An Old Warfighter Responds to Ferguson

I am, and will always be, a warfighter.

I grew up poor. As a child, I fought for the kind of things that I though most kids took for advantage — things like school meals and warm nights. I grew up the kind of white-boy poor that meant I had two choices post-high school: I could either suffer under an hourly job or join the military.

I chose to serve.

The Army did me well. I was a good machine gunner, but I was a better leader. At least the Army thought so. I did well in the Army, and eventually had the privilege to elect to go war. Not that war was a privilege, merely that I was in a good enough position to choose to go.

And why wouldn’t I? I had spent years training. I owed it to my nation, to the things I held dear to go out and defend her interests. I was, I am, a patriot.

So I did. I served in the first year of the second Iraq War. It was a time. I did things I am not proud of. And I did things that I will never forget. But in the end, that was my war.

But there is one scene that will haunt me.

The moment that will hang with me forever, took place on a September morning back in 2003. It was the first day of school and I was in the back of a HUMVEE, doing my best to keep a loose 240B still as we drove from FOB Normandy to LSA Anaconda.

That September morning was the first day of school. Saddam was still in hiding — living in a spider hole outside of Tikrit — but from the back of a moving truck I witnessed children going to school, ready to learn free a dictator’s rule. It was, to borrow a term now robbed of meaning, awesome.

That little road trip, two years divorced from America’s greatest terror attack, might seem trivial, but it was huge to me. It was a sign that, maybe, just maybe, things could get better.

Most of my war wasn’t so profound. In the least, it wasn’t so clear cut. We kicked in a lot of doors. I once arrested a man on the way to his own wedding. And there were firefights. I, with no great pride, can admit that I have taken lives. But like everything else, the war eventually reached an equilibrium.

My battalion and those we were marginally there to protect reached a mutual understanding. By the time we left Iraq, there was a painting a dozen feet high of our division logo on the side of a building. I don’t know if it was a warning or a sign of respect — but it summed up my war just the same. This was our territory, and we kept the peace.

War changed a lot while I was in Iraq. Mostly around the Rules of Engagement. Go ahead and forget the move with the same title. Rule of Engagement, frequently shortened to ROE, was the law. ROE said when you could shoot, and when you couldn’t. And we lived by our ROE.

At the start of the war, during the invasion and in the months after, ROE was loose. The rules were that if we felt threatened, we could defend ourselves. Questions were minimal. But as the war progressed, as the situation stabilized, we feel into a police state. The Iraqis knew us, and we knew them. As bizarre as it might seem — we established a sense of normal, and our ROE followed suit.

Sure, there would be the occasional old man that shot at us. And we’d return fire. But it was largely perfunctory. And I was spit at. Spit on. But I didn’t kill anyone for that. Iraq’s angry teens did not want us there. That became part of the job. We grew accustomed to that. That was our war. We adapted and overcame.

America’s police have their own Rules of Engagement. They include escalating from walking away to taking lethal force. And those Rules dictate how to deal with the situations in between.

But America is not at war. We are not a nation at odds against itself. That might seem crazy, seeing what’s on television, given what passes as dialog by our elected officials, given what passes as reality on our streets. But by and large, we are a nation mostly aligned. We want people to do better — we just disagree on the means to do so.

War, for me, makes sense. Life is much simpler when those you disagree with are shooting at you. Or bearing arms. But all to often, we reach for warfooting in describing our disagreements. This metaphorical positioning puts us all in danger. When you position someone with whom you disagre as your enemy, you act accordingly. And it makes me want to serve again, if only to allow for the control of the command voice, of telling people to stop, to cease fire, to pull back and recollect and study the ground before us.

And it’s what bothers me about Ferguson.

I will not be one of those people who claims to hang out with a lot of black people. Or who claims to having a lot of black friends. Or who tries to say I understand.

Because the truth is that I don’t.

As a straight white male, I am playing the game of life on the easiest setting possible. Nobody looks as me and suspects that I am up to no good. Nobody has ever described me as a thug, even though my personal history has seen me do numerous thugish things. By the very virtue of my gender and skin, I am given the benefit of the doubt.

And that’s fucked up. I realize that, even though I take advantage of it.

But I cannot look away from Ferguson as a warfighter. I cannot see the actions of Darren Wilson as anything other than a scared individual, raised in the spirit of war, who was caught alone and reacted out of fear.

And the fact of the matter is — Darren Wilson was not a warfighter. He was, is, a civil servant.

Darren Wilson killed a boy, a boy that he was sworn to protect and serve. Nobody disagrees with this.

As a warfighter, I see Wilson’s actions as someone who couldn’t abide by the Rules of Engagement. Based on the description of events, he had numerous options before him — including driving away — and Wilson chose to escalate force. The Grand Jury might have sided with him — but as a warfighter, as a veteran, as a soldier — I know that Wilson should be held to a higher standard. He could have spared Mike Brown’s life. But Darren Wilson, in the heat of the moment, chose not to.

And that’s where the pain starts. That’s the horror. Wilson was, and still isn’t, me. He was not a warfighter. He was, and apparently still is, a civil servant. And at some point, the structure that was supposed to support him, that structure forgot what Darren Wilson was supposed to be. Police are servants of the people, sworn to both serve and protect. They are not meant to judge, to execute.

But Wilson didn’t do follow his ROE. He claims he was attacked. And maybe he was. But his decision, and it was most certainly a choice, was to take deadly force. And he’s not alone. He is just the latest in a long line. And while the system let Wilson down, it also let down Ferguson. And by proxy, America.

And that’s where I have a problem. Even if he didn’t kill Brown that day, Wilson couldn’t return from his war. He could never recover, like I did. Because his war is on going. His war is against the very people he was sworn to protect.

And in that, Darren Wilson became the worst kind of statistic. I don’t want people to pity him. Hell, I want Wilson to do the right thing and turn himself in for murder. He’s not even the latest — with news today breaking of a cop killing a black kid with an admitted toy gun.

What I want is cops to stop trying to be warfighters. What I want is our nation’s police, regardless of jurisdiction — to admit that the people out there are not the enemy, they’re the beneficiaries.

What I want, as a warfighter, is America to stop fighting itself.

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