“President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon…”
– Malcolm X, December 1, 1963
“Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle… you are here because you are real men and all real men like to fight!” The thundering voice rang out from the large box speakers situated across the damp, cement floor. ” Americans love a winner! Americans will not tolerate a loser! Americans despise cowards! Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American! ” The words surged violently from the mesh screens, ostensibly louder by the second. A quick glance across the concrete quad produced a herd of silhouettes, all frantically running to their predetermined spots in the haze of a 4:00 AM-fog. “We don’t want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats! If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards! The brave men will breed more brave men. Kill off the God-damned cowards and we will have a nation of brave men!” It was the summer of 1994. I was 19 years old. The words screaming from those speakers – a daily sound that I would become accustomed to over the course of a few weeks – were those of U.S. Army General George Patton (through the voice of George C. Scott). The location was Columbia, South Carolina, though it might as well have been halfway across the world because the only things I would see for the next two months were marching drills, firing ranges, fields of mud and grass, and miles upon miles of indistinguishable running terrain. This was US Army Basic Training and I was one of thousands of recruits eager to soak up the glory of “defending our country.”
Everything that is done in basic military training is done with intent. The primary goal is to develop and condition killing machines – human beings who are capable of exterminating other human beings on command. The corollary effects of this development are vast. The transforming of one’s self to a component of a “well-oiled machine.” The suppressing of human emotion, and even human reason. The extraction of, as Patton suggested, cowardice – in other words, compassion, understanding, empathy, or simply anything that would cause a soldier to stop and question what they are doing at any given time. The ultimate goal of this training is to make one robotic – the finished product of a process of dehumanization, whereas one is forced to shed elements of humanity out of necessity; and, in doing so, runs the risk of viewing others in less than humane ways. It is difficult to deny that, in the event a person finds themselves in the midst of war, this training becomes invaluable. The chaotic, unpredictable, and nerve-rattling environment that is inherent with any battlefield does not allow for time to think. It does not allow for time to reflect. It only allows for conditioned reaction – proactive and reactive measures that are designed to create efficient “soldiering” and optimum survival.
Soldiers, themselves, lose a great deal of autonomy in this process. On a hot and hazy July afternoon, just a few days before my introduction to the words of Patton, as I joined hundreds of others in a frantic scramble off a convoy of refurbished school buses, I lost myself. I became a blank slate. I became a shell of a young man, readily available for shaping, sculpting and conditioning as my new makers saw fit. Life suddenly took on a whole new meaning. I was now accountable to others, as they were accountable to me; and our accountability was on parade for all to see. If anyone stepped out of line, questioned anything, considered alternatives, or attempted to think for themselves, their “irresponsible defiance” was immediately transferred to public humiliation. However, our forced accountability to one another – something we as a society could certainly use more of – was not an issue. It was the underlying purpose of this accountability that becomes questionable in retrospect. Ultimately, it rested on the acceptance of our roles as tools of war, something that would develop steadily in our subconscious. Already armed with abstract notions of patriotism, American exceptionalism and moral superiority, our self-inscribed ‘greater good’ was now supplemented with an inescapable obligation to fulfill orders. This is the inherent psychology of ‘soldiering’ – a role that requires a prolonged and nuanced conditioning that begins at a very early age.
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Objectification, Empathy Erosion, and an Internalized Culture of War and Oppression
In the United States, the process of objectification begins at a young age. Americans are conditioned by everything from television, music, and marketing to sports, pornography, and even their parents, to objectify others. Gender roles play a major part in this process. Males are taught to objectify the female body; and females are taught to embrace this objectification by basing their self-worth on outward appearance. Correspondingly, females are taught to objectify males as dominant protectors; and males are taught to embrace this objectification by basing their worth on machismo, aggression, and physical prowess.
According to philosopher Martha Nussbaum, objectification occurs in various ways. A person may be objectified if they are treated:
- as a tool for another’s purposes (instrumentality);
- as if lacking in agency or self-determination (denial of autonomy, inertness);
- as if owned by another (ownership);
- as if interchangeable (fungibility);
- as if permissible to damage or destroy (violability);
- as if there is no need for concern for their feelings and experiences (denial of subjectivity).
Our collective conditioning runs the gamut of Nussbaum’s list. First and foremost, objectification (or reification) is a prerequisite to our dominant economic system of capitalism. By objectifying others, people become more suitable participants in this scheme that thrives off exploitation and alienation. With this conditioning, the CEO is more apt at seeing employees as numbers on a spreadsheet, the banker is able to view clients as nothing more than borrowers, the landlord is able to view a family simply as renters, and the boss sees nothing but workers who need to be prodded like cattle. People, essentially, become sources of income and profit to those who are willing to use them as such. And, perhaps more importantly, these “sources” are gradually shaped into willing participants along the way, apathetically giving in to systems of power and control.
This coercive nature naturally extends into the socio-political realm, where wealthy politicians are more than willing to use working class children as pawns of war, allowing their lives to be extinguished and bodies to be mangled for stock portfolios. This dehumanizing process also creates a world where these same politicians see citizens as nothing but fickle subjects, the government seeks to control “the mob,” the soldier sees only enemies, and the police officer only criminals in desperate need of order and discipline. It is, as Vasily Grossman once warned, a society where man has ceased to exist, unavoidably being replaced with “man-like creatures that have undergone an internal transformation.”
“When people are solely focused on the pursuit of their own interests, they have all the potential to be unempathic,” explains Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at Cambridge University. What has occurred in this process, according to Baron-Cohen, is a societal phenomenon of “empathy erosion.” Quite simply, “When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode. In such a state, we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.” While this naturally occurs within everyone from time to time, its expansion in American culture has become the pervasive product of a “me, first” mentality created by the marketization and commodification of everything from sex and violence to human services and education.
The significance of this development is profound. Essentially, the more we dehumanize interactions, or the more we make human contact impersonal, the more willing we are to engage in forceful, aggressive, and unempathic interactions with others – behaviors that are (it’s worth noting) viewed as positive attributes within the sports world many of us grow up in, and the business world many of us enter as adults. In this sense, it is not competition – in and of itself – that represents a problem; but rather, it is the objectifying nature of coercive relations that pose as competition within any hierarchical society.
The act of objectifying others, whether treating them as “interchangeable tools” to be used at your disposal or simply stunting their self-determination in some manner, is a reciprocal process that is internalized by both parties. The objectifier, through the process of dehumanizing the objectified, becomes less human themselves. This internalization is what allows for a culture of war and oppression to persist. America’s “war culture” is shaped by a myriad of factors. First and foremost, we are an imperialist country. The US has been at war, involved in a foreign conflict, or militarily occupied foreign territory (or all three) for 216 years of its 237-year existence. 
War is our business, and we do it well. And yes, common, everyday Americans have benefitted in some form or another from war (i.e. the formation of an “industrialized middle class”); however, these “benefits” haven’t come without sacrifice – the most prominent of which is a collectively misery that has been brought to much of the world’s population through colonialism, geopolitical land grabs, and the theft of natural resources. War is, essentially, nourishment for a parasitical corporate hierarchy that takes what it wants and discards of the scraps, allowing them to “trickle down” to the rest of the world, including the working class in the US.
With a vast majority of Americans coming from this working class, widespread victimization – and a stubborn acceptance of it – represents a “rite of passage” in our culture. Whether through impoverished circumstances, socioeconomic limitations, substandard education, a general sense of exploitation that is realized as we grow older, or the grueling, existential crisis we all seem to face at one point or another, we are all victims of repression and exploitation on some level. This has never been more evident than during the past four decades. And the notion that we are to avoid “the victim card” at all costs – as it is supposedly a sign of “weakness” – is laughable when considering the immense amount of injustice we face as a whole: drowned out by corporate power, strangled by government suppression, working more and more while making less and less, forced into consumer debt, dealing with skyrocketing costs of living, chained by student debt, etc.
The class-based oppression and victimization which stem from our embedded hierarchy present peculiar dynamics in terms of carrying out the violent projection of war culture. The fact that soldiers and police officers – the hired guns of the ruling classes – almost always come from working-class backgrounds is especially interesting when considering their roles as enforcers of the very ideology that attacks their class peers. However, when combined with this process of objectification that has become commonplace, an immersion into a deep-seated “war culture” and militarism, and the robotic programming of military or police training, it comes as little surprise that a demographic consisting predominantly of white males is able to complete this transition from working-class oppressed to working-class oppressor with relative ease. Educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire, eloquently describes this process of transformation through internalization:
The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped. Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity. This phenomenon derives from the fact that the oppressed, at a certain moment of their existential experience, adopt an attitude of “adhesion” to the oppressor. Under these circumstances they cannot “consider” themselves. This does not necessarily mean that the oppressed are unaware that they are downtrodden. But their perception of themselves as oppressed is impaired by their submersion in the reality of oppression. At this level, their perception of themselves as opposites of the oppressor does not yet signify engagement in a struggle to overcome the contradiction; the one pole aspires not to liberation, but to identification with its opposite pole.
This widespread process of internalization is crucial to those wishing to maintain an inherently unjust and oppressive status quo. For, in order to keep such a system intact, the very few who benefit from this arrangement must rely on some members of the working class to ignore or shed themselves of class-consciousness on their way to breaking class ranks and carrying out the violent acts needed to sustain. Professor Abdul JanMohamed tells us, “according to (Antonio) Gramsci, any hegemony is subtended, in the final analysis, by the deployment of violence; and for hegemony to function as such, the masters’ rules, including the deployment of violence, must be adequately internalized.” Without this internalization, human beings – and especially those coming from the working classes – would be left to act on their own interests, something that would not serve the ruling classes well.
American Militarism and White Supremacy
Any discussion involving American militarism must include the underpinnings of white supremacy, an all-encompassing ideology which has ravaged the lives and communities of non-white peoples for centuries. White supremacy is fueled by objectification and, more specifically, the collective dehumanization of peoples of color. Its power lies in the fact that it not only transcends the fundamental societal arrangement of class, but that it is embraced largely by working class whites who have shown a willingness to internalize and project their own oppression onto others – in this case, the non-white working classes.
Not surprisingly, this foundation extends far beyond the geographic confines of the US, representing the basis for which the “White Man’s Burden” and age-old foreign policies like the Roosevelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine operate. The ties that bind what Martin Luther King, Jr. once referred to as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism” cannot be underestimated, as they provide the self-righteous, societal “justification” necessary to carry out indiscriminate acts of aggression both here and abroad. Social theorist bell hooks’ assessment of George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman turned murderer of Trayvon Martin, captures this mindset: “White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action.”
When Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, famously stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong; No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” he was referring to the dominant power structure of white supremacy that had not only subjugated him in his own country, but also had global implications regarding imperialism, colonialism, and ever-increasing militarism. Ali, along with other conscious Black Americans, recognized life in the U.S. as a microcosm of the war in Vietnam. Whether in Birmingham, Alabama or the Ben Tre Province in South Vietnam, black and brown people were being murdered indiscriminately. African Americans had their share of enemies at home – Bull Connor, George Wallace, the Ku Klux Klan, the FBI, Jim Crow – and, for good reason, had no vested interest in wars abroad. Their priorities were defense and self-preservation in their homeland; not offense and destruction in Vietnam.
Racism is a cousin to militarism, and its influence on shaping American culture over the years is undeniable. Despite misconceptions, reconstruction in the post-slavery US was no more kind to Black Americans than during colonial years, especially in the southern states. “In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the lynching of Black people in the Southern and border states became an institutionalized method used by whites to terrorize Blacks and maintain white supremacy,” explains Robert A. Gibson. “In the South, during the period 1880 to 1940, there was deep-seated and all-pervading hatred and fear of the Negro which led white mobs to turn to ‘lynch law’ as a means of social control.” These lynchings were almost always spontaneous, rooted in white supremacist and racist emotion, and void any semblance of due process. They were also mostly supported – whether through direct supervision or “turning a blind eye” – by local politicians, judges, and police forces.
According to Tuskegee Institute figures, between the years 1882 and 1951, 3,437 African Americans were lynched in the United States – a tally that amounts to roughly 50 per year, or a little over 4 per month through the lifespan of an entire generation. Essentially, for nearly a century, “freed” slaves were still very much at the mercy of, as WEB DuBois once noted, “men who hated and despised Negroes and regarded it as loyalty to blood, patriotism to country, and filial tribute to the fathers to lie, steal or kill in order to discredit these black folk.”  This general hatred was not only projected by white citizens throughout the country, but remained institutionalized by laws of racial segregation – also known as “Jim Crow” – in much of the US until the 1960s.
While the courageous and awe-inspiring Civil Rights movement of the ’60s was successful in curbing some government-backed segregation, the ugly stain of white supremacy has endured well into the 21st century through a convoluted lens of extreme poverty, poor education, lack of opportunity, and disproportionate imprisonment. It has become blatantly evident within the world of ‘criminal justice,’ and more specifically through the ways in which law enforcement engages and interacts with Black communities across America.
Modern forms of lynching have gained a foothold with laws such as New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” and Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” – with both providing legal outlets to harass and kill Black Americans at an alarming rate. However, even before such laws, police officers terrorized inner-cities for decades. The most glaring example occurred in 1991 with the beating of Rodney King – an incident that uncovered a deliberate and widespread brand of racist policing as well as “an organizational culture that alienates itself from the public it is designed to serve” while teaching “to command and confront, not to communicate.”
The 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman served as a sobering reminder of the tragically subhuman value that has been placed on Black life in America. Martin’s death rightfully brought on cries of an “open season on young black men,” while another 2012 murder, this time of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed by Michael Dunn in broad daylight while sitting in a car with three friends, reiterated this fact. Like Martin, Davis was unarmed and posed no threat – and certainly not enough of a threat to justify lethal force. In Davis’ case, the murderer, Dunn, indiscriminately fired 8 bullets into the vehicle where Davis and his friends were sitting. The public reaction to the two murders (adults killing unarmed children, mind you), especially from those who somehow felt compelled to defend the killers, as well as the subsequent trials, the posthumous (and false) ‘criminalizing’ of the victims with decontextualized images and information, and the total absence of justice on both accounts – all products of a long-standing culture of white supremacy – exposed the lie that is “post-racial” America.
However, these reactions were and are nothing new. It has been “open season” on young black males for many years in the US, and very few outside African American or activist communities couldn’t care less. One study estimates that “one Black person is killed every 24 hours by police, security guards, or vigilantes.” Furthermore, “43% of the(se) shootings occurred after an incident of racial profiling,” Adam Hudson tells us. “This means police saw a person who looked or behaved “suspiciously” largely because of their skin color and attempted to detain the suspect before killing them. 
Many of the victims of these “extrajudicial” killings posed no threat at the time of their murders, as was the case with Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Aaron Campbell, Orlando Barlow, Steven Eugene Washington, Ervin Jefferson, Kendrec Mcdade, Kimani Gray, Wendell Allen, Ronald Madison, James Brisette, Tavares McGill, and Victor Steen, to name a few.  Some, like Brisette (17), Gray (16), McGill (16), and Steen (17), were children. Others, like Madison and Steven Eugene Washington, were mentally ill or autistic. All were unarmed.
If the Rodney King trial taught us (and police) anything, it was that officers in the US can inexplicably beat an unarmed and non-threatening Black man to near-death and face no consequences for doing so. Twenty years later, this unaccountability on the part of law enforcement has evolved into an overly-aggressive and often fatal approach to interacting with innocent, young black men. This has never been more evident than during a rash of indiscriminate and blatant acts of police brutality in recent years. All peoples of color have become viable targets, and some of the most alarming examples have been directed at children and people with special needs and disabilities.
In 2009, a 16-year-old autistic boy, Oscar Guzman, was chased into his family’s restaurant by two Chicago police officers after they questioned him for “watching pigeons.” Guzman, who was posing no threat and breaking no laws, was “struck in the head with a retractable baton, causing a four-centimeter laceration that had to be closed with staples at a nearby hospital.”
In 2011, two Miami-Dade officers stopped 22-year-old Gilberto Powell, who has Down syndrome, due to a “suspicious bulge” coming from his waistband. When the officers confronted Powell and began patting him down, Powell became frightened and ran. The officers caught up and beat him. The “bulge” turned out to be a colostomy bag. Powell was unarmed and breaking no laws.
In November of 2013, a 14-year-old child was “roughed up” and Tasered by police in Tullytown, Pennsylvania after being caught shoplifting at a local Wal-Mart. The child suffered a broken nose, multiple abrasions, and two swollen and black eyes as a result. He was unarmed and posed no threat to the officers.
On January 3, 2014, 64-year-old Pearl Pearson was pulled over by police on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident. After Pearson failed to show his hands when instructed by officers, a “7-minute altercation ensued” and Pearson was severely beaten. He was unarmed and posed no threat. The reason he did not show his hands as ordered: he’s deaf – a fact that is displayed on a sign attached to his car.
Other examples include the unnecessary brutalization of incapacitated individuals, as well as the emergence of a universal, reckless “shoot-first” mentality. The most recognizable incident was the 2009 street execution of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Policeman, Johannes Mehserle. Following a brush-up with other passengers, Grant and a friend were apprehended by officers who had them lay prone on the ground. Grant was “restrained, unarmed,” and had “his hands behind his back,” when the officer shot him in the back, killing him. The entire incident was caught on video.
Shockingly, occurrences like this have become common with relatively little fanfare. In May of 2013, 33-year-old David Sal Silva was beaten to death by California officers after he was stopped and questioned for suspected public intoxication. “When I got outside I saw two officers beating a man with batons, and they were hitting his head so every time they would swing, I could hear the blows to his head,” said witness Ruben Ceballos, who told the Californian the noise was so loud it woke him up. Sal Silva, unarmed, “begged for his life” before being bludgeoned to death for no apparent reason.
In September of 2013, following a car accident, 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was shot 10 times by Charlotte police officer, Randall Kerrick. After knocking on the door of a nearby home, Ferrell spotted the officer and began running towards him for help when Kerrick opened fire. Ferrell was unarmed, posed no threat, and was merely seeking assistance after accidentally crashing his car into a tree line off the road. He died instantly. That same month, Long Beach police officers were captured on a video posted to YouTube repeatedly Tasering and striking Porfirio Lopez with a baton as he lay in the street. Lopez was unarmed and posed no threat to the officers.
In October of 2013, Sheriff’s deputies in Santa Rosa, California shot and killed a 13-year-old boy who was carrying a pellet gun. The boy, Andy Lopez, was walking down the sidewalk on his way to return the “low-powered, air pellet gun” to a friend who he had borrowed it from. Before realizing the gun was a toy, and despite having no reason to believe the child was a threat, an officer shot him dead.
In 1968, Huey P. Newton noted that “the country cannot implement its racist program without the guns. And the guns are the military and the police.” 45 years later, this comment rings true. Institutions and lawmakers alone cannot carry out racial and class-based oppression on their own – they need willing participants. Domestically, police officers must become these willing participants; and their psychological makeup, which is shaped by a process of objectification and a prolonged internalization of “war culture,” is crucial. On a global scale, this task is left to our soldiers – working-class women and men who are routinely placed in harm’s way for the wrong reasons, and many of whom suffer a compounded and severe mental toll in the process.
The Mental Toll and Savagery of War
America’s “war culture” goes far beyond psychological preparation and conditioning. Ultimately, and most significantly, it includes the physical projection of this collective mentality. It includes, as social commentator Joe Rogan simply put it, “sending these big metal machines that kill people” halfway across the world. The young, working-class women and men (like myself) who become the willing participants of this projection are the very products of this conditioned mentality. As children, our inherent submission to objectification and subsequent immersion into “war culture” makes this possible.
Unfortunately, the effects of war are real. They are shocking. And they are horrifying. The mental health effects on the participants of these wars are vast, especially with regards to the modern battlefield. Soldiers are returning to the US with a variety of such conditions – most notably Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Depression, and Anxiety.
Dr. Deborah Warden, of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, noted in a report for the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation that elements specifically related to modern warfare have resulted in a significant increase in head trauma-related injuries. Two major factors in this development are technological advances in protective equipment and a relative increase in “blast attacks.” “In the current conflict, mortality has declined, and it is believed that this is because of the advances in body armor worn by the military personnel,” explains Dr. Warden. “With the high-quality body armor, individuals who may have died in previous wars may survive with possible injuries to extremities and head and neck.” In addition to this, “more TBI may be occurring in the current war because of the frequency of explosive, or blast attacks. Military sources report that approximately two thirds of army war zone evacuations are due to blast,” and “88% of injuries seen at second echelon treatment sites were due to blast.”
In a study conducted nearly six years after the beginning of the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was determined that, out of 1.64 million military service members who were deployed into these arenas, “approximately 300,000 individuals currently suffer from PTSD or major depression, and that 320,000 individuals experienced a probable TBI during deployment.”  Additionally, “about one-third of those previously deployed have at least one of these three conditions, and about 5 percent report symptoms of all three.” A separate study found that “21 percent of active duty soldiers and 43 percent of reserve soldiers developed symptoms significantly related to mental health disorders.”
According to another study:
“15,204 soldiers who had completed their first deployment participated in two questionnaires about their mental health and sleep patterns from 2001 to 2008. During baseline questionnaires before deployment, most soldiers did not have any psychiatric disorders or a history of one. However, during follow-up questionnaires, 522 soldiers had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 151 have anxiety, and 303 were depressed. Fifty percent of the soldiers studied reported combat-related trauma and 17 percent reported having insomnia prior to their deployment.” 
The increase in mental illness among soldiers has been identified as the main cause of increasing suicide rates. In 2012, the Army reported that 325 suicides occurred within its ranks – “Our highest on record,” according to Lt. Gen. Howard Bromberg, deputy chief of staff, manpower and personnel for the Army.
Naturally, within any arena of combat where young, impressionable adults are moved around like pawns on a chessboard, human emotion runs wild. Despite the robotic conditioning that occurs during basic training, this chaotic environment has a tendency to penetrate the human psyche, bringing about an extreme range of feelings, vexations, actions, and reactions. Human beings are simply not equipped to handle the terrors that accompany war – the sight of human corpses, charred and mangled bodies, some of them children – in their totality. And coping skills, whether inherent or forced, vary in effectiveness from person to person. Unfortunately, some cope by internalizing the terror. In these cases, we see the worst in humanity.
The infamous Wikileaks video that leaked in 2010, showing “thirty-eight grisly minutes of US airmen casually slaughtering a dozen Iraqis in 2007” – including two Reuters newsmen – puts this savagery into focus “not because it shows us something we didn’t know, but because we can watch it unfold in real time. Real people, flesh and blood, gunned down from above in a hellish rain of fire.” The video footage, which immediately went viral, came on the heels of the haunting images taken at Abu Ghraib, where Iraqi prisoners were physically and sexually abused, tortured, raped, sodomized, and killed by American and Iraqi soldiers. Other such incidents were inevitable.
2010 was an especially gruesome year in Afghanistan. A February 12th nighttime raid by U.S. Special Operations forces near Gardez killed five people, including two pregnant women. Another airstrike by U.S. Special Operations forces helicopters on February 23 killed more than 20 civilians and injured numerous others. Among the injured was a 4-year-old boy who lost both of his legs. A few months later, during a visit with the child at a hospital in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai “scooped him up from his mattress and walked out to the hospital courtyard,” and asked, “Who injured you?” as helicopters passed overhead. “The boy, crying alongside his relatives, pointed at the sky.” A few months later, in April, American troops “raked a large passenger bus with gunfire” near Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing 5 civilians and wounding 18.
In January of 2014, numerous photos showing US Marines burning and looting the dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers were obtained by the media. “Two of the photos show a Marine apparently pouring a flammable liquid on two bodies. Other shots show the remains on fire and, after the flames went out, charred. A Marine in another photo is shown apparently rifling through clothing amid one corpse’s skeletal remains. Another Marine is shown posing in a crouch with his rifle pointing toward a human skull.”  Overall, more than a dozen bodies were shown in the photos, some of which were covered with flies and one being eaten by a dog.
Considering the savagery that accompanies such an environment, it is not difficult to see how undervalued human life becomes. The soldiers who carry out, witness, or even hear of this brutality are almost certain to suffer long-standing mental health effects. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs website, symptoms of PTSD include “bad memories or nightmares” and “flashbacks”; triggered and impulsive emotions; intense feelings of fear, guilt, or shame; and “hyperarousal” – feeling jittery, paranoid, and “always on the lookout for danger.” The effects of TBI include numerous sensory problems, depression and anxiety, and severe mood swings and/or aggressive behaviors, among many other things. 
When all is said and done, and the politicians decide to bring them home, the soldiers who are lucky enough to return in one physical piece are often shattered into bits and fragments of mental and emotional distress. Often times, these soldiers face limited options – one of the most common of which is transitioning to a career in law enforcement.
From Fallujah to Philadelphia: Bringing the Wars Home
Police training mimics military training, both physically and mentally. Transition programs that funnel soldiers to police forces have become common at all levels of government. The changing face of law enforcement is indicative of this process as forces that are traditionally advertised to “protect and serve” have become noticeably militaristic. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that soldiers, many of whom carry the mental baggage of war, are being streamlined from the streets of Fallujah to the city blocks of the US.
In a recent article for “Police: The Law Enforcement Magazine,” Mark Clark tells us that military veterans seeking employment in police ranks “is happening right now in numbers unseen since the closing days of the Vietnam War.” To assist with job placement and transitioning, organizations like “Hire Heroes USA” works with “about 100 veterans each week” – at least 20% of whom are seeking law enforcement jobs. Law enforcement agencies like the Philadelphia Police Department and San Jose PD, which boast of being structured as “a paramilitary organization,” actively seek military veterans by awarding preferential treatment. Many police departments across the country have added increased incentives and benefits, including the acceptance of military active duty time towards retirement, to acquire veterans.
An October 2013 edition of the Army Times reports that “more than seven in 10 (local law enforcement agencies) said they attend military-specific job fairs, and three quarters reported developing relationships with the Labor Department’s local veterans employment representatives.” Also, “Half said they work with military transition assistance programs, and half also said they develop relationships with local National Guard and reserve units.” Most local departments also have some type of veterans hiring preference, and “more than 90 percent reported having at least one vet in a senior leadership position.”
An example of this trend can be found in Hillsborough County, Florida, where the Sheriff’s department is seeking to hire “200 law enforcement deputies and another 130 detention deputies,” and Major Alan Hill has set his sights on veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to fill these roles. Ironically, Hill points to “coping skills” as a main reason. “A lot of them know how to operate under stress. All of them know how to take orders,” Hill said. “We want to get the best of the best, and bring them in here, and give them a home, and allow them to continue to serve.” Other departments across the country – such as the City of Austin Police Department and the Webb County Sheriff’s Office, both in Texas; the Denver Police Department in Colorado; the Hillsborough County and Orange County sheriff’s offices in Florida; and the Tucson Police Department in Arizona – have initiated similar efforts.
The correlation between the mental baggage of war, the increased hiring of military combat veterans as police officers, and an observable escalation of aggressive and violent police brutality is difficult to ignore. Police departments have screening processes, but many are lacking. The lingering effects from being in a war zone are unquestionable, and signs and symptoms which often are suppressed during “downtimes” tend to surface and intensify under distress – a common occurrence for police officers.
A 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that “19 percent of the 912 police officers surveyed in the New Orleans Police Department reported PTSD symptoms and 26 percent reported symptoms of major depression.” A 2008 report by the US Department of Justice concluded that “police who have unresolved mental health concerns – whether or not those concerns are associated with their combat-related experiences – are at risk of harming themselves or others because of the nature of their jobs.”  Furthermore, the “mental health effects of combat deployment can manifest themselves in the daily activities of police work with more severity than perhaps other lines of work.” Specifically, “Officers’ combat experiences can affect how they use their weapons, their adherence to use-of-force policies, how they drive their police vehicles, and how they treat citizens with whom they come into contact.” 
Despite the potential dangers of these mental health effects, police departments fail to adequately assess them during the evaluation and hiring process. And even in cases where they are considered, the presence of such conditions are either (1) intentionally hidden by candidates, (2) undetectable due to their impulsive nature, or (3) simply not considered a reasonable basis for disqualification.
Soldiers transitioning from military to civilian life will often mask the psychological effects of combat out of fears of being stigmatized or disqualified for employment. “Of those reporting a probable TBI, 57 percent had not been evaluated by a physician for brain injury.” In a recent study conducted at the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control (COCS), Kara Ballenger-Browning reported that “many of these soldiers are self-conscious about the diagnosis.” In her findings, Ballenger-Browning cited a poll where “half of Iraq/Afghanistan combat veterans with suspected mental disorders believed that receiving treatment would harm their careers; and another 65% stated that they would be considered weak for seeking help and many were afraid that their peers would lose confidence in their abilities.”
The study also focused on military-sponsored “soldier-to-civilian” transition programs which sought to assist veterans with civilian job placement. Within such programs, “anonymous questions about PTSD treatment and future employment dominate online discussion forums, and many erroneously assume and advise that outside agencies embrace a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” Consequently, “these findings give reason to believe that veterans may not seek treatment for PTSD, fearing automatic disqualification from employment based on the diagnosis.”
Since the transition from soldier to police officer has become commonplace, the COCS study included an assessment of the typical candidate evaluation process used by police departments to determine how or if the lingering mental health effects of combat would influence hiring decisions. Information was gathered from a dozen random departments throughout the US. The study found that:
- In each case, a psychological evaluation of the applicant was required; however, a separate evaluation for PTSD was not typically administered.
- The vast majority stated that a history of PTSD would not result in automatic disqualification.
- Although screening tools, such as the Clinician Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS), exist to evaluate levels of PTSD severity, no law enforcement agencies reported using one.
- In cases where mental health diagnoses were known, “most agencies suggested that medication, including psychotropic medication, was evaluated to ensure that safe and efficient job performance would not be adversely affected.”
While many advocate groups view this lack of screening as a positive thing – because it’s one less obstruction for veterans to face when seeking employment with law enforcement – it should be concerning to members of the communities that are subjected to the ill effects of officers who suffer from combat-related conditions like PTSD or TBI. “Despite the challenges faced by veterans leaving active-duty military service for new or existing police careers,” lauds Clark, “the ranks of police forces are swelling with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Considering that one-third of all soldiers returning from deployment suffer from PTSD, TBI, some form of depressive disorder, or a combination of these, it’s probable that many of these new recruits who are “swelling the ranks” are bringing significant mental baggage with them.
The combination of this development with the standard process of objectification and internalized oppression, as well as the ingrained mentality of “war culture,” is a volatile one. Add the deliberate militarization of domestic police forces to the mix and we have an alarming trend – one that is highlighted by the near-daily occurrence of indiscriminate police violence across the country.
The Evolution of Domestic Militarism
The militarization of America’s police forces has been a gradual process which began as blowback from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Radley Balko, an investigative journalist for the Huffington Post, has spent much of the past decade following this alarmingly fascistic development. What Matt Taibbi is to the mortgage banking scandal, and Jeremy Scahill is to US imperialism, Balko is to the militarization of domestic law enforcement agencies. Likening modern police forces to a “standing army,” Balko has made compelling arguments – using constitutional law and the 13th amendment, as well as deploying an historical analysis extending back to old English law – that the mere existence of these forces are unconstitutional.
“We got here by way of a number of political decisions and policies passed over 40 years,” explains Balko. “There was never a single law or policy that militarized our police departments – so there was never really a public debate over whether this was a good or bad thing.” Over the course of several decades, Balko points to three main developments that have led to this massive domestic militarization:
First, as a general response to the grassroots militancy of the Cultural Revolution – which sought greater degrees of liberty, freedom, and equality – police forces began borrowing from the “special forces” model of the military. “They were largely a reaction to riots, violent protest groups like the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army, and a couple mass shooting incidents, like the Texas clock tower massacre in 1966.” This led to the development and proliferation of SWAT teams. “Darryl Gates started the first SWAT team in L.A. in 1969,” explains Balko. “By 1975, there were 500 of them across the country.”
The second development was the “war on drugs,” which “overlapped” and developed simultaneously with the reactive militarization of the late ’60s. Balko captures the vibe: “Nixon was declaring an ‘all-out war on drugs.’ He was pushing policies like the no-knock raid, dehumanizing drug users and dealers, and sending federal agents to storm private homes on raids that were really more about headlines and photo-ops than diminishing the supply of illicit drugs.” Shortly thereafter, with the arrival of Reagan, “the two trends converged, and we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis – mostly to serve drug warrants.”
Two decades later, domestic militarization reached new heights with the third development in this evolution: The World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. Broadening the “war on drugs” to include an all-encompassing and often-times ambiguous “war on terror” opened the door for massive increases in “domestic security measures,” which led to seemingly limitless funding of police forces, the creation of new “security” agencies such as Homeland Security, and the opportunity for millions of dollars of profit to be made through the privatization of these services.
Private corporations like G4S Secure Solutions (formerly “The Wackenhut Corporation”), mimicking their international counterparts like Academi (formerly “Xe Services” and originally ” Blackwater“), jumped at the chance to secure government contracts (including US Customs and Border Protection) and boost revenue. The creation of a “police industrial complex” has allowed companies like these to benefit from a “business to business global security market that is estimated to generate revenues of up to $14.9 billion per year” while being heavily subsidized by government contracts. As a complementary development, the privatization of prisons works hand in hand with this newly-found, multi-billion-dollar law enforcement industry by creating even more incentive to seek out arrests and incarcerations.
“Federal funding in the billions of dollars has allowed state and local police departments to gain access to weapons and tactics created for overseas combat theaters.” In an ongoing study by the ACLU, which is awaiting responses to “over 260 public records requests with law enforcement agencies in 25 states,” enough discernable evidence has been gathered to determine that “the use of military machinery such as tanks and grenades, as well as counter-terrorism tactics, encourage overly aggressive policing – too often with devastating consequences.” The study highlights random developments across the country:
- A county sheriff’s department in South Carolina has an armored personnel carrier dubbed “The Peacemaker,” which can shoot weapons that the U.S. military specifically refrains from using on people.
- New Hampshire police received federal funds for a counter-attack vehicle, asking “what red-blooded American cop isn’t goingto be excited about getting a toy like this?”
- Police in North Dakota borroweda $154 million Predator drone from Homeland Securityto arrest a family who refused to return six cows that wandered onto their farm.
- Two SWAT Teams shut down a neighborhood in Colorado for four hoursto search for a man suspected of stealing a bicycle and merchandise from Wal-Mart.
- Police in Arkansas announced plans to patrol streets wearing full SWAT gear and carrying AR-15 assault rifles. 
Furthermore, during a 2007 House subcommittee hearing, Balko reported a “1,500% increase in the use of SWAT teams over the last two decades.” Today, in America, “SWAT teams violently smash into private homes more than 100 times per day.” 
The equipment and machinery regularly utilized by local police forces across the US now mimics that of a war zone. They possess everything from body armor to high-powered weaponry to tanks, armored vehicles, and even drones. But why? Are the duties of police officers really as dangerous as they’re made out to be? Out of approximately 900,000 police officers in the US, there are roughly 150 fatalities per year. Nearly 100 of these fatalities are accidental; therefore, 50 out of 900,000 officers – or 1 out of every 18,000 (five hundred thousandths of one percent of the entire force) – are ‘maliciously’ killed each year. The odds of being struck by lightning over the course of a lifetime are 1 in 3,000. Yet police are armed to the teeth – a fact that suggests conscious shifts from “defense” to “offense” and “protecting and serving” to “confronting and repressing.” Citizens – most notably poor, working class, and people of color – who are intended to be the beneficiaries of this “protective service” are now viewed and treated as enemy combatants on a battlefield.
Coming Home to Roost
“It was, as I saw it, a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ I said that the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.”
– Malcolm X, explaining his “chickens” quote
America’s culture of war and violence was bound to catch up to all of us. Over the past decade, yearly US military expenditures more than doubled from a little over $300 billion in 2001 to over $682 billion in 2013.   US military spending represents 39% of global spending – more than the combined spending of China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, Germany, India, Italy, Canada, and Australia. Since 1945, the US military has invaded, intervened in, or occupied at least 50 countries. Currently, the US operates and/or controls between 700 and 800 military bases worldwide, a list that includes locations in 63 countries. In addition to these bases, there are 255, 065 US military personnel deployed in 156 countries worldwide.
This global military presence has real and often disastrous consequences for human life. In the 2011 book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, author John Tirman estimates that “between six and seven million people died in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq alone, the majority of them civilians.” However, wartime casualties pale in comparison to the lingering effects, chaos, and disorder stemming from prolonged military occupations. “In the period 1950-2005, there have been 82 million avoidable deaths from deprivation (avoidable mortality, excess deaths, excess mortality , deaths that did not have to happen) associated with countries occupied by the US in the post-1945 era.” While it’s difficult to gauge how much of a role the military occupations played in this devastation, it’s safe to assume the instability created by such occupations factor significantly.
The violence that is perpetrated abroad mimics the violent culture at home. As of June 2013, it’s estimated that there are up to 310 million guns in the US, which amounts to just about one gun per person (the US population is 314 million). The next highest number of guns per capita by country is Serbia at 58% and Yemen at 55%, compared to the US at 90%. Since 1968, there have been 1,384,171 gunfire deaths in the US – which amounts to more American deaths than from all of the US wars in the nation’s history combined (1,171,177). The US averages 10.2 “firearm-related deaths” per every 100,000 people. Americans are 10 times more likely to suffer gun-related deaths than people in Australia and Ireland; 15 times more likely than people in Turkey; 40 times more likely than those in England; and 170 times more likely than those in Japan. 
America’s police forces also reflect this culture. And while law enforcement agencies across the US have delivered pain and devastation to poorer, inner-city communities for nearly a half-century, their militarization has only recently begun to attract national attention. Much of this attention can be pinpointed to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the response it received from police, which included unadulterated brutality against peaceful protesters, unnecessary use of force, and the negligent use of tasers and Oleoresin Capsicum (pepper) spray – a substance that has been proven to cause “adverse cardiac, respiratory, and neurologic effects, including arrhythmias and even sudden death” in some cases. However, it was not merely these careless and sadistic actions which have attracted such attention, but rather the changing profile of the victims of this brutality – young, white, “middle-class” women and men.
“For 25 years, the primary ‘beneficiaries’ of police militarization have been poor people in high-crime areas – people who generally haven’t had the power or platform to speak up,” explains Balko. “The Occupy protesters were largely affluent, white, and deft at using cell phones and social media to document and publicize incidents of excessive force.” Their public victimization, despite falling far short of the police brutality that has existed within communities of color for decades, inevitably struck a chord with a nation still inundated with white supremacist ideals that assign varying degrees of value to American lives – mainly based on the color of one’s skin and their socioeconomic background. Ultimately, white members of the media, seeing reflections of their own sons and daughters being abused, suddenly chose to report en masse. White viewers, seeing reflections of their neighbors and relatives, suddenly expressed widespread disgust. This was no longer an episode of COPS, “glamorizing controversial police tactics” and perpetuating “implicit biases regarding race and class.”  These were now white, middle-class lives being affected and brutalized.
Essentially, the hate that Malcolm X spoke of, historically reserved for “defenseless black people,” is now developing into indiscriminate rage – targeting poor and working-class people of all colors throughout the US. Through this ongoing process, it is becoming apparent that even white privilege, in itself, is beginning to lose its immunity from this unaccountable wrath.
The 2011 beating of a homeless schizophrenic man, Kelly Thomas, in a transit parking lot in Fullerton, California confirmed this wrath. The incident was, unbeknown to officers, recorded by security cameras on the night of July 5, 2011, and later viewed by millions of Americans as the officers’ trial was closely followed. Thomas was unarmed and posed no threat at the time of the beating. “The surveillance camera footage shows Thomas being beaten, clubbed and stunned with a Taser by police.”  Thomas suffered a coma and died five days later in a hospital bed.
November of 2011 showcased yet another incident of blatant disregard as a police officer doused UC-Davis students with streams of pepper spray. At the time, the students were engaged in non-violent protest by sitting together with their arms locked. Video footage of the officer calmly and methodically walking up and down the line of students, spraying in and around their faces without pause, epitomized the sadistic nature of modern policing. 
On August 10, 2013, Tallahassee police officers, while conducting a field sobriety test on 44-year-old Christina West, forcefully slammed her face-first into the road as one officer screamed in rage. While obviously inebriated, Ms. West was subjected to what City Commissioner Scott Maddox later described as “a disturbing use of force against a completely non-aggressive arrestee.”
In September of 2013, 20-year-old David Connor Castellani was arrested, beaten by police, and attacked by a K-9 unit after a verbal altercation outside of an Atlantic City casino. Castellani was unarmed. The following month, after a disagreement with his father over cigarettes, 19-year-old Tyler Comstock found himself the target of a police chase in Iowa. Despite being told to “back off” in order to defuse the situation, officers escalated the incident by pursuing Comstock, crashing into the truck he was driving, and shooting and killing him. He was unarmed. 
In January of 2014, a 2009 surveillance video from a Seabrook, New Hampshire police station was leaked, showing police slamming Mike Bergeron face-first into a concrete wall and dousing him with pepper spray while he was on the floor. Bergeron was arrested under suspicion of drunk driving and was unarmed, handcuffed, and relatively calm when one officer decided to violently slam his face into the wall, to the apparent joy of the other officers who could be seen laughing. 
Incidents like these and many others have signified the donning of a new age – one that is eerily reminiscent of authoritarian societies gone by, draped with violently oppressive, daily interactions between agents of government and the citizenry, and dripping of fascistic notions built upon a culture of militarism and war. A violence historically reserved for the most disenfranchised of the population – and ignored by most of the rest – is finally extending itself beyond the oppressive structures of old, transcending targeted demographics to include a working-class-wide assault.
An extensive 2006 report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded that, in the United States, the “War on Terror” has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.” “For 30 years, politicians and public officials have been arming, training, and dressing cops as if they’re fighting a war,” explains Balko. “They’ve been dehumanizing drug offenders and criminal suspects as the enemy. And of course they’ve explicitly and repeatedly told them they’re fighting a war. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that a lot of cops have started to believe it.”
This development, while unwanted, was inevitable for a nation that was built on a foundation of Native American genocide, African enslavement, the ruthlessness of capitalism, a culture of misogyny, and persistent strains of racism and classism. The process of objectification which has become pervasive for America’s youth has served as an expedient catalyst to a culture of war and oppression; and the insidious victimization of America’s working class has worked in tandem with the internalization of this oppressive culture, producing willing participants eager to earn a place in the master’s good graces by brutalizing their working class peers.
As products of this conditioning, the mindset of the modern police officer in the US remains peculiar. As individuals, within the confines of their own lives – amongst their families, loved ones, children, and friends – they aren’t much different than many of us. Ironically, despite being enforcers of government policy in their professional capacity, many do not hesitate to jump on the soapbox of anti-government rhetoric – often opposing things like Obamacare, welfare, gun control, open immigration policy, and even taxation – on their “personal time.” Right-wing fringe groups like the Tea Party and Oath Keepers have actively recruited both military personnel and police officers, finding an abundance of narrow and impressionably ripe minds within these ranks. While claiming to “return to the basics” and “serve the US Constitution,” their actions (even when serving their “public” duties) ultimately rely on literal interpretations of a highly-subjective, often vague, and antiquated document that was written by wealthy, white (some slave-owning) landowners nearly 250 years ago. 
Naturally, these interpretations are skewed by a myriad of privileges. Regardless of the officer’s own ethnicity or socioeconomic background, it is the role that ultimately represents a virtual arm of white supremacy and class oppression. Regarding the racist dynamics of law enforcement in the US, “It’s useful to understand this as an allegory about how white skin privilege works,” explains Annalee Newitz. “The police uniform (and) the badge are like white skin, and the person who wears that skin is allowed to enforce laws which he doesn’t himself intend to follow.”  Within their roles as “officers of the law,” they become the embodiment of the government-backed suppression they often despise in their private lives. Only the suppression they carry out is against a specific target population (people of color, the poor and disenfranchised, and the working class). And, despite coming from that very working class, they undoubtedly lose any and all sense of class consciousness in their roles as ruling class watchdogs.
Within this role, they take ownership of a wide array of hypocritical entitlements – a mindset that wholeheartedly believes the US Constitution protects my rights to own guns, and my rights to protect my privileged status in society, and my rights to protect my property, and so on. However, those rights don’t apply to you. And they certainly don’t apply to young men of color who happen to be walking home at night. Nor do they apply to striking workers demanding a living wage. Nor do they apply to Occupy protestors collectively sitting in protest of illegal wars, corporate greed, and corrupt banks. Nor do they apply to evicted homeowners who were exploited by deceitful mortgage schemes. Nor do they apply to homeless people who are simply trying to survive on the streets.
Rather than seeing themselves as public servants, police officers have increasingly embraced the “us vs. them” mentality – anyone who isn’t a cop is a potential threat. In doing so, they have become “mindless drones” void of any conscience amidst a world that is becoming increasingly unconscionable – the ultimate tool on an ever-intensifying class-war landscape. The collective baggage they bring with them – products of objectification, war culture, militarism, and combat-induced mental illness – serve as positive attributes in the eyes of those who use them as tools of oppression, while representing erratic triggers of violence to everyone else. The war has come home. The chickens are here to roost.
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