The most transformative 24-month period of my adult life was from July 2006 until June 2008. I spent the first half of that time as Consul General at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The second half was spent studying national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, D.C.
I learned a lot in those two years, although sometimes I can't remember which lessons I learned in Iraq and which I learned in the classroom. I never dreamt that knowledge gained in a war zone and in an academic setting teaching better ways to form and implement foreign policy would have application to our current domestic challenges, but 2020 has challenged a lot of us to use the tools we have to do new jobs.
Take, for instance, the concept of the "strategic corporal." This idea is that in today's environment even a corporal (the lowest ranking member of the military with command authority) can take actions that have repercussions all the way to the top of the chain of command.
A tragic but illustrative example would be the actions of junior enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. Beyond the direct human cost, the fallout from those incidents continues to complicate American diplomatic efforts in the Middle East to this day.
There is a direct parallel in domestic policing. Without making any assumptions about his guilt or innocence in the death of George Floyd, it cannot be denied that the actions of one police officer, on one shift, in Minneapolis on May 25 have had repercussions far beyond his patrol area, his precinct house, or even his city.
The actions of this one officer, on this one shift, have not just led to demonstrations around the world. His actions may lead to some of the most major reforms in the criminal justice system in more than 50 years. His actions have also been a propaganda gift to our authoritarian international rivals, jeopardizing the efforts of our diplomats abroad to advocate for human rights reform. His actions, and the chain of events resulting from them, may even prove a deciding factor in the November elections.
That is the effect of the actions of one police officer on one shift, and the potential for a routine encounter having similar results is a responsibility carried by every police officer on every shift.
The concept of the strategic corporal originally appeared in an essay by Marine General Charles Krulak that expanded on his concept of the "Three Block War." General Krulak described a situation often encountered in recent conflicts where soldiers may be asked to address, on three adjacent blocks, peacekeeping operations, distribution of humanitarian aid, and a full-scale fire fight.
This situation may seem familiar to many in law enforcement. In the course of a single shift, a police officer may have to deal with an armed robbery, a domestic dispute, and a homeless person who is mentally ill.
General Krulak advocated for a wider range of training for troops likely to encounter a wide range of challenges during a deployment. More training for police officers will certainly be a major part of any proposed reforms. But is it really fair to ask a police officer to do three jobs for one paycheck? Of course it isn't, but good cops are doing it already, and good police departments are training for it, and rewarding it in their officers. But further steps can be taken to improve services to communities while simultaneously reducing police workloads.
Within the national security community, great effort has been made in recent years not only to diversify training for military members but to widen the range of people deployed to areas of conflict. In a "whole of government" response, diplomats and aid workers are deployed with troops. In this way, soldiers are less distracted from their core responsibilities, and specialized personnel can be used to respond to situations within their areas of expertise.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere we have learned that progress depends not just on boots on the ground, but wingtips and Birkenstocks on the ground as well.
Some big-city police forces have been accused of acting like occupying armies. Well, if they must, at least they should act like modern occupying armies and adopt a "whole of local government" approach, integrating mental health and social welfare services into their teams.
Native Arkansan David Abell is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the U.S. Department of State.