Monday, May 10, 2010

The Wire and the logic of counterinsurgency

As I mentioned (warned) in my previous post about re-watching The Wire, it's inevitable that some of the issues and ideas that I start making notes on will bleed onto this blog a little. It has become in part my forum for thinking out loud.

I've been working through an idea for an article, one that has been kicking around in the back of my mind for about a year now. Its general topic is, as my title suggests, the way in which The Wire replicates the logic of counterinsurgency. I'll be coming back to explain what I mean by that more generally in a future post; suffice to say for the nonce that the series offers an implicit critique of the heavy-handed tactics initially used by the U.S. military in Iraq. This is not to suggest that this is ultimately what The Wire is about; rather, the War on Terror functions as sort of a background noise for a series that very subtly highlights the serendipitous parallels between the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.

Intrigued? Well, I'll post more on that at a later date. Today I want to talk about one specific thread of that larger discussion, or rather one specific character who I have come to see as embodying the show's moral trajectory.

The more I watch The Wire and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the character of Ellis Carver, as portrayed by actor Seth Gilliam. Carver is, compared to such big personalities as Jimmy McNulty and Omar Little, relatively innocuous. He is initially (in seasons one and two) the slightly more sensible half of his partnership with Thomas "Herc" Hauk (Dominick Lombardozzi), a meathead narcotics cop with more muscle than brains who thinks the beginning and end of policing involves cracking heads. Carver is more or less of the same mentality—at first. He muddles along through the first two and a half seasons, making sergeant at the end of season one though a backdoor deal but rising to his rank and becoming a half-decent supervisor. And then, late into season three, his major, Howard "Bunny" Colvin (yet another of the wonderfully nuanced and subtle characters in the series) sits him down and delivers the following speech:

This speech is a pivotal moment, both for Carver's character and for the show's thematic trajectory. Season three sees Major Colvin finally lose patience with the "War on Drugs" when one of his detectives gets shot while making a miniscule undercover drug buy. Pretending to his men that it is a tactical diversion, he gets them to force all drug dealers into a few abandoned, uninhabited sections of the city; as long as they conduct business in the sanctioned areas, he tells them, we leave them be. In other words, he effectively legalizes drugs. Meanwhile, with only a handful of cops detailed to supervise the free zones—nicknamed "Hamsterdam" by the dealers—he is able to reassign his police to doing, in his words, real police work: investigating burglaries and robberies, responding to neighbourhood crises, but above all being a helpful presence in those neighbourhoods, rather than a gang of toughs jumping out on street corner dealers.

Season three of The Wire presents an eloquent argument against the current prosecution of the war on drugs, and the crux of it lies in Colvin's distinction between policing and warfare. Of course, the Hamsterdam experiment is only temporary, as Colvin knows; as soon as the media gets wind of it, the commissioner and mayor are running scared and they basically blackmail Colvin into taking the fall alone.

(Incidentally, if anyone is thinking sceptically that I am giving a lot of rhetorical weight to what is essentially a fictional scenario, you should watch this video of a drug bust that went down a few weeks ago in Columbia, Missouri. A home was invaded by a half a dozen SWAT police in full body armour touting automatic weapons; the suspect's pet dog was shot as a threat. And in the end, all for a possession charge of a few ounces of pot. That's right—a small army bearing a veritable arsenal of weapons knocking down a door, shooting pets, and brutalizing the home's inhabitants, and the drug in question wasn't even a narcotic. Be warned: the video is disturbing.)

I remember a number of years ago, a black community leader in Toronto was vilified by the police, the city's municipal politicians, and the press for saying that crime-ridden black communities in the Jane-Finch area did not provide assistance to police because they viewed them as an "occupying force." Rather than recognize the uncomfortable truth being uttered, people chose instead to attack the messenger, because to do otherwise would have meant admitting to a strategy of policing that was antagonistic and oppositional.

I remembered this incident the first time I saw that sequence between Colvin and Carver: the metaphor of "occupied territory" is particularly powerful on The Wire, as the series draws a subtle parallel between the war on drugs and the war on terror—especially in terms of the way the latter is prosecuted in Iraq. The Bush Doctrine and the post-9/11 landscape is never obtrusive in The Wire, but functions, as mentioned above, as a sort of background noise. When I read Thomas Ricks' book The Gamble, which is about the "surge" in Iraq, I couldn't help but think of The Wire and the philosophy of Bunny Colvin: beyond having been an influx of extra soldiers into Iraq, the surge constituted a fundamental shift in strategy wherein U.S. forces spread out from a few large bases into a series of smaller posts within the most problematic areas. Soldiers were instructed to perform more foot patrols, were schooled in local customs of courtesy and etiquette, and attempted to gain the trust of local imams and community leaders. The principal maxim of counterinsurgency, they were taught, is to secure the community.

It is, at this point, hard to tell whether General Petreus' sea-change will ultimately yield results or whether it was too little, too late. But the same principle that an occupying force that only knows how to crack heads and humiliate locals creates a populace that tolerates and offers succour to the very insurgents being targeted underwrites much of the logic of The Wire.

While almost universally lauded as possibly the best television series ever made, The Wire does receive a certain amount of flak for being pretty unrelentingly dark and defeatist. That the show offers few rays of hope is undeniable, but one of them is the transformation of Carver. At the very beginning of season four, we see some of the lessons learned from Colvin taking hold:

"If you bust every head, who are you going to talk to when the shit happens?" The Carver of seasons four and five is a changed man, a police who knows the names of all the players on the street corners, a savvy and smart cop whose promotion to lieutenant at the very end of the series suggests that some lessons are being learned.

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