I have never been a law enforcement officer, but I have had some experiences that allow me to relate to what they face. Let me tell you about one of them.
It was a hot August morning in 1968. August in Vietnam is the monsoon season. So even if it wasn’t raining in the morning, you knew torrential rain would come about three or four in the afternoon and keep on pouring through much of the night. Slogging through the rice paddies and swamps of the delta, the bottom half of you was always soaked and filthy, but you tried to keep the top part dry. Sleeping wet covered by a rubber poncho was truly miserable. During monsoon, most of the time we slept wet, balancing on rice paddy dikes. That isn’t conducive to getting a good night’s rest. You start the day very early and in a bad mood, made quite a bit worse because on any particular day you might die.
That hot August morning my infantry battalion was on a search and destroy mission. Basically, this meant that you swept through an area, presenting yourselves as targets. When you were attacked you focused your resources and destroyed the enemy. In the process hopefully you might find caches of weapons or whatever. As we entered a village, my platoon was in the lead for the battalion. I was a 22-year-old First Lieutenant. My radio call sign was Bravo One Six – Bravo company, first platoon, and six was designation for the leader.
Operating in an area where there are many buildings is very difficult and dangerous. It is almost impossible to maintain constant visual contact with all of your men. This particular village was deserted. Not a good sign. We had just entered and were among the first buildings when there was a burst of automatic weapons fire. I can tell you this, when those first shots are heard, I don’t care how much training you have, for a moment your mind freezes. After that, everything depends on how quickly you recover and do what you have been trained to do. Following those shots, there was controlled chaos and a lot of yelling. “Who fired that? Account for your men.” Etc. The weapon hadn’t been an M-16. It had been a machinegun. But every infantry platoon carried M-60 machineguns. Was it one of mine? No answer. And no more shooting. But we couldn’t account for everybody. All of this took seconds that seemed like hours. Very quickly, the rest of the battalion moved in from other directions.
Suddenly, a lot more firing.
I didn’t know it yet, but in that initial burst of gunfire I had lost two men. They had been only about 35 meters from me. They had passed momentarily to the other side of a building. In the next round of firing four more American soldiers from other platoons died. By then we knew the source of the attack. When it was all over, we discovered that the enemy had built a bunker inside a village home. None of these buildings were much more than huts. But with the gun emplaced inside a bunker inside a house, and the way sound travels among buildings, it took awful minutes to discover the source.
We surrounded them and brought in a Cobra helicopter gunship. Then we pounded the living hell out of them. The gunship was firing rockets and bursts from its mini-gun, 5000 rounds a minute of 7.62. You don’t hear individual shots. All you hear from a mini-gun is a hellish blur. On the ground we were firing Light Anti-tank Weapons. With my platoon, I was hunkered down in the water at the edge of a filthy pond. We were lying in the community latrine, about 20 meters from the enemy. The gunship was hovering back and forth about ten meters above our heads. It’s interesting being that close to an attack helicopter with everything blazing. (I’ve been having more and more trouble hearing for a long time and it isn’t just old age.) The bunker was large and well-defended. It took hours, but, of course, we destroyed them.
So what do you feel when it’s all over, when you are zipping up your men in body bags to send them home and helicopters are landing to pick them up? What do you feel? It’s been 48 years, but some memories do not fade. The first thing you feel is absolute exhaustion. And it isn’t just physical. It’s in your soul, your spirit. You are tired enough to die. And emptiness, you feel so empty. You are in shock (such a trivializing word), but you don’t wander around. There is work to be done and you do it. One more thing you feel, relief, you feel a terrible relief. It’s over and you are still alive.
As a leader, I thought about the young men I had just lost. Both were 18 years old and both were married. I thought about their families. At this moment, they were going about their lives, worry for their husbands, sons, brothers never leaving their minds, not even in sleep. They didn’t know that those young men were no longer in this world. But soon they would know. In a day or so, green cars would pull up in front of their homes, men in uniform would get out and walk to their doors. Then would begin the crying time. You think about your family. Today, the bullet didn’t have your name on it, but was a green car in their future?
As a soldier, all of that goes through your mind. That’s how you feel, but what do you want to do? I’ll tell you what you want to do. In those moments of emptiness, you want to kill people. You want to kill anyone and everyone remotely responsible for the hell you have experienced. You want to kill them slowly with maximum agony. That is the thirst that comes from ice-cold rage and hate and it doesn’t go away easily. It can generalize outward to encompass a nationality, an entire race of people. And it will eat you alive if you let it remain. I’m afraid a lot of veterans have allowed it to remain. I’m afraid the same is true for many police officers.
From the standpoint of a combat unit, these feelings and desires become a leadership problem. As a leader, you are feeling what your men feel. You have the same thirst for retribution. So what will you choose to do? Will you let the rage grow hotter? Will you allow indiscriminate destruction? Raging murder will be satisfying for a moment, but what about in the years to come? How much do you understand about the years to come when you are an exhausted 22-year-old? As a Christian, I understood enough. I understood that morality does not end on the battlefield. Your conscience does not get a pass when you are a soldier.
Choosing to do right, no matter the cost or your desires, is the responsibility of a moral leader. In restraining vengeance, you are saving your men. In quieter moments, you can remind them of the compassion and mercy that has been at the heart of American soldiers since our country was founded. So in the aftermath, in the hours, days and weeks, you just slog along and lead. Part of leading is maintaining control of yourself and everyone under your command. But as a leader, questions will echo throughout your life. Could I have done something different that August morning that might have saved the men I lost? Was there a flaw in my leadership that day? Even if the answer is always no, not to the best of my knowledge, in quiet moments, perhaps with years in between, the questions return. And you wonder what happened to their families after the green car arrived.
What does all of this have to do with policing in America? For me, several things. First, there are very few police departments that have experienced what I and my men experienced on that August morning. Second, very few police units are made up of men and women who are 22 years old and younger. Third, no police officer can tell me anything about fear, about danger, or about the awful emotions of loss. I have known all of that for a very long time. Fourth, I understand what leadership means both during and after a mortal crisis. I understand the awful temptation to look at everyone who is not on “your team” as the hated enemy. I understand how easy it is to generalize your anger to an entire race. I understand that retaining those views means destruction.
Based upon what I have known, I’ve come to this conclusion: There is no such thing as a “policing problem” in America. What we have is a leadership problem in law enforcement all the way up to the President of the United States. What is happening across this country is a crisis of leadership that extends up the entire chain of command. I don’t care whether it is a military unit or a police unit, the people involved will mirror the attitudes and values of their leaders. Leaders choose and train people who mirror their attitudes and values. It is the task of a leader to establish and maintain not only esprit de corps, but the moral standards of his or her unit. If the leader is immoral, the people beneath him or her will be immoral. That is true from the President all the way down.
But our leaders are born from us. They rise out of the birth canal that is America. At this moment, that birth canal is a moral sewer. There is no longer any shared definition about what is right and wrong. As a nation, all concept of morality is gone, that’s why so many cling to tattered ideologies of the left and right. Shriveled ideologies have taken the place of both personal and collective morality. Patriotism is not morality. When it defines our morality, hell is in control. With slithering relativism, under the guise of being “patriotic,” however we define that word, we can overlook and defend outright evil in the leaders we choose and follow.
In this reeking environment, pulling moral leaders out of the American sewer is almost impossible. The best example of our sewage is the two people running for president right now. The fact that so many support them makes clear the foul mess that we have made of our national heritage. Both of these people are a product of what we are and a prophecy about what is to come.
As far as policing is concerned, we don’t seem to understand that our police departments and their leaders grow out of and reflect the communities in which they operate. So the war between the police and the people is like a war between conjoined twins, stoked constantly on both sides by more hate, more fear, more weapons, and more technology. While there is always enough hate and fear, there are never enough weapons or technology. So both personal and police arsenals must always have more. Either we stop this insanity and look at each other in a totally different way…or we will die. What we need is national repentance based on a clear view of ourselves, not the lying mirage presented by our current political candidates. What we need is a president who will tell us the truth about ourselves on both the left and the right. Certainly, that is not the man in the Oval Office right now. And no one with that kind of moral vision and courage is on the horizon. In our hate, rage and desire for vengeance, we won’t allow such a person to appear.
So what is the only message for police leaders in America? Expect no moral leadership to come from above you in the chain of command or from below you within the community. Let those leaders who are truly moral people look to God and their own consciences in establishing morality and compassion within their departments, recognizing that they will answer to God someday for the choices they make and their stewardship of the offices that have been entrusted to them. And if any leader, from the President on down, thinks that answering to God means nothing, I would say this: In your rancid selfishness and stupidity you may bring down hell on all of us, but be assured that a very personal hell is awaiting you. Now most Americans will jeer at such an idea, but truly moral leaders will hear and understand. God help them as they work in this growing darkness.