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The Militarization of the American Hometown

As police everywhere roll through neighborhoods with battlefield hardware, an Afghanistan vet’s family learns there’s no escaping war.

Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

On Saturday, my 13-year-old stepdaughter announced with some force that she wanted to go to the first peaceful protest against police brutality in our hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. The protest was Monday night. As a non–legal guardian, I was not within my power to say no, although I would’ve. She would have hated me and imagined, wrongly, I don’t care about the cause. She’s a kid with a preternatural knack for finding lost animals: the person who traps a spider in a glass to put it outside rather than squishing it. She’s got big eyes and really wants to see it all. I know that type. I am that type. Still, I’ve had 26 more years than her to see things, and I hope she never sees much of what I have.  

I was thinking about her eyes on Sunday, when I was the first one into Walmart at 7 a.m., managing my anxiety by finding supplies to fill three field-expedient personal protective equipment kits. I’d given up or lost most of my eye protection from the war, so I grabbed ballistic shooting glasses. I once worked under a sergeant major whose eye was sliced by a bullet ricocheting off concrete in Mogadishu in the early ’90s, and he always lectured me about eyepro. I guess that’s a useful lesson. 

This whole thing has my head spinning. I’ve always been most comfortable writing from the fringe, and now the social fabric in America is tearing enough that everything is fringe. In early April, taking in the paranoia around me and in me, I’d mused that the quarantines and unemployment and racism and government dysfunction made “a dream scenario for covert-action plans: a mighty nation, bifurcated between its urban coasts and its rural center, strung this tight.” Under these conditions, I imagined, a small group of people with the right resources could spark an “American Spring,” or the boogaloo. Walking my dogs “through the ghost town of central Fayetteville, I saw slick posters with slabby white-on-black text reading, ‘Democrats Did It’ and ‘Russians Did It’ next to flyers for a rent strike. Maybe,” I wrote, “it wouldn’t even take two months.”

My family notices I’m tense. Short. Worried. I try to explain why, but it comes out like a sergeant ranting at a private for not having their boots tied properly. My family loves me, but they don’t understand where I’m coming from. Fayetteville is a college town. They’ve been to plenty of protests and demonstrations with nary a problem. When they look at a patch of land, they see it totally differently than I do, and I’m glad for that.

I couldn’t understand why my dad was so tense this January, either, at first. My mom, my brother-in-law, and I were sitting behind him in a courtroom that doubled as a meeting space for the city council of Prairie Grove, a rural town outside Fayetteville where my sister lives; we were there to watch Dad ask the local government why they thought their cops needed a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.

Dad had first noticed the new massive G.I. Joe toy in town a couple days after Christmas, driving home from my sister’s. The MRAP was parked cavalierly right in front of the police station, next to the courthouse, down the street from where I used to pay my water bill, and not far from the site of the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862—a tactical stalemate, but the end of Confederate dominance over northern Arkansas. 

He learned that Prairie Grove got its MRAP from the Department of Defense, under the 1033 Program—the Pentagon’s preferred way to cast off its excess “war on terror” tech in American communities. The $675,000 behemoth was to be used by the local police in “natural disasters and crisis situations, such as an active shooter on site,” the chief said. He added that Northwest Arkansas was “considered a hig-intensity region for drugs, and such areas are given a preference for military vehicles” by the DOD. Just after receiving it, last fall, the Prairie Grove police used the MRAP for a kids’ Halloween “Trunk or Treat” celebration.

The MRAP’s journey is a straightforward story, at least for America. Early in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. troops learned that their Humvees were especially vulnerable to attacks from improvised explosive devices, and a period ensued where soldiers desperately scrounged metal to affix makeshift armor onto their vehicles. (In 2004, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously told a group of troops, “You go to war with the Army you have,” he was replying to a junior soldier who’d asked why the Army had to rely on this “hillbilly armor.”) By 2007, the Pentagon’s answer to this problem was to create a new class of IED-resistant light armored vehicle, the MRAP. For the next five years, the DOD threw billions at multiple producers to roll out these up-armored trucks. 

MRAPs were just coming into the Army when I was in Afghanistan; we used nothing but Humvees with various degrees of up-armor, so I never had the displeasure of dismounting like a Kevlar-clad Martian from one of the cement-mixer-size gas guzzlers. Nevertheless, I once lost $5,000 in combat pay buying stock in an MRAP company called Force Protection. Given the endlessness of the wars then, I figured it was a safe—if cynical—investment. But it turned out Force Protection’s accounting practices were as irregular as the warfare for which it had made vehicles. 

The best MRAPs came from South Africa, developed by the South African Defense Forces based on lessons learned from Rhodesia and the border wars from 1966 to 1990, which should’ve been a bright, waving red flag. There were a lot of flags, really: MRAPs were much better than Humvees at protecting soldiers, but like most military hardware, they were not much help in a “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency, and expensive to maintain and transport. As the Iraq War wound down and the Afghanistan deployment numbers shrank, the services experienced an MRAP glut. 

In 2012, the MRAP first became available to transfer to U.S. police agencies under the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which, since the Clinton years, had provided cops with surplus military ammunition, weather gear, firearms, and vehicles. Police paid only for shipping and maintenance, with the proviso that they “use or lose” the gifted gear within a year of receiving it. Even school districts and universities got in on the spree: Ohio State University’s police got an MRAP for “football missions and other critical incidents.” If you’re acquainted with the 1033 program at all, it’s probably from the Pentagon-equipped, ubermilitarized police forces that descended on Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and terrorized protesters against the shooting death of Michael Brown by a local cop. After Ferguson, Barack Obama put new limits on 1033, barring cops from receiving military gear that “can alienate and intimidate local residents, and send the wrong message.” In his first year in office, Trump rolled back those limits, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying that Obama’s decision “put superficial concerns above public safety.” Once again, cops would have military firearms, bayonets, and MRAPs.

An armored vehicle parked on a municipal complex bugged my dad, and when something bugs Dr. Gary E. Farwell, U.S. Air Force (Retired), he takes action. After we lost my brother, Marc, in a helicopter crash in Germany, he became a Gold Star Dad. He wrote about the bifurcated status of military Gold Star Families for The New York Times’ At War blog and The Wall Street Journal. When Donald Trump assailed Gold Star father Khizr Khan for supporting Hillary Clinton, Dad weighed in in our old local paper in Virginia. “I’m with the Khans—and I’m a right-wing Republican,” he said. “My heart goes out to the Khan family, I can relate to the Khan family. I cannot relate to these people who are supposed to be running our country, to be inspiring respect for our country.”  

Consequently, Dad had some things to say about our Northwest Arkansas MRAP. In a letter he sent to the city councils, mayors, and police chiefs of Prairie Grove, Farmington, and Fayetteville—and then repeated in person to anyone in the city government who would hear his case—he correctly called the armored vehicle “a complex, unwieldy machine” ill-suited to dispense public safety on Prairie Grove’s streets. “To some, they are seen as symbols of a martial police department who sees the citizens as adversaries who need intimidation. To others it’s a cool new toy to be explored and manipulated,” he wrote. “However, even the mayor admitted to me that he wouldn’t trade even one police car for it, and the main reason for it sitting in the parking lot is that it was ‘free.’” (Sure, they didn’t have to pay for the MRAP up front, but neither had they anticipated the long-term costs of maintenance, fuel, and insurance.)

I thought it was a good letter. The militarization of police—who consistently act like badly trained counterinsurgency stormtroopers in minority communities—has been a bugaboo of mine since I got back from the war. Nothing cures a white person of the perception that cops are there to help like getting arrested regularly. That’s been me, between nine and 12 times, depending on your math and definition of “arrested” versus “detained”—for nonviolent, nondestructive misdemeanors. I was drunk every time the cuffs went on, and a couple of the cops were nice, too, but I remember being arrested by assholes, mostly. The one time it really went sideways, I almost escaped the police car, arriving at the police station hog-tied in a red-rope restraint with fresh bruises and abrasions but also alive. And fortunate to be white, I know. 

I’d sent a copy of Dad’s letter to a friend of mine who’d spent time in Afghanistan with the CIA, working to prevent IEDs from blowing up MRAPs full of Marines. “He’s saying precisely what I have been SCREAMING since Ohio State got an MRAP in 2013,” my friend texted back. “It’s rote now. It’s accepted and sadly … sadly, EXPECTED. ‘WE NEED ONE HERE. THEY GOT ONE IN THAT AFGHANISTAN PLACE. I PAY TAXES.’”

The letter had earned Dad exactly three minutes to make his case to the community’s government, on Monday, January 20—Martin Luther King Day wasn’t much of a holiday for the city council in Prairie Grove. “Consider the pros and cons of having this sort of vehicle,” he concluded. “Does it really have any positive benefits? I know the kids love it—they love a fire truck, too—but it scares the hell out of some people, and some people fear them being misused.” 

When his time elapsed, I stood to speak, telling the council members I was once an infantryman in Afghanistan. That I rode in an armored vehicle every day, I interacted with the public every day, and as a soldier in an armored vehicle, you see the public as hostiles, as the enemy, people beyond the glass that can potentially cause you problems. I urged them to consider the message their MRAP sent to the public, including families like mine, who have experience with war and don’t like to see it brought back home.

We lost. The MRAP stayed.

On our way out the door, the council members thanked me for my service, but not my dad for his 18 years in uniform: If anything, they seemed annoyed he spoke out. It’s odd to me: I was a killer American in Afghanistan. I think being a skeptical American in the United States is much more honorable. It may be a losing battle, but I suspect, like my dad, I’ll keep fighting these losing battles all my life—and maybe that’s the point. To fight, not like I used to, with guns, but like we were meant to, with words. I’m grateful to him for teaching me that.

The Prairie Grove MRAP was on my mind as I assembled the first aid kits for my fiancée and stepdaughter to carry through the streets of Fayetteville Monday night. I wondered how many MRAPs are being fueled up around the U.S., and I felt my dad’s frustration with a policing system acquiring the implements of war; he’d been ahead of the curve. As I packed my own trauma kit with chemical cauterizers and a tourniquet, I paused and prayed I was being crazy and not prescient. I hoped my preparation was all paranoia. I hoped the kid’s eyepro would stay in her fanny pack. But while ballistic eye protection could block debris, it wouldn’t block her eyesight, and that kid is sharp. There are so many things she shouldn’t have to see.

We went to the protest, the three of us, walking the dogs a mile or so up the hill to the police station off Rock Street—I didn’t want to drive and dismount: It’s better to walk to the objective. I wore the CamelBak I carried in Afghanistan, looking like a dork, the front pouch loaded with QuikClot and trauma shears. 

We walked around the police station, looking for the other protesters, and the tension was broken when the first three masked people I saw were folks I used to buy pot from; one gave me a hug, social distancing be damned. It was good to see them. 

There were no MRAPs in sight. Police greeted the protesters with a prepared, but relaxed, posture; no riot gear, no long guns. The three guys on the roof even waved back. The Fayetteville police didn’t look or act like stormtroopers waiting for an excuse, even though they were still smarting from the execution-style killing of an officer in December by a drifter who was shot dead immediately after his rampage. 

With the other protesters, we ate hot dogs, drank water, and then assembled to take a knee for seven minutes to remember George Floyd and the uniformed criminals who killed him. Then we all walked home, my stepdaughter and my almost-wife handing me the three unused trauma kits to carry on the way back, stuffed inside a promotional tote bag featuring a quote about a brave woman from my fiancée’s book

At home, we gathered around our screens and watched the peaceful protesters in Bentonville, 40 minutes away, encounter a whole different scene. The aggressive bubba cops formed up like they were trying to make Bull Connor proud; boogaloo boys showed up; then there was tear gas. The next night, there was a second, larger protest here in Fayetteville: 4,000 people in the square, the cops and protests peaceful, the MRAPs nowhere in sight. I apologized to my family for being a hypervigilant ass and began to write this story. It is a different story than the one written with tear gas and riot sticks up the road, and across the nation. Here, at least, is somewhere people can share, respect, and respond to each other’s pain. I feel lucky. But I still have the trauma kits packed.