The Promise (and Peril) of Using the Military to Stop American Riots

As I type this newsletter, my Twitter feed is filling with footage of American soldiers—National Guardsmen from states across the nation—flooding into American cities. The purpose of this newsletter is to explain why this is, on balance, a good thing, but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not because the military is likely to bring “overwhelming force”—as you’ve seen (mainly) conservative writers and politicians demand during these days of chaos. It’s because they’ll bring overwhelming presence, and that overwhelming presence is likely to decrease the need for overwhelming force. 

Indeed, if in the coming days we see American troops engaged in urban combat, we should view that as a terrible failure—a return to the nightmares of days gone by. 

But first, a bit of personal backstory. One of the reasons why I’ve decisively changed my assessment of the problems of American policing is that I consistently saw American police at home exercise less discipline and less tolerance for risk than American soldiers deployed in war. Facing lesser risks, they were more apt to pull the trigger. Facing fewer threats, they were more apt to lash out. Not all of them, of course. Not most of them, but all too many—enough to trigger the national crisis we now face. 

And while the nightly news and our social media feeds are filled with terrible images of utterly unjustifiable looting and violence, I’m also seeing something else—repeated images of breakdowns in police discipline and often inexplicable uses of force. 

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