The Wire HBO Serial Television Drama, Created by David Simon

By: MAJ Matthew P. Upperman, U.S. Army

"The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play." ——Marla Daniels—a character in The Wire (season 1, episode 2)

It's all about "the game."1 In HBO's The Wire, a crime drama series that aired from 2002 through 2008, the game is centered on the drug trade in present-day Baltimore and on the players' attempts to win—whether as a drug dealer controlling a corner or a police officer trying to make a difference.2 Despite the show's focus on domestic police work, it is full of excellent parallels and lessons that can easily be applied to the special operations and intelligence communities, or any organization that is involved in irregular warfare (IW) or unconventional warfare (UW). Instructors at several universities, including Harvard and Duke, have used The Wire as the basis for courses covering studies in sociology and social anthropology. Warfighters and policymakers alike should not overlook the value of this show. The writers impart no "silver bullet" solutions for the problems of inner-city Baltimore, but The Wire does offer mental and emotional exercise for viewers, especially when it is watched through the lens of operational and intelligence planning in IW/UW.

The series centers on the development and operations of a major crimes unit within the Baltimore Police Department as it grapples with the illegal drug trade that plagues the city (and all of the social baggage that goes along with drug crimes). All five seasons are woven together and include the points of view and struggles of a complicated web of players. These include drug dealers, citizens, police, city hall employees and city prosecutors, newsmen, school staff, policymakers, longshoremen, and the transnational components of the illicit narcotics trade, among many others. Every season presents a new angle to the city's problems, and viewers are presented with dramatic twists in which the creative grassroots efforts of community organizers and local police are derailed, political jockeying and policy objectives address symptoms but fail to tackle core issues, struggles to control territory and information occur within and between government organizations—the list goes on. Although the series portrays the drug trade in inner-city America and one city's efforts to tackle it, The Wire's story lines will be familiar to military and interagency operators overseas.

The first major takeaway message that this show has to offer is the need for a holistic view of the operating environment and any external strains that can or do affect the system. In The Wire, success too often hangs on the wrong metrics or faulty data; bureaucratic infighting results in missed opportunities; and competing priorities, political agendas, and misguided police work all contribute to the city government's failures to solve the problem. Nevertheless, opportunities for small successes develop out of creative ideas from members of the major crimes units, attention to good policing (including developing an intimate understanding of the players and environment), and the help of allies in City Hall and the city prosecutor's office who have a deep understanding of the problem and a wide view for implementing solutions. In addition, sound intelligence operations, from collection to analysis, help in formulating comprehensive strategies. As the show demonstrates, however, the successful efforts of a few can be undermined by both the mistakes of others and endemic strains within the bureaucratic system. The show thus conveys familiar emotions, such as the frustration implied in the question, "Are we really making any difference?" In episode 10 from season 5, for example, Baltimore Police Colonel Cedric Daniels rants about how the mayor has not carried out promised systemic changes to the police department:

"I'll swallow a lie when I have to; I've swallowed a few big ones lately. But the stat game? That lie? It's what ruined this department. Shining up s*** and calling it gold so majors become colonels and mayors become governors. Pretending to do police work while one generation f****** trains the next how not to do the job. And then I looked Carcetti [the mayor] in the eye, I shook his hand, I asked him if he was for real. Well, this is the lie I can't live with.

A second important takeaway involves slotting the right individuals into the right jobs. Successes—in the inner city and on the battlefield—often spring from leaders who have the courage to go against the grain in order to alter the status quo; provide a relatable vision for others to follow; and empower, mentor, and enable subordinates to come up with creative solutions. This truth is illuminated in The Wire by stories of a "good" beat cop or having the right mayor in city hall. There are also plenty of examples of "what wrong looks like." The Wire does an excellent job of illustrating how the wrong policies and the mistakes people make affect efforts all the way down the chain. The following quote comes from The Wire's Major Howard "Bunny" Colvin, who is venting his frustration with poor police work and leadership in the police department:

"This drug thing, this ain't police work. No, it ain't. I mean, I can send any fool with a badge and a gun up on them corners and jack a crew and grab vials [of drugs]. But policing? I mean, you call something a war, and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors. They gonna be running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts. And when you at war, you need a f****** enemy. And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your f****** enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you're supposed to be policing, that's just occupied territory.3

A third takeaway for those involved in IW/UW is the importance of a deep understanding of the players in the operating environment and building relationships with the right individuals, whether it be cultivating a snitch with access and placement, knowing all of the "corner boys" (low-level drug dealers), working with influential citizens, or learning whom to leverage at city hall to get support. For members of the Baltimore Police Department, building relationships helps them break down bureaucratic stovepipes and create cooperative approaches, including properly applying social outreach and using locals to help solve local problems.

The Wire's relevance to the special operations community lies in operating in complex environments; understanding and navigating core issues in the face of ambiguous opposition (enemy and social forces alike); and understanding the disconnect that often exists between policymakers, bureaucrats, and the several echelons of community leaders and police (read: the warfighters). Apart from The Wire's entertainment value, military practitioners will be surprised by how many of the show's themes resonate with their deployment experiences; they may even find themselves contemplating how they could have approached situations differently had they seen the show earlier.

About the Author(s): Major Matthew Upperman is a U.S. Army military intelligence officer who is currently assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He recently earned an MS in Defense Analysis from NPS. MAJ Upperman has a combined 36 months of deployment time to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.


1/ Editor's note from Anna Simons: Credit is due to LTC Sam Curtis, an early fan of The Wire, who insisted that everyone deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan needed to watch it. Like Matt Upperman, Sam considered everything—from the challenges the police face in Baltimore to the tradecraft they develop over the course of the series—to be relevant to his work overseas. I watched the series on Sam's recommendation and came away with this: We Americans haven't been able to "fix" Baltimore, and yet we expect to go halfway around the world and "fix" Iraq and Afghanistan?!

2/ The Wire is no longer being broadcast, but it remains widely available on DVD or through online streaming services.

3/ Season 3, episode 10.

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