Time to Put an End to Police Militarization

In August of 1965 I sat in a barracks in Fort Irwin California on high alert as our Battalion’s tanks were loaded onto flat cars ready to deploy to Watts, waiting to see if President Lyndon Johnson was going to declare a state of emergency and send federal troops to aid the police and National Guard already fighting rioters and looters.

If he had done so, we would probably have been the first army troops to reach the area since we were only hours away. As I watched the television screen late into the night I prayed we wouldn’t be sent. We had spent years learning how to destroy tanks in desert warfare and were quite good at it, but I couldn’t imagine how that would help us control rioters and looters.

It would have seemed surreal to lead a column of tanks from LA’s railroad yards to the Watts areas — high school footage of Russian tanks rolling into Hungary immediately came to mind. I hadn’t joined the army to invade an American city, and I’m sure none of the many enlisted men in my platoon many who had come from the LA area wanted to “invade” their home town, either.

Tanks are ill-suited for riot control, though the sheer shock of seeing a column of tanks rolling down the streets of Watts might have quelled the rioting temporarily. What would we do, though, if we came under sniper fire? Would we have been under orders to just button up and wait for the fire to stop, or would we have returned fire? An M60’s 105mm canon, it’s 50 caliber machine gun, and even the gunner’s 7.62 machine gun are not meant for precision fire. If you took a sniper out with a 105mm round, you would probably take out the sniper’s neighbors, too. That’s not liable to create goodwill in the neighborhood, as the Israeli’s should have learned by now.

After the shock effect of the tank columns had dissipated, snipers or rioter’s with Molotov cocktails would have felt compelled to try to take on the tanks that were occupying their neighborhood. Molotov cocktails were used as early as the Spanish Civil War to combat superior armored forces and are particularly effective in urban areas where they can be dropped on tops of tanks as they pass below. Still, I suspect the real reason Johnson did not send in federal troops was because he didn’t want Americans seeing tanks rolling down the streets of their country on the evening news. A country is in serious trouble when they have to call up the military to suppress rioting.

I got a real taste of what it was like to been seen as an occupying force by the people you’re supposed to be guarding a few months later when our Battalion was sent to Vietnam. By that time I was the heavy mortar platoon leader, not a tank platoon leader. There wasn’t actually much use for a mortar platoon in a tank Battalion where we were stationed, so my platoon was assigned to guard a village where they were building our Battalion’s permanent base. At least that’s what we told the locals when we started building our barracks just outside their village, the theory then being that if we could protect the villager’s from outsiders, i.e. Viet Cong, they would gladly join our side.

We tried to coördinate our forces with the village elders, hiring Vietnamese interpreters to work with them. We even hired villagers to help build our camp, doing everything from filling sandbags to building furniture from the shipping crates used to transport our equipment from the states. Apparently a steady income wasn’t enough to buy their loyalty, because we caught fire from the village nearly nightly, along with a few grenades and Soviet-supplied claymore mines.

I suspect if we had done our job (though it was never exactly clear what our job description really was, other than trying to stay alive until we could get back to reality) we would have talked more to the people about what was going on and patrolled the village with Vietnamese locals. That would have been tough since none of us spoke Vietnamese, or even French, for that matter, and none of us had any police training.

As it was, we huddled up at night in wagon-train fashion outside the village, and returned fire only when fired upon. That probably meant the villagers had to spend all the nights we were there sleeping flat on the ground to avoid shots coming their way. Not surprisingly, at least 90 per cent of the fire we got while I was there came from the village we were “protecting,” not from Viet Cong patrols in the jungle, the side where our tanks had been stationed after an earlier attack.

After particularly long nights the local Catholic priest and head of the village would come out and talk to us, assuring us that everyone in the village was on our side, that we shouldn’t fire in their direction. We nodded our heads, agreeing with everything they said and assured them we were doing our best not to fire into the village unless absolutely necessary. At least I think that was what we told them, for it turned out that our interpreter was a Viet Cong who was captured by an infantry unit while out patrolling the jungle in front of our position.

Though our job was supposedly to protect the villagers, in retrospect I suspect that having tanks and armored personnel carriers stationed outside the village helped the Viet Cong to gain new recruits. I even suspect if I had been Vietnamese I would have been one of those who joined the Viet Cong. What true patriot wouldn’t take up arms against an occupying force?

There’s another less obvious, but equally critical, problem with using military equipment like armored personal carriers in policing an area. They engender a sense of power, perhaps even a sense of superiority, in those who use them. Under the right/wrong conditions, high-powered military equipment conveys a sense of power that can give you the confidence you need to fight under battle conditions. Feeling far too vulnerable in my assigned jeep, when a fire-fight started I jumped in a PC and manned a 50 caliber machine gun, never doubting that there was an enemy I couldn’t kill or repel. That feeling is a lot more apt to keep you alive in combat than cowering while the enemy pours lead on your position. I doubt it is a helpful feeling in policing the people you’re hired to protect.

All my experiences tell me that militarizing the police who are supposed to protect us is a mistake. When I saw the police in Ferguson sitting on the top of armored personnel carriers wearing flack jackets, it was hard not to flashback to my own experiences in Vietnam. Who was stupid enough to believe that a military-like presence would defuse the situation instead of inflaming it? Since the State Police and the National Guard have finally led to quiet, some would argue that military force was the answer, that it just took more force than the police could muster with their limited resources.

That may be true if your only goal is to maintain the status quo, but it’s clear the state is not willing to invest those kinds of resources for very long and, in fact, are already withdrawing the National Guard after the first night of calm.

I’m not wise enough to know what fault to assign to those involved in the incident that triggered these protests, but I do know that such incidents are inevitable as long as police are seen as an occupying force by the majority of residents. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that we are seeing repeated in large parts of American, not just Ferguson.