Playing War While Dressed to Kill in Portland

Playing War While Dressed to Kill in Portland

Playing War While Dressed to Kill in Portland

Trump’s agents are outfitted as military special operations, not just soldiers. Their violence is no surprise.


Their camouflage is MultiCam, an all-terrain pattern used by the US Army. The helmets they’re wearing are AirFrame-style, lightweight and lacking the ear guards of older-model helmets to make better room for hearing protection and communications gear. Their combat shirts are cotton, and their body armor is slim and low-profile, to allow for maximum maneuverability.

In coverage of the federal agents who, for two weeks, have been beating, charging, pepper-spraying, and arresting Black Lives Matter protesters with impunity in Portland, Ore., commentators have noted with fear the agents’ military-style garb. What isn’t being said, though, is that the outfits are in fact more sophisticated than your average soldier’s. They are, nearly to a T, the uniforms worn in war zones by US special operations forces.

I spent three deployments in Afghanistan and East Africa with Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs. As an intelligence officer, I did not wear this uniform. Along with other support personnel—comms and supply, for example—I had an older helmet, bulkier body armor, and clunkier boots. It was plenty for me; after all, it’s more or less what the majority of regular combat troops wore in theater.

The “operators,” on the other hand, dressed for business. Like the agents in Portland, their sleeves were rolled and their trousers—military-speak for “pants”—were always unbloused, not tucked into their boots like most troops’. Also like the agents, they wore slick alphanumeric and infrared shoulder patches to help identify one another while using night vision. All manner of extra pouches and custom add-ons adorned their kits. The differences here might seem small, but uniforms are so stringently regulated in the military that they signal all the difference in the world. Theirs was a look of extreme capability and of violence. It was a look for “getting some,” as the military says. To me, then, it looked cool.

A similar sartorial fixation permeated the deployed ranks. Especially among the younger troops, for whom there is a hope that war will prove an adventure, it manifested as a kind of envy. Some guys—the women were mostly immune to this particular insecurity—never got over it. They spent entire deployments sucking up to supply until someone, pitying them, finally hooked them up with a cool-guy jacket or rifle modification. Others would whisper: Where’d you get that?

If this all sounds ridiculous, it was. But war, as the saying goes, is boring. There’s time to wind yourself up over all sorts of silly stuff.

The difference in uniforms was useful, though, in that it served implicitly as a reminder of function. My job was to focus on the intel; it was not to sneak off to the rifle range and make believe it mattered whether I could hit a bullseye. The spec ops guys were the ones, if necessary, whose job it was to do violence, and so their uniforms were designed for it. In the end, I viewed their nonstandard gear as a marker of their elite training and professionalism.

The American special operations community has its problems, but in general I trusted the people I worked with, and their look is one I came to trust also. But there’s nothing professional about what’s been going on in Portland. Nor is there evidence that the agents who have been there—a hodgepodge, apparently, of Customs and Border Protection, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the US Marshals, and the Federal Protective Service—are trained for whatever it is exactly the Trump administration sent them to do (there has not been an abundance of public clarity, to put it mildly). As it is, CBP and ICE are not known for their high standards. Some of the agents in Portland hail from the putatively elite units of their respective organizations, but even those forces have no training in riot control and mass demonstrations, according to a Department of Homeland Security memo obtained by The New York Times.

By any reasonable standard, the role of federal agents and law enforcement with respect to the general public—protesting or otherwise—should be to ensure safety and keep the peace. If violence ensues, de-escalation should be priority one. Instead, in Portland, we have seen offense and aggression, including roving patrols far afield of the federal buildings the agents are said to be protecting and purposeful headshots with “less-than-lethal” but still highly injurious (and possibly fatal) munitions. This week we also saw an agent point a shotgun directly in the face of a young woman using her phone. On that count, it’s worth noting the second rule of firearm safety, which anyone who has ever trained with guns knows practically by heart: “Never point a firearm at anyone or anything you are not willing to destroy.”

To willfully destroy a life, right or wrong, one necessarily has to “other” themselves from their target. Uniforms serve many purposes, and in war creating distance between those who wear them and the enemy, who does not, is one of them. As the uniforms become more specialized, more tactical, more lethal, the more that distance grows.

Of course, this is not war. It’s Portland. In Iraq and Afghanistan, enemy fighters are equipped with AKs, DShKs, rockets, and more. In Portland, protesters carry skateboards, leaf blowers, lacrosse sticks, and cardboard signs. Some are pregnant.

And of course, the agents in Portland are not soldiers. Rather than professionalism, then, their military getup whiffs of wish fulfillment, and of insecure men who want to feel cool. It is, essentially, cosplay: The agents masquerade as warriors, while acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf plays the tough-as-nails field general that he, a former lobbyist, will never be. “Our men and women in uniform are patriots,” Wolf wrote in reference to the federal agents last week in a since-deleted Tweet. “We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.”

It would seem a sad new chapter to America’s forever wars that our government would, eventually, find its enemies at home.

I suspect there are some Americans, though, for whom these images will play well, as the president seemingly hopes. (Observers have suggested the imagery alone is what Trump is after, to dovetail with his brash law-and-order rhetoric; The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum called it “performative authoritarianism.”) America’s militarized culture, certainly after two decades of war, encourages trust in the uniform. That, in turn, means distrust in whoever is on the opposite side of the uniform, be that a foreign soldier, a person who in the government’s eyes is a terrorist, or, now, possibly even an American citizen exercising a constitutional right.

That’s not to say it’s only a uniform that beats and batters protesters, of course. Any discussion about the agents’ dress in Portland fits into larger and long-ongoing discourses about the militarization of law enforcement in this nation; the toxic, often racist, culture of the Homeland Security department; and the astounding sycophancy of federal agencies under this president. But these uniforms merit our focused attention, because they are both a trusted symbol in this country—whether for good or ill—and one that enables violence like what we have seen in Portland. Indeed, the agents seem to have gotten the war they dressed for.

Little surprise, some of those speaking out loudest against the government’s actions here are veterans who know exactly what the military, uniforms and all, is foundationally designed for: to destroy and to kill—however uncomfortable it can feel to acknowledge that—in support of national objectives.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, for example, wrote in The Washington Post that when he was tasked in Iraq with building a national police force, he refused to outfit Iraqi recruits in camouflage. To build public trust, he explained, it was important that Iraqis be able to tell the difference between military and police—and that the police know the difference, themselves. That’s why police first donned blue in the early 1800s, in London, to differentiate from the military; America’s first police force, in New York, followed in their stead. Police and military, Hertling concluded, “are not interchangeable in any functioning democratic society.”

Veterans have also turned out in droves in Portland, some wearing uniform items, to protest. Last week, one Navy veteran implored the agents to remember their oaths to the Constitution—and had his hand broken for his trouble. Over the weekend, an elderly Army veteran, a combat medic in Vietnam, confronted the agents—and was pepper-sprayed at point-blank range. Some cried foul: Is this how we treat our veterans?!

It’s an interesting complication, perhaps, for those inclined to trust the uniform: Whom do you favor when those on the opposite side have also worn one? But it would be dangerous to bestow any special status on veterans. No one should be treated this way. Which is what these protests are about in the first place, we’ll remember: the unjust and often deadly policing of Black Americans, in particular.

On Wednesday, Oregon’s governor announced that she had reached a deal with the federal government for the agents to begin withdrawing from the city. That night, agents escalated their attacks, firing projectiles into crowds of protesters into the early hours of Thursday morning. Trump has expressed intent to send agents to Chicago, while also floating the possibility of sending them to Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, and elsewhere. Democratic leaders and a host of former federal officials have called for law enforcement agencies to drop the camouflage. But even a smaller fix, such as limiting where and when gear like this is worn, would also be welcome. We might allow in this conversation that some missions undertaken by these agencies call for a tactical approach, as a matter of the agents’ safety. Such circumstances would need to be extremely limited, however, and clearly outlined to the public. They would certainly not include ill-defined deployments to swaths of Portland or any other American city.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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