Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century

Stan Goff

Soft Skull Press, 224 pp., $13.95

From the outside, the military, like imperialism itself, can appear deceptively monolithic. Critics of both would do well to peek at the world through Stan Goff’s eyes, which are trained on the complexities and contradictions of U.S. military power.

Goff, who lives in Raleigh, is a former commando who comments on the so-called “war against terrorism” with a rare amount of experience. He served in the Army’s most elite units, including the Rangers, the Special Forces and Delta Force, and even did a teaching stint at West Point. Along the way, he slogged through Vietnam, raided Grenada, skirmished in Somalia, trained troops in Colombia, Guatemala and Peru, and raised hell in Haiti.

It was the 1994 intervention that returned Haiti’s first freely elected president, John Bertrand Aristide, to power that brought years of nagging doubts and internal battles to a head for Goff. As he vividly explained in his first book, Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the Invasion of Haiti, the rhetoric of “Operation Restore Democracy” crumbled as he fought the reality of orders from above to buddy up to anti-democratic thugs. (The same set of thugs, Goff is quick to point out today, who led the recent “rebellion” that ousted Aristide for the second time.)

Sent home to Fort Bragg early, Goff’s 20-year military career was effectively over. He’s spent the past decade doing an about face, becoming an anti-war and social justice organizer and a self-taught expert and writer on a wide array of topics–a sort of one-man think tank. In his second book, Full Spectrum Disorder, he shares personal anecdotes from his many foreign missions and steps back to offer a macro critique of U.S. militarism that predicts its ultimate failure.

Some of the book is focused on special operations–the unconventional tactics honed in Vietnam that are back in vogue as the Defense Department finds itself waging counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq and assisting others in such violent venues as Colombia. Goff makes the case that developments in special ops offer a good barometer of the state of things in the overall military, since Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has pushed for their rapid redevelopment.

Too rapid, in Goff’s view. The accelerated recruitment and flurry of training at Fort Bragg’s special warfare school is rushing the process at the expense of expertise and creating a generation of what he calls “shake-and-bake Green Berets.” Once these soldiers’ boots hit the ground, they’ll face not only their own limitations but the hard and ever-changing reality of their true mission; in fact, they’ll spend less time being “liberators” than they will doing “force protection” for armies of occupation.

Goff also offers stinging criticisms of Rumsfeld’s emphasis and lavish spending on high-tech weaponry. The technocrats have put their faith in a panacea, he warns, because even the best gear and gadgets can’t fully contain populations intent on ousting foreign troops from their country, no matter how limited their means may look from the pristine halls of the Pentagon.

These are all symptoms of what Goff believes is a much bigger problem. The imperial aims of the Bush administration, he argues, are a sort of dying spasm of the country’s capitalist system; meanwhile, the military is overextended by the impossible task of pacifying a world full of people who are increasing unsettled by U.S. policies. “The neo-cons bit off more than they can chew,” he writes, pointing out that there are limits to even American power. Ultimately, he concludes, the Bush team’s strategies and doctrines are built on a house of cards, ignoring global realities in public opinion and economic and resource scarcity.

Looking at the big picture, Goff makes what he calls “some rather catastrophist prognostications about U.S. power and U.S. society.” As he sees it, American capitalism is bound to burn out on the flames of an imminent deflation of the dollar and the mounting scarcity of the fossil fuels that drive the dollar economy. When that happens, he expects some big changes, even revolutionary ones. “Behind of the militarism of our current period, there is both a heightening struggle in the periphery–including oppressed nationalities here–to break free of a history imposed on them and restart the process of building their own histories, and the growing inability of hegemonic power to prevent it.”

In a chapter titled “The Left and the Armed Forces,” Goff takes the anti-war movement to task for not reaching out more to soldiers, who, by virtue of their experience, have unique reasons to doubt the Bush administration’s foreign policies aims and could become most helpful allies. “When a time comes for the deep transformation of this society–sooner rather than later, I believe–a significant portion of the armed forces will either support us or refuse to attack us,” he writes. “Otherwise it won’t happen.”

Goff will read from Full Spectrum Disorder at Internationalist Books in Chapel Hill on Thursday, March 11, at 7 p.m. For more information call the store at 942-1740.