Security Comes First: The Link Between Global Counterinsurgency and American Policing

Police secure an intersection during a third night of unrest in Richmond, Virginia. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing
by Stuart Schrader
University of California Press, 393 pp., $29.95

Stuart Schrader, author of the intellectually and empirically towering Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, knows that his work is not breaking ground. Despite his seamless synthesis of sociology, history, and critical analysis of what “security” really means, Schrader acknowledges that he is merely building on what primarily Black radicals discovered long ago: that American policing, modernized and professionalized during the Cold War, is inextricably linked to the various US efforts to manage global decolonization, under the aegis of containment. Much like the national security professionals that saw anti-communism as a global project, radicals like the Black Panthers also knew their struggle for equality was not limited to Los Angeles, Harlem, or Newark. To them, domestic repression was inseparable from US efforts abroad to suppress various nationalist and Leftist movements in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. Schrader quotes the preeminent Black intellectual James Baldwin, who so astutely observed, the policeman “moves through Harlem… like a soldier in a bitterly hostile country.”[i]

Where Schrader does break ground, however, is in his herculean efforts to combine theories of race, histories of international American police assistance and a rigorous analysis of the role of police in counterinsurgency abroad into one central argument. When investigating the origins of the American carceral state we find ourselves living in today, he argues, one must hold the foreign and domestic in one frame. Schrader begins this study with a guiding metaphor: he asks his readers to imagine a large format photograph. In the foreground we can see a looming, conventional prison. But the image gradually fades into a hazy, indiscernible background. To understand the prison, the carceral state, one must explore the background, the transnational project of US empire: “To look at that background is to grasp that although the history of policing and prisons within the United States appears grotesque, the true extent is worse. This US apparatus has encircled, and encaged, the globe.”[ii]

Although the title of his book suggests that the United States developed techniques of counterinsurgency abroad, then repatriated them for domestic use, it belies his true mission: to demonstrate that American policing techniques and ideologies freely crossed the foreign and domestic divide to be deployed in any city, country, or continent. Labeled “counterinsurgency” and “pacification” abroad, and “law enforcement” and “law and order” at home, the development of policing techniques knew no national boundaries, as it was truly a global project. No one, perhaps, embodies the free-flowing nature of policing better than Byron Engle, a central character in Schrader’s book. A reform-minded cop from the Kansas City Police Department, Engle was chosen by Douglas MacArthur to rebuild Japan’s police force during the US occupation. There, according to Schrader, Engle was charged with keeping at bay the chaos and disorder that US officials feared would take over after the war. To Engle, police were the first line of defense against that disorder. Passionate about exporting his Kansas City police tactics internationally, Engle called Japan “the best laboratory that anyone interested in organization and administration could have been involved in.”[iii] Crucially, Schrader points out, Japan became the poster child for US economic and political power in Asia, due in large part to the lubricant of Engle’s Kansas City-style police training. Engle then went on to head the Office of Public Safety (OPS), the office charged with assisting and training police forces all over the world.

Engle, Schrader points out, despite his admirable job of rooting out corruption and incompetence in both the domestic and overseas police realms, was a rabid anti-communist. To Engle, the essential role of police was “the regulation of human conduct.”[iv] As Japan was going to be the US bulkhead against communism in Asia, particularly China, Engle designed his police forces to root out subversion. To do this, police had to be professional, free from political influence, and decentralized to insulate not only itself from subversion, but the public it sought to regulate. To Engle, he was just Americanizing Japanese police: creating the friendly neighborhood cop whom the community trusted with their safety. Schrader, however, pokes a hole in Engle’s rosy depiction of decentralized, American policing by pointing out the other side of the coin of US federalism: “the decentralized despotism of policing that for African Americans in particular amounted to thousands of everyday micro-fascisms.”[v] Engle’s nascent OPS, with its successful foregrounding of police as the foot soldiers of counterinsurgency in Japan and Germany, did not enjoy the same success in Vietnam, however.

Much like apple pie and baseball, rock ‘n’ roll and Coke-a-Cola, counterinsurgency is part and parcel of the American project. From Iraq and Afghanistan to Vietnam, from the Philippines to the Indian Wars, the United States has had its share of those unhappy to live under its control. But despite the best (and not so best) efforts of the military and national security establishment, it has yet to be done in a way that does not result in the wanton mass-murder and/or internment of civilians, at worst, or the severe curtailing of individuals’ rights and dignity, at best. Where Schrader particularly shines is his rigorous analysis of, in his words, “how counterinsurgency became policing.”[vi] In his most illuminating chapter, Schrader demonstrates the effort to transport American notions of policing, namely as the “first line of defense” against subversion and disorder, overseas to replace the military as the vanguard of US global counterinsurgency, to replace the soldier’s M16 with the policeman’s baton.

Central to Schrader’s narrative is modernization theory. To grease the wheels of industrialization and the development of market-based economics in newly decolonized states, those who may seek to capitalize on the social and economic upheavals must be kept at bay. Counterinsurgency was to be that grease. The question, then, was how to suppress the noxious elements hostile to capitalism, while not adding fuel in the form of overt oppression to those very movements. To men like Robert Komer, an early champion of Engle’s incipient OPS and member of Kennedy’s National Security Council, police “could enable the construction of an environment of security that would allow development to proceed, while also managing the tumult rapid development would unleash.”[vii] Envisioned by Engle as regulators of social conduct, as the enforcers of order, police simply made insurgency that could, in their minds, only thrive on disorder, impossible. The crucial implication that Schrader highlights is that, in the battle against subversion, ameliorating the material grievance that underpinned revolution was the long game. In the meantime, however, security came first. Police provided that security.

Despite the best efforts of Komer to convince the Kennedy administration to focus on policing as counterinsurgency in Vietnam, as Schrader writes, proponents of a military-focused effort won the day, with Robert McNamara recommending the destruction of crops via chemical defoliants to “force the Viet Cong out of the target area.” Just as Engle’s OPS came into being, exporting police assistance to the “Gray Areas” of the world, a term Schrader favors when describing emerging nations vulnerable to revolutionary forces, Vietnam was not to receive such focus. OPS did, however, prove instrumental in providing a blueprint for the dissemination of police knowledge and training to be replicated in the United States to counter civil unrest in major cities during the 1960s. Highlighting the replicability of OPS’ police training and assistance, initially designed to fit any geographic or political scenario the world over, Schrader goes on to describe how the conveyor belt of police know-how came back to be used in the United States, to satiate both law-and-order conservatives, and liberals seeking to defend the legitimacy of President Johnson’s Great Society.

Today, amid compelling calls for police accountability and, in many cases, the abolition of police altogether, it is essential to understand, at its essence, what policing is. Inundated by notions of “protect and serve” as the sole responsibilities of the police, it is vital to call police what they are: localized agents of state violence, charged with the regulation of social behavior. As Schrader points out, the founding fathers of American notions of policing, such as former LAPD chief and policing intellectual William Parker, understood the role of police strictly limited to social control, not correction. In other words, police must not concern themselves with the root causes of criminality, only their effects. To policing, as with counterinsurgency, security comes first. Schrader’s brilliance is his uncovering of the direct link between counterinsurgency knowledge and American policing: the primacy of security over the factors that may contribute to insecurity. Modernization theory, ripped from counterinsurgency debates, was even retrofitted for domestic unrest: to men like Arnold Sagalyn, a senior official in Johnson’s Treasury Department, Schrader writes, “economic uplift and development were impossible in an environment destabilized by insecurity.”[viii] Sagalyn, seeing the success of Engle’s OPS overseas, wanted the same kind of federal police assistance and training for local departments who felt overmatched during bouts of civil unrest, according to Schrader.

In what was to be dubbed the War on Crime, the federal government, via the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets act, issued block grants to local police departments. Walking the tightrope, as Schrader puts it, between respecting the discretion of local police departments and funneling them training and cash, the federal government essentially wrote blank checks to local cops via the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), reaching $7.5 billion by 1982. In addition to the money allocated to local police, the LEAA diffused knowledge on the various heavy-handed police tactics ubiquitous today, including CS (tear gas) and riot control.

As Schrader so cogently and thoughtfully traces over the course of 273 dense, analytical pages, American policing is a global project. From Kansas City, to Occupied Japan, to Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and back to American cities, policing has evolved into what we see today, learning new tricks at every stop to be used in the next locale. What unites every iteration of the practice, however, regardless if it is used in counterinsurgency overseas or law enforcement and crowd control in the United States, is its essential function to achieve and maintain security. But security for whom, for what? When protestors are brutalized in the streets for demanding racial justice, when over 200,000 Americans are dead of a preventable disease, sacrificed to the gods of free-market fundamentalists, the chants of “who are you protecting?” echo unanswered through sheets of tear gas. For Schrader, “The order police on American streets have created, the order OPS propagated by proxy abroad, the order the War on Crime facilitated is the order of capital, the order of white supremacy, the order of empire. Together these demand security, at home and abroad.”[ix] While Schrader’s conclusion will no doubt garner agreement and support on the Left, it is hard to object after reading Badges Without Borders.


[i] James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 66.

[ii] P. 2

[iii] P. 61

[iv] P. 68

[v] P. 73

[vi] P.79

[vii] P. 90

[viii] P. 125

[ix] P. 273

One thought on “Security Comes First: The Link Between Global Counterinsurgency and American Policing

  1. The author needs a sample of foreign policing if he thinks America is suppressive. If you are a communist or socialist, stay away from this retired military officer whose family fight against and excised those Soviet socialists and their gulags. Go over there and protest and see what happens to your cruise and family even now.

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