By Solomon Bennett
Endless war is a term typically used to describe the ongoing era of military engagement in at least seven countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya. At home, the idea of an endless war echoes in some ways the history of continuing violence against Black people, which has taken a number of forms—from slavery, to segregation and federal housing discrimination, to the disproportionate effects of the “war on drugs,” mass incarceration, and police brutality. Most recently, many of these grievances culminated in the massive protests seen across the country in support of Black lives, which were met with a hyper-militarized response by states across the country and by President Trump himself. Indeed, while these examples are each products of independent longstanding domestic racism, there are some essential parallels and connections between police violence and the United States’ military primacy abroad.
In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described the looting in Baghdad as an acceptable and necessary price for freedom, saying that “…one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.” The protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the United States are in response to a distinct history and kind of repression, but rather than exalt protestors for their struggle for freedom, police departments, President Trump, and others responded with the language and countenance of war.
President Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, which gives the president authority in certain circumstances to use federal troops to quell domestic insurrections, while praising the “overwhelming force” and “domination” exhibited by Washington, D.C. police when they teargassed protestors in front of the White House, enabling him to pose with a Bible for a photo in front of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Senator Tom Cotton even penned an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Send In the Troops: The nation must restore order. The military stands ready.” He also argued that law enforcement should give “no quarter” to protestors, a violation of the Geneva Conventions to which the United States is party and the Lieber Code, established in 1863 during the Civil War for the conduct of Union Forces.
Domestic policy is consistent with this kind of militarized language. The 1033 Program allows for the transfer of military-grade equipment, including vehicles and arms, to police departments across the country. Since 1990, the program has transferred more than $5 billion in equipment, with the amount of distributed items increasing drastically with the buildup of the “war on terror.” There is a direct correlation between rampant militarism abroad and its manifestation domestically through this program.
Tactical Items Distributed by Department of Defense 1033 Program
Studies demonstrate that equipment transfers under the 1033 Program correlate with more officer-involved shootings, that militarized police units are deployed disproportionately in communities with higher concentrations of Black residents, and that they result in an increased lack of trust with no significant reduction in crime. Moreover, it exemplifies an approach which has also characterized U.S. foreign policy—increased militarization at the expense of engagement in other serious, more effective ways to address concerns, from state investment in communities at home to rigorous diplomacy abroad.
As a result of the “war on terror,” The FBI also has backdoor access to warrantless metadata collected from international communications by the National Security Agency. This prompts further concerns about the trickle-down effects of “endless war” on domestic law enforcement, echoing how the Church Committee in 1976 described FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tracking of civil rights and peace activists: “techniques of wartime.”
The killing of George Floyd was a tipping point of the nationwide protests, built on the weight of a history of oppression and racial discrimination which still pervades almost every aspect of American life today. It is also predicated on the socio-economic reality of massive inequality experienced by the Black working class—that total billionaire wealth is equal to 76 percent of all Black wealth combined, roughly $4.68 trillion. As Donald Rumsfeld once alluded to, but likely would not indulge in applying to this context, people have spoken out and taken to the streets as it becomes clearer than ever before that the state is failing Black people.
Eliminating the 1033 Program’s transfer of armored vehicles, grenades, and other weaponry is critical, but it evidently does not strike at the heart of the problem of systemic racism, police violence, and the transformation of neighborhoods into potential battlegrounds. This is a larger social, economic, and political struggle which reaches to the heart of the United States’ founding and involves reimagining what it means to “protect and serve.”
Both domestically and internationally, this involves reallocating funds from the defense and police budgets into better public means of addressing security concerns. At home, for example, funds should be allocated to alternatives for tackling drug, mental health, and public safety issues, while fixing the underlying conditions including poverty which contribute to crime and violence overall. Anti-racism in the United States will also prove critical to understanding the role that race plays in shaping international relations scholarship, challenging its norms, and improving the field’s analysis.
Brown University’s Cost of War Project estimates that the ongoing “endless wars” abroad have led to the deaths of more than 335,000 civilians by all parties to the conflicts and the deaths of more than 7,000 U.S. soldiers, all at great financial burden. Just as the United States must move away from the normalization of war and reliance on armed dominance, keeping communities safe and protecting their right to protest cannot involve violent occupying forces. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Atatiana Jefferson, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, and so many more demand it.
Solomon Bennett is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying political science and international relations.