We have been touched by the tragedy of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest that has swept the nation. Veterans are not exempt from feeling the usual emotions: revulsion at the sight of the cop’s knee on the man’s neck, anger at the hands-off indifference of the other cops watching murder in front of their eyes, and then the mixed feelings about the protesters on city streets and their confrontations with the police and National Guard. I can only speak for myself, but I have been talking to other former soldiers about today’s troubles. My inclination during troubled times is to seek refuge in the company of other former soldiers. They seem to have a good solid anchor in common sense. Most of these men are law-and-order types. Their instinct is to support the police. I was mostly alone in my critique of the police, but I feel that we have agreed on some things.
Like many other combat veterans, those of us who ran toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it, the sights and sounds of armed conflict, even if it is on television, fill me with powerful emotions. I am reminded too much of what I don’t like to remember. In terms of the present conflicts, I see the need for change but I don’t like the method. And, yes, it is armed conflict. The police are heavily armed, bristling with clubs, truncheons, and lethal weaponry — rifles, grenade launchers and who knows what else. Like so many wannabe soldiers, they are clad in camouflage fatigues, wearing the Kevlar helmets and body armor that Iraq and Afghan war veterans call “battle rattle,” anonymous behind protective masks as they fire pepper balls, rubber bullets and Colorado Springs riot control agent (tear gas) at the crowds. The “protesters,” which is the name of choice now rather than “demonstrators,” are armed with the usual sticks, stones, bricks, bottles and the occasional Molotov cocktail.
The whole thing is a battle scene. It is the inevitable progression of our endless wars against the Muslims, but now coming home. The war machine is now an out-of-control robot, attacking its creator, ourselves, in our cities as Americans fight other Americans. The whole thing is a disgrace and a stain on our national honor.
I disapprove of violent protest. I approve only of peaceful protest. I disapprove of the militarization of the police, which I feel creates intense hostility in angry people rightly demanding justice, ending in the violent riots we’ve seen. I approve of the new kind of policing, the humane, civilian style, which is sure to come. But first we need to examine what happens when cops go to war against the people they are sworn to protect and serve: When you dress up like a soldier and pick up the war weapons of a soldier, you will feel an overwhelming temptation to use these weapons.
And in too many cases you will use them. Your consciousness changes, you start to think like a soldier. You will see people, civilians, in front of you and they become the enemy. Like a soldier in combat your desire will be to kill the enemy. The logic of war is to kill the enemy before he kills you. This is necessary for soldiers, but it is not necessary for police.
Some of the ex-soldiers had another point to make. One of the combat veterans told me, “Joe, I know that you don’t like to see the police in military uniforms. The cops like to pretend that they’re soldiers, but when I was in the Army, if somebody turned bad, committed atrocities or whatever, we turned him in real fast. We didn’t cover up for bad soldiers. The police don’t do that. Too often they don’t turn in a bad cop. It’s the attitude of the cops that’s the real problem. The problem is that they’re not like real soldiers.”
I replied, “Yes, maybe that’s what “defund the police” means. First, we take away their war toys. Then we take the money we save by not buying those expensive toys and use the money to train the police in morals, ethics, accountability, transparency and communication skills so that we can completely trust them with the guns that we will still let them carry.”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He teaches American Literature, U.S. Southwest Studies and U.S. Military History.