfriend (now my husband of 36 years) and I were in his old Ford van on the way to a concert at the local community college where we were music majors. We stopped at a bus stop to pick up a class mate as the buses were late. A few minutes later, we were swarmed by armed cops who thought we were drug dealers and they tore my class mates tuxedo to bits in that garment bag. Since then, I have never trusted cops until the last year or so.
    When I moved back to my family”s hometown east of Memphis, I and my family experienced much bigotry including violence and violation of civil rights. However, after contacting the governor’s office things began to change. Now, we have a handful of some of the best cops one could ever hope to have. In fact, many of them hae been coming to our aid with the continued violence we experience by a tiny handful of bigots in our town. I am a scientist turned organic farmer who grow heirloom veggies, neither of which are really understood where we live although some accept it now. Still, we have experienced great hardships and I have cried for nine years about leaving northern California to return to the midsouth. Right now, we are dealing, as are our neighbors with renters from hell whose slumlord washes his hands of the drug dealing (they incrminated themselvs with a phone call to 911) and the gang affiliations since we are now also a little town with CCA/private prisons on the southern edge of town. There is much more to the story about which I am trying to write in between trying to protect what is left of my poultry and crops and going to see someone for PTSD among other problems associated with the emotional rape of me and my family. Good neighbors are leaving and the town is disintegrating before our eyes.
    So, I have to say that I hope people will realize that cops are also people. When we first moved to our town, only one or two were professional and didn’t violate people’s rights, it was truly a good old boy place. Now, things are slowly changing with regard to the police and we are so incredibly lucky that we have good cops who show restraint, none of them (most are vets) openly state they will not be militarized, they are like the author of this article. I am concerned for their safety every day because we live in a place where racism is rampant and it is on all sides. It has been an incredible culture shock to me after 30 years of living in a more progressive state and a childhood friend, also a female scinetist and doctor, has expressed that as well as others who have returned to the Memphis area.
    Please keep in mind that not all cops are like this and anyone can be a racist, bigot, or whatever. I live on a very diverse street and many of us, regardless of our ethnicity are having to band together to fight what amounts to both white and black bullies. The bottom line is that it is a human thing here. As humans, we are digressing so much and that is truly a shame. It is one reason my husband and I have decided to find the most remote area and we are gun toting liberals now because we have to be, quite frankly.

  • Anonymous

    You may be right but not completely. I am considered a hippie where I live plus I am one of those uppity women scientists (enviornmental) who grows organic food which is seen as weird. Still, I fear that good cops, which in our town are a true treasure (and truly anti militarization of police forces) are put in danger by all the stereotyping going on. There is no doubt that what all of you say is happening but there are some cops who will quit before they do this. I want to keep those cops in my town, not drive them away. They have supported us, put defamatory rumors to rest which have led to our organic farming business being under attack and animals killed/beheaded, online and real time threats to force us back to the bay area (I am a native of the midsouth however). I was literally falsely arrested and then immediately released after I was lectured on how I had “better know my place.” Now, with a new police chief who has scruples, those days are gone and we have found our newer cops to be our best protection and who have gone out of their way to help us be more accepted here. They are our best advertisers that these “outsiders” are just regular people who are nice. We just happen to be eduated (not a good thing in a small west TN town).
    I am concerned that whiel I think we need a good revolution, we may become like the French and eventually turn on each other in uncontrolled blood lust. It is why this hippie and her husband who still has his ponytail are going to move to as remote an area as possible and whiel we don’t stockpile guns, we have come to embrace the need for guns, sadly. It is a survivial ting.

  • Jim

    Even if that video was Michael Brown, the number of errors involved in his treatment, starting with the initial contact with the police officer that shot him, is incredible. Capt. Johnson is the only person in the whole fiasco that has his shit together so naturally he got end run by the police chief right away. Why, because the powers that be want this confrontation, for some reason. They know they have the firepower to win, maybe they’re trying to foment a real riot so they can slaughter some rioters. I know some of these cops are itching for it.

  • johfraser

    Cops have a strong labor union, solders are expendable assets. It’s not right.

  • johfraser

    Cops have a strong labor union, but solders are treated like expendable assets. That’s not right.

  • HopeWFaith

    “…it’s combat gear, not a costume you wear to look “tactical.”” It is indeed, and that is why so many cops love putting it on. Power is a thirst created in those who have had little. Once they get a taste of it, it can overwhelm any sense of self-control, or any concern for others. These kinds of equipment have NO PLACE being used in our local police forces. Period. It breeds a dark and ugly desire to express that power over others.

    What is needed is better, more INTELLIGENT training. Get off the corporate hook and focus on minds and hearts and humans. The corporate money hungry thugs have hooked our police on their products. It is that simple. Addiction comes in many forms. Corporate America knows that better than anybody. That is what marketing is all about.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think the primary goal of the Ferguson police was to win the trust of the residents or protesters.

    It was to intimidate and oppress and silence and control them.

    The same goes for virtually all police departments and the domestic “war on terror” excuse for militarized policing.

    After they shot the man, they left his body – in full view of residents – rot in the sun for 4 hours.

    That is what they did at lynchings, too. And for the same reasons.

    Excellent essay, thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll bet that 80% or more are doing steroids and pumping iron, too.