On Monday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) urged the deployment of the Army to support “overwhelmed” local law enforcement in countering “anarchy, rioting, and looting” supposedly committed by “Antifa terrorists.” Defense Secretary Mark Esper called the country’s streets “the battlespace,” two days after the Minnesota Department of Public Safety issued plans to confront a “sophisticated network of urban warfare.”
Then, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, huge military cargo planes ferried military police and their materiel from bases like Fort Bragg in North Carolina to Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington. President Trump has seemed unsure about whether to use his authority to call up military units across the United States, preferring to bluster. But within the District, Trump has the ability to mobilize troops — and Wednesday night, federalized National Guard troops from Utah and New Jersey were on the front lines of some protests. Meanwhile, the governors of at least 28 states activated their own Guard forces.
As protests of police violence against black Americans roll across the country, we are witnessing the convergence of three trends in response: new urban-warfare theories developed by military strategists; the recent practice of outfitting police with the most intimidating and sophisticated warfighting gear possible; and an even longer trend among police of treating demonstrations and protests as tantamount to revolution. This militarization of the police has contributed to the very conditions that have led to the protests — which then create a feedback loop, as they feed a desire among figures like Cotton and Trump for the actual military to step in.
In other words, counterinsurgency breeds insurgency.
Social scientists have long considered cities engines of economic growth, cultural pluralism, political liberalism and technological innovation. Marxists view cities as arenas of class contention, whose future is up for grabs. But contemporary military theorists have grimly condemned ever-expanding cities as malfunctioning machines. A counterinsurgency expert who has advised the U.S. Army, the federal government and NATO, David Kilcullen, has suggested that cities are becoming “simply unable to absorb and metabolize” both licit and illicit flows of people, commodities, money and information, resulting in “urban dislocation, violence, crime, and social breakdown.”
For counterinsurgents, these social ills are addressed by military force. And it does not take much creative rewriting to envision how “military operations on urban terrain” can apply to the home front. One of the earliest theorists of this turn toward urban warfare, Army Maj. Ralph Peters, described cities of today as “the post-modern equivalent of jungles and mountains — citadels of the dispossessed and irreconcilable.”
Around the time Peters recommended that the military focus on urban threats, Congress approved a new program in 1997 to facilitate the transfer of military equipment to civilian police departments. Many police clamored for free or low-cost tactical gear, preferring to believe, like the military theorists, that insecurity and existential dangers were multiplying, particularly after 9/11. The result is the phalanxes of heavily armored officers that have been splashed across our screens for the past week.
But what this pessimistic view about inexorably increasing urban dangers gets wrong is that many cities experiencing uprisings now — like Minneapolis, Washington and New York — are highly desirable. Minneapolis, for instance, has one of the fastest-growing real estate markets in terms of recent rent. The District’s landlords gross the fifth-highest rent total in the country. These cities rely on the hard work of the dispossessed, who aren’t paid enough to afford these rising rents. The military theorists paint cities with a broad brush, as if rapid population growth naturally leads to instability. But instability at home is resulting from racial and economic inequality in the fruits of that growth.
“As cities grow, many governments fail to provide adequate security, employment, infrastructure, and services,” read the 2014 Army Operating Concept, the military’s vision for how to win future wars. The authors thought they were talking about Lagos or Kandahar. But this is also the exact problem urban dwellers face in the United States, painfully visible when new luxury boutiques pop up in SoHo, one neighborhood away from public housing that has remained unchanged for decades.
Urban military tactics are boomeranging home now, too.
We are already seeing that turning cities into “battlespaces” makes transparent communication by authorities difficult. A simple misunderstanding can rapidly become a seeming attack if every situation is viewed through the lens of war. On Sunday night, for instance, National Guard soldiers in Minneapolis fired shots at a vehicle. Officials said the driver had not responded appropriately to the soldiers’ signals while approaching at a high speed. This sort of encounter happened daily at the height of the war in Iraq, and it created more insurgents than it stopped. Regular people became irate when they were treated cruelly and with deep suspicion. Many young men joined radical groups after unwarranted killings of innocent relatives.
Similarly, in New York and Washington, the police and the military, respectively, have used helicopters hovering at a low altitude to try to disperse protesters. But these types of operations are not unique to the present. Low-flying helicopters, soldiers wearing night-vision goggles and loud explosions rattled residents during Army exercises around Los Angeles in February 2019. Critics on obscure socialist websites who seemed alarmist when decrying these operations now seem prophetic.
Military strategists at least realize what police are now discovering: Counterinsurgency is notoriously difficult. Winning “hearts and minds” is never guaranteed, especially when the threat of violence is palpable. During off-base rehearsal exercises that enrolled civilians during the 1960s, Army officers were alarmed to discover that the civilians often sided with the mock insurgency and considered the troops an illegitimate occupying force. Some enthusiastic participants even crafted propaganda purporting to show Army atrocities, using home photos of kids playing dead. Now we don’t need propaganda; Twitter gives us real images.
Still, presidents and other political leaders see militarized options as the best answer to social ills. After the destructive rebellions in U.S. cities in 1967, almost always spurred by incidents of police brutality, President Lyndon Johnson convened the Kerner Commission, which recommended spending billions to improve housing, education and employment prospects for African Americans. Johnson balked at those expensive solutions, but he adopted the commission’s suggestions for riot preparedness with alacrity. Our contemporary situation — police and soldiers outfitted with seemingly endless supplies of tear gas grenades confronting a perpetually underemployed class of young people — is the legacy.
We are living with the consequences of accepting the counterinsurgency prescriptions of the Kerner Commission while ignoring the mountains of evidence it collected that racial inequality spurred unrest. Protesters have shown that they don’t intend to let the United States make this mistake again.
Across the country in recent days, crowds of peaceful protesters have been attacked by armor-clad police using chemicals, sound cannons, and plastic or rubber bullets simply because officers decided that their dispersal was imperative. In many cases, police have acted with no warning, including right outside the White House. If cities are now “battlespaces,” then everyone in them could be targeted. History tells us, however, that African Americans and other people of color are at the greatest risk.
Even if there were a sophisticated terrorist network operating in U.S. cities, Cotton’s often-referenced experience in counterinsurgency overseas should indicate that separating “Antifa terrorists” from civilians would be impossible on American streets. Security operations would clearly target people in black and Latino neighborhoods. Without a language barrier, Army infantry on the streets of Minneapolis or Los Angeles would more easily understand the message they also received in Iraq and Afghanistan while harassing regular folks in search of insurgents: We don’t want you here.
Introducing military operations to American cities is a prescription for a misdiagnosed illness. The protesters started out furious about social injustice and racism, the callous and quick brutalization of George Floyd, and the slow-burning conflagration of premature death afflicting African American communities because of the coronavirus. Now, protesters are also furious because they are treated like an enemy army. No urban-warfare doctrine will fix these problems.