War-Making and Crime-Fighting in a Punitive Society

December 30, 2020   •   By Paul M. Renfro

The Punitive Turn in American Life

Michael S. Sherry

IN A VIRTUAL MEETING with frontline health-care workers last month, President-Elect Joe Biden compared the nation’s pandemic response to a wartime mobilization: “This is like going to war,” he declared. He would know; he’s been waging war for much of his political career — not just through his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but also in his promotion of the so-called Wars on Crime and Drugs. While Biden has arguably been waging war since he ascended to the US Senate in 1973, historian Michael Sherry has been studying war since then. In 1975, he defended his dissertation, titled “Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Postwar Defense, 1941–45,” at Yale University. As Sherry put it in 2018, “I have been ‘thinking of war’ most of my life,” which began in 1945, just as World War II ended.

Sherry’s new book, The Punitive Turn in American Life, perhaps represents the culmination of his life’s work. In it, Sherry charts the United States’s “punitive turn” — the increasing enmeshment of “war-fighting” and “crime-fighting,” both rhetorically and materially — which he insists began in earnest under President Lyndon Johnson. For Sherry, “Johnson’s equation of the cop and the ‘frontline soldier’” — amid intertwined crises in Vietnam and in the United States’s metropolitan centers — signaled “the start of a process whereby crime-fighting was recast as war-fighting and police as soldiers in a war.” Drawing on the scholarship of Elizabeth Hinton, among others, Sherry contends that the Johnson administration “sought to bolster and militarize law enforcement from above,” a project that fundamentally blurred the lines between war-making and domestic policing.

Moving chronologically, and paying particular attention to elite policymakers and orators, Sherry then details how Richard Nixon officially launched the War on Drugs against the backdrop of a disintegrating military and social order. Considering “the United States’ failure in Vietnam and all that came with it,” Sherry writes, “the utility of war itself — as an instrument of American power, a source of national identity, a justification for powerful government, a forger of internal cohesion, and a site of social engineering — was in doubt.” Crime-fighting thus enjoyed increasing significance across these categories — and especially “as an instrument of American power” — in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Gerald Ford, too, played a pivotal role in this proposed shift from war-fighting to crime-fighting. In particular, Sherry cites “the conjunction of the Vietnam War’s end and the crime war’s start in Ford’s rhetoric.” As other “means of social control” like the military and industry jobs floundered, the ruling class increasingly embraced punitive governance and foreclosed redistributive policy solutions. Accordingly, Ford inveighed against crime, drugs, and disorder — and vowed to reestablish “domestic tranquility” — as he helped convert the war state into the punitive state. Simultaneously, politicians at the local, state, and federal levels embraced austerity and made social assistance mechanisms more punitive and less generous.

Following a brief “pause in the punitive turn” — embodied in Jimmy Carter’s presumably more humane presidential administration — Ronald Reagan resumed and accelerated it. Not only did Reagan breathe new life into the drug war — according to Sherry, he also formalized “the displacement of the communist by the criminal as America’s national enemy,” a transformation with clear racial and class implications. (Elaine Tyler May describes this “displacement” as a shift “from red to black.”) Reagan’s enthusiastic and consistent rhetorical conflation of “war-fighting” and “crime-fighting,” Sherry claims, set the stage for George H. W. Bush’s use of the “crime war” to placate the diehard “culture warriors” who backed Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge from the right. As Sherry puts it, “Bush’s crime politics were his way to wage a culture war without getting too far into the swamp of the specifics that mobilized conservatives — abortion, AIDS, religion, race. It was his big policy tent.”

Despite Bush’s ruthless anti-crime politicking — exemplified by the infamously racist “Willie Horton” campaign ad and his staged 1989 “drug deal” outside of the White House — Bill Clinton actually “outpolled Bush on the crime issue” and, of course, ultimately defeated him in the 1992 presidential contest. Sherry maintains that the punitive turn “widened” under Clinton, even as the former Arkansas governor “tapped on the rhetorical brakes.” “Compared to the war rhetoric that preceded Clinton,” writes Sherry, “his words were tame,” at least when it came to the fusion of, or slippage between, war-making and crime-fighting.

Still, the carceral state grew apace during the Clinton years and into the George W. Bush administration, and mainstream American culture became more punitive in this period. Dark, draconian police procedurals — especially Law & Order and its offshoots — and gritty “reality” programs such as America’s Most Wanted and COPS, which centered around capturing “bad boys,” saturated Americans’ television screens. Bush and his cronies fit neatly into this cultural zeitgeist — one predicated on vengeance — by targeting “evildoers” at home and abroad after 9/11. Bush and his ilk frequently imagined and presented their counterterrorism efforts as “vigilante-style […] crime-fighting,” Sherry observes. Take, for example, Bush’s evocation of Wild West imagery and verbiage — as when he deemed Saddam Hussein’s government “an outlaw regime.”

Resistance to the punitive turn flourished in the Obama years, Sherry shows, although reform efforts originating within and without the White House (and Eric Holder’s Department of Justice) proved grossly inadequate. In fact, Trump’s DOJ has undercut and, in some cases, undone federal reforms implemented in the wake of the 2014–’15 Ferguson uprisings. As Sherry points out, war-fighting and crime-fighting have remained deeply intertwined during the Trump administration, oftentimes in daunting and troubling ways. And as a lifelong warmonger prepares to replace Trump, the punitive turn, as Sherry defines it, seems destined to live on.


There is much to like in Sherry’s ambitious, sprawling account, but the book falls short in certain respects. Most notably, war and punishment are constant, enduring, and possibly constitutive features of the American experience, as Sherry knows, so the historically specific “punitive turn” posited here obfuscates important continuities between the American past and present. In a similarly ambitious book, Nikhil Pal Singh deftly links America’s “inner wars” — racialized chattel slavery, the settler-colonial project, and mass incarceration, among other developments — with its “outer wars,” waged against suspect populations along and outside the nation’s porous borders. According to Singh, “American war craft remains perennially bound to American race craft as the politics of fear and lineaments of enemies without and within morph together, intertwine, and mutually inform and at times reinforce one another.” And while Singh and Sherry both stress the increasing convergence between “inner” and “outer wars” in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Sherry glosses over, or altogether ignores, pertinent antecedents that shore up Singh’s analysis — from the state-sponsored violence that propelled the advance of the Turnerian “frontier” to the “intensive surveillance” and brutal suppression of labor radicalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As Micol Seigel, Kelly Lytle Hernández, and others have illustrated, the lines between “civilian” policing and military power have long been blurred. Since its inception in 1924, for instance, the US Border Patrol has policed and thus fortified the nation’s permeable and arbitrary borders. Its transnational ambit and paramilitary nature cut across tidy dichotomies of “civilian versus military” and “domestic versus foreign” well before Lyndon B. Johnson ostensibly channeled federal war-making powers inward.

Moving back even further, as Seigel explains, American policing grew out of military efforts to preserve racialized chattel slavery. Beginning in the 1780s, cities in the American South established police forces to surveil and restrict the movements of enslaved persons, and “soldiers and police evolved in similar interrelation” elsewhere in what is today the United States. (The Texas Rangers were created in 1823, before Texas independence and statehood, to wage a “punitive expedition against a band of Indians.”) “Since the early Republic,” writes Seigel, “when the Navy and Marines formed constabulary forces to combat piracy, banditry, and smuggling, ‘overlapping police and military tasks’ have been routine.”

Other dimensions of Sherry’s story remain under-theorized and under-historicized. Sherry first uses the terms “world policeman” and “Globalcop” on page 154 of his book in reference to “the police-action model,” which he insists “gained prominence in a series of US interventions” following the close of the Cold War. But as Stuart Schrader indicates, opponents of American imperialism “have wielded the term global policeman for over a century,” since Theodore Roosevelt’s “arrogation of an international police power” in 1904. Sites from Latin America to the Philippines served as testing grounds for US police tactics and technologies in the first decades of the 20th century. Sherry acknowledges that the United States “had played a worldwide policing role long before the 1990s, especially in the Caribbean and Central America,” but he only notes Harry Truman’s attempts to frame the Korean War as “a ‘police action’ under UN auspices.”

By identifying the 1960s as the moment in which the punitive turn began — and in which the “militarization of policing” took hold — Sherry (inadvertently, perhaps) seems to pine for a bygone age of humane, “civilian” policing that never was. “The denunciation of militarization,” Seigel reminds us, “unwittingly supports the ideological operations of state violence because of the implicit suggestion that militarized police are a deviation from the norm: just plain police.” Recent calls to “defund the police” have resonated so strongly because they reject the artificial binary between civilian and militarized policing and acknowledge the racial, economic, and other inequalities that policing and criminalization, by definition, sustain and exacerbate. Moreover, the push to defund or abolish policing recognizes the folly of reform, modernization, and professionalization, processes that have frequently augmented and legitimated the state’s capacity to police and punish.

In a similar vein, Sherry overlooks the deeper roots of our contemporary prison state. Cultural conceptions of Black criminality crystallized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thanks in large part to the emergence of (extremely flawed) crime statistics as a widely accepted technology. Further, Naomi Murakawa illuminates the ways in which the “law and order liberalism” of the mid-20th century helped give rise to mass incarceration. Following World War II, racial liberals identified police professionalization, penal modernization, and federal support for civil rights as potential antidotes to anti-Black prejudice — which, Truman and others hoped, would mitigate Black criminality and urban disorder. Ultimately, however, these measures served to expand what Heather Schoenfeld terms “carceral capacity,” the infrastructure (and license) required to cage broad swaths of the population.

In this sense, Sherry’s argument, which treats the past several decades as exceptional, conceals as much as it uncovers. “[T]he United States of 1990 was a much more punitive nation than it had been in 1950,” he writes. And while both the “military-industrial complex” and mass incarceration certainly exploded in the intervening years, such a statement can only make sense by downplaying or denying the quotidian and spectacular violence of Jim Crow, Cold War counterinsurgency, xenophobic immigration restrictions, and sex panic — all of which defined the United States at midcentury and laid the foundation for the developments that Sherry spotlights in his book.

While scholars will continue to debate whether the United States has taken a “punitive turn” over the past seven decades or so, the interlocking ills of forever war, mass incarceration, and policing cannot be denied. Alongside the work of many others, Sherry’s book will help disentangle these threads — and perhaps unmake the punitive society they have formed.


Paul M. Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020).