Quaker Theology #15
Hideous Dream. Stan Goff. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Full Spectrum Disorder: the Military in the New American Century. Stan Goff. Soft Skull Press, 2003.
"Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq", Stan Goff. Posted online November 14/23 2003 at:
Reviewed by David Gosling
In preparing this collective review of three written pieces by Stan Goff, a one-time Army Master Sergeant turned Socialist; I found myself simultaneously repulsed and intrigued, pushed and pulled, by his suggestions, opinions, insights, findings, memories, and rants. Of the three works, one is a straightforward memoir of Goff’s experiences in Haiti as a Special Forces Operator during Operation Restore (Uphold) Democracy, entitled Hideous Dream.
The second book paints on a much broader canvas, as reflected in its title: Full Spectrum Disorder: the Military in the New American Century, and is a convoluted assortment of chapters covering everything from Goff’s personal experiences in Guatemala and El Salvador, to his opinions on moral imperialism, epistemology, and the fallibility of nuclear reactors. The last piece is: "Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq", which has gained popularity since its posting on the web for its sincerity and blunt delivery (a Goff staple).
I was asked to do this review from both the perspective of a U.S. Infantry officer (which I am), and a Christian Quaker (which I am trying very hard to become). Goff holds neither officers nor religion in high regard, which is just as well considering my praise is reserved for Stan Goff the man: a relentless pursuer of knowledge with a blinding intellect and a flair for the caustic, opinionated word; and not for the agonizingly long and self-indulgent memoir that is Hideous Dream or the muddled, overtly Leftist take on U.S. Foreign Policy put forth in Full Spectrum.
Goff himself is a man of integrity, by which I mean the concepts he developed in his memoir were not trampled in his second book for the purpose of an easy sale, but rather built upon and expanded to further his own understanding of the complex dynamics streaking through our modern society. For this he has my respect, although I do as an Army officer "constitute the dustbin of the American intelligentsia" (p. 50, FSD).
Master Sergeant (retired) Goff served in the Special Operations community of the Armed Forces for nearly two decades, alternating between the three most coveted jobs in the Infantry world: Army Ranger, "Green Beret", and "Delta" operator. He served as a paratrooper in Vietnam, and did various stints with the aforementioned elite units in El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Haiti, and Somalia. From a military perspective, I was unable to find fault with the methods and explanations outlined throughout Hideous Dream. Goff has a clear understanding of military protocol, and an uncanny read on the limitations and inadequacies of the lumbering giant that is Army bureaucracy.
The memoir takes the reader in painstaking detail from the training areas on Ft Bragg, North Carolina, all the way through the various stops and starts Goff’s team encounter through the staging process in Cuba and the actual mission in Haiti. Goff routinely describes his mounting frustration at the paradoxical nature of the operation, where he is forced to reintegrate the oppressive military regime (the Force Armee d’Haiti, or FAdH) in a policing role after it was assumed the US forces were only to reinstate the deposed President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his supporting group, Lavalas. He also details the crumbling façade of team morale, as his soldiers feel growing resentment at his unorthodox tactics and beliefs, the end result being his and his team commander’s relief from theater with a one-way ticket home to North Carolina.
Though Dream gives an introduction to both Haitian society and Special Forces work, it is tainted by a lingering negativity. Goff paints his teammates in a singularly one-dimensional light. Although we learn Ali is a womanizer, Kyle and Skye are racists, and Gonzo can work on anything mechanical; in the end they are all petty, full of spite, and ignorant of Haitian culture. Even Mike Gallante, the Detachment Commander and sole ally of Goff, comes across as weak-kneed and reluctant to lead. The Higher Headquarters officers and commanders are all incompetent or hamstrung by their desire for promotion. The FAdH are virtually all criminal.
The only redemption in Goff’s eyes comes in the form of the common Haitians, a theme that is repeated in Full Spectrum across a broad array of battlefields and countries. These generalizations damage both books, where all governments are evil and all peasants are good. Fiction writers would call Goff’s voice the "unreliable first person": his commentary is skewed by his strong political views and may not be representing the whole truth of the matter.
More than anything else, however, the problem with Hideous Dream is that it is a narrow, first-person account of an operation long since forgotten by an American public embroiled by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan which make Haiti pale in comparison. Goff expresses hope in the foreword to Full Spectrum that the American soldier will find in his previous book Dream an example of the pitfalls inherent in occupational military strategy. Although there are certainly a few lessons to be learned, I fear most combat veterans – after five years of IED and RPG attacks – will find the excitable Haitian crowds and rock throwing episodes no more than comedic fare. Goff is no slouch by military standards – any soldier today would approach a former Delta Operator and Vietnam Vet with pronounced gravitas – but the final episode of his military career plays out on a stage with no audience save the actors themselves.
His second book, Full Spectrum Disorder, pulls its name from the "Full Spectrum Dominance" former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield embraced as a means to ensure U.S. military dominance via technology. Goff does an admirable job in the first half of the book in bringing to light the overbearing and hypocritical foreign policy of the United States in Third World scenarios, topping it off with personal experiences in Somalia, South, and Central America. He touches on the inherent racism of government policy in a chance encounter with a CIA operative in Guatemala and during a training event in Peru. He expounds upon the "do as I say, not as I do" nature of the U.S. nuclear stance with regard to North Korea. He paints an excellent contrast between the successes of the FARC rebels in Colombia and the diminishing returns of the Zapatistas in Mexico.
The book’s highest marks come for the segments concerning Iraq and Afghanistan, where Goff easily discredits the Bush Administration’s attempts to justify military intervention, the Powell Doctrine of media-heavy, low-(US)casualty operations, the Rumsfield obsession with technological warfare, even the home front battle against anti-war sentiment and demonstration by dismissing the jingoistic "Support the Troops" nonsense. Published in 2004, Full Spectrum is eerie in the accuracy of its predictions on a burgeoning Iraqi insurgency and a resilient Taliban.
Spectrum loses its focus – and the reader – when Goff changes course into a bewildering set of chapters near the end of the book; these are heavy with abstractions about the irredeemable qualities of capitalism, thermodynamics, entropy, and nuclear instability; all have their say. A sample:
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