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Welcome Home, War! | The Nation

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Welcome Home, War!

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Sending the Future Home

About the Author

Alfred W. McCoy
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A...

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While US combat forces prepare to draw-down in Iraq (and ramp up in Afghanistan), military intelligence units are coming home to apply their combat-tempered surveillance skills to our expanding homeland security state, while preparing to counter any future domestic civil disturbances here.

Indeed, in September 2008, the Army's Northern Command announced that one of the Third Division's brigades in Iraq would be reassigned as a Consequence Management Response Force (CMRF) inside the United States. Its new mission: planning for moments when civilian authorities may need help with "civil unrest and crowd control." According to Colonel Roger Cloutier, his unit's civil-control equipment featured "a new modular package of non-lethal capabilities" designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals--including Taser guns, roadblocks, shields, batons and beanbag bullets.

That same month, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey flew to Fort Stewart, Georgia, for the first full CMRF mission readiness exercise. There, he strode across a giant urban battle map filling a gymnasium floor like a conquering Gulliver looming over Lilliputian Americans. With 250 officers from all services participating, the military war-gamed its future coordination with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local authorities in the event of a domestic terrorist attack or threat. Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an expedited freedom of information request for details of these deployments, arguing that "it is imperative that the American people know the truth about this new and unprecedented intrusion of the military in domestic affairs."

At the outset of the global war on terror in 2001, memories of early cold war anti-communist witch-hunts blocked Bush administration plans to create a corps of civilian tipsters and potential vigilantes. However, far more sophisticated security methods, developed for counterinsurgency warfare overseas, are now coming home to far less public resistance. They promise, sooner or later, to further jeopardize the constitutional freedoms of Americans.

In these same years, under the pressure of War on Terror rhetoric, presidential power has grown relentlessly, opening the way to unchecked electronic surveillance, the endless detention of terror suspects, and a variety of inhumane forms of interrogation. Somewhat more slowly, innovative techniques of biometric identification, aerial surveillance, and civil control are now being repatriated as well.

In a future America, enhanced retinal recognition could be married to omnipresent security cameras as a part of the increasingly routine monitoring of public space. Military surveillance equipment, tempered to a technological cutting edge in counterinsurgency wars, might also one day be married to the swelling domestic databases of the NSA and FBI, sweeping the fiber-optic cables beneath our cities for any sign of subversion. And in the skies above, loitering aircraft and cruising drones could be checking our borders and peering down on American life.

If that day comes, our cities will be Argus-eyed with countless thousands of digital cameras scanning the faces of passengers at airports, pedestrians on city streets, drivers on highways, ATM customers, mall shoppers and visitors to any federal facility. One day, hyper-speed software will be able to match those millions upon millions of facial or retinal scans to photos of suspect subversives inside a biometric data base akin to England's current National Public Order Intelligence Unit, sending anti-subversion SWAT teams scrambling for an arrest or an armed assault.

By the time the "Global War on Terror" is declared over in 2020, if then, our American world may be unrecognizable--or rather recognizable only as the stuff of dystopian science fiction. What we are proving today is that, however detached from the wars being fought in their name most Americans may seem, war itself never stays far from home for long. It's already returning in the form of new security technologies that could one day make a digital surveillance state a reality, changing fundamentally the character of American democracy.

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