Stan Goff spent twenty-four years in the U.S. military, much of it in the Special Forces. He fought in Vietnam, was a sniper with the counter-terrorism unit Delta Force, and taught military science at West Point. His career took him to Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Haiti, and other hot spots around the globe. He saw up close how the U.S. government’s official statements didn’t match up with the actions of its military.
His role in the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994 disillusioned him for good. Officially named “Operation Restore Democracy,” the invasion, Goff says, was aimed only at eliminating any threat to U.S. domination. In his book Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), he writes, “Haiti taught me what I was and showed me what I must become.”
Having spent his adult life in the military, Goff wasn’t sure where to turn once he no longer believed in its mission. “I was fortunate,” he says, “to have people close to me who were on the other side of the debate.” His sister had introduced him to women’s-rights and gay-rights activists, and an Internet search put him in touch with a North Carolina group called the Carolina Socialist Forum. Through that connection, he made many friends who helped him make the leap from soldier to activist. Goff retired from the military in 1996 and has been involved in progressive causes ever since.
Today Goff is active in the Bring Them Home Now campaign, led by Military Families Speak Out and Veterans for Peace. The campaign calls for the U.S. government to pull its troops out of Iraq. It also publishes anonymous statements from GIs, so that they can write freely about what’s going on in Iraq. “The more soldiers do it,” Goff says, “the more likely others will be to speak up.” Goff has a personal interest in seeing an end to the conflict: his son is in the military and was stationed in Iraq earlier this year.
Goff’s most recent book is Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Press). He’s currently working on a new book about gender and the military, titled Sex and War.
I first encountered Goff at an informal talk he gave in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. For more than an hour, he spoke passionately about the current war in Iraq, about class struggle here in the U.S., and about what he considers to be the real motives behind U.S. foreign policy.
For this interview, we met at his house in Raleigh, North Carolina. A sturdily built man, Goff met me at the door with a firm handshake. On the walls of his small home office hang vibrant paintings from Haiti, a place he refers to as his “second home.” Since the 1994 invasion, he has been back to that country ten times as a member of the Haiti Support Network. We sat in his kitchen, surrounded by pictures of his children and his first grandchild.
Elliott: What does the title of your latest book, Full Spectrum Disorder, refer to?
Goff: During the Clinton administration, when Hugh Shelton was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he began what Donald Rumsfeld calls the “revolution of military affairs,” which is the complete restructuring of the U.S. military. The shorthand for it is “full spectrum dominance.” This refers to dominance in three dimensions: technology, the full spectrum of conflict (from street riots to thermonuclear war), and geography. The belief that we can achieve such dominance is quite likely the most grandiose delusion in human history. It simply is not possible. It’s amazing and worrisome to me that people who hold the reins of power would actually believe in something like this.
I have been reading a book by Swedish anthropologist Alf Hornborg, who looks at social development through the lens of entropy: the notion that disorder always increases within a closed system. Hornborg says that, within the closed system of the world economy, energy is transferred from peripheral nations into the high-tech, metropolitan core. What’s left behind is immense social disorder. The environmental-justice movement focuses on one aspect of this: the way rich communities make a lot of toxic trash and dump it on poor communities. The rich gain order in the form of resources and export their disorder elsewhere.
Reading Hornborg, it occurred to me that as we increase our dependence on higher and higher orders of technology, we not only increase social disorder elsewhere, we’re also increasing the probability that some unexpected event will come along and create an avalanche of disorder here. For instance, twenty-one power plants in the eastern United States shut down on August 14, 2003, leaving millions of people without electricity. And nobody really knows what caused the blackout. Or terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center, and the whole global geopolitical architecture is transformed.
Elliott: What are your feelings about George W. Bush’s “war on terror”?
Goff: Bush is a terrorist. When you engage in massive state-run terrorism, and you support other leaders who conduct state-run terrorism, as Bush has done in Israel, you can expect a terrorist response.
No one — not the Palestinians, nor the Iraqis, nor the Afghans, nor anyone else — has the military capacity to confront the U.S. or Israel directly. They are forced by the situation either to lie down and die, or to fight back using asymmetric warfare, which we refer to as terrorism. Of course bulldozing people’s houses and bombing civilians are terrorism, too.
There is an implicit nationalism in the phrase “war on terror” because it says the threat is outside of us. But the single biggest cause of terrorist attacks, aside from the policies and actions of the U.S. government, is the size and scope of our military. There is simply no chance of victory if you confront the U.S. military on a conventional battlefield. Terrorism is a tactic, not a free-standing phenomenon.
This is not a war on terrorism, nor on al-Qaeda, which is not a real organization but a loose, decentralized network characterized by spontaneity. The Taliban were real: they were the government of Afghanistan. But there’s no group called al-Qaeda, with a list of members and a hierarchy. So the Bush administration has this amorphous entity out there that it can use to frighten people. What’s great about having an amorphous enemy is that you can’t tell when it’s defeated. You can declare a perennial war and use it as an excuse for anything you want to do. All the Bush administration has to say is “We think this might be connected to al-Qaeda,” and the public will accept its actions uncritically. That’s what the administration did with the Iraq War: suggest a connection to al-Qaeda and terrorism. But this war isn’t about terrorism; it’s about oil. If the principal export of Iraq were palm dates, we wouldn’t be there.
Everything about U.S. foreign policy right now is increasing the power of people who hate us. This doesn’t strike me as a very smart thing to do, even if you support U.S. imperial objectives.
Elliott: So al-Qaeda isn’t connected to Iraq. What is it connected to?
Goff: Its clearest connection is to Wahhabi Islam, which is the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This fundamentalist branch of Islam was nurtured by the United States during our long-standing military and political alliance with the Saudis. At our behest, they exported politicized Islam throughout the region as a weapon to destroy Arab nationalism and socialism. The effort finally culminated in the war between political Islamists and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has said we laid a trap for the Soviets in Afghanistan. We funded and trained these fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, and maintained a long-standing alliance with them, even after bin Laden broke with the Saudis. The U.S. was funneling money to the Taliban all the way up until 2001, when our strategy came back and bit us.
Since we helped destroy Arab nationalism in places like Afghanistan, the only ideology left that gives voice to the increasingly frustrated masses in the region is politicized Islam. Everything about U.S. foreign policy right now is increasing the power of people who hate us. This doesn’t strike me as a very smart thing to do, even if you support U.S. imperial objectives, which I don’t. I desperately want to see the U.S. suffer a devastating political defeat in the Middle East, because maybe that would cause our country to pull out of the region.
Elliott: How have the Bush administration’s military operations differed from those of past administrations?
Goff: I’d say his success rate is worse, but the history of U.S. military operations is not as glowing as we’re led to believe. The U.S. military says it beat the Germans in World War II. In fact, the Soviets beat the Germans in Stalingrad. It was a mathematical certainty after Stalingrad that the Germans would be defeated. The Americans rolled in at the last minute to make sure they had a say in the postwar reconstruction. The Korean War was a debacle. Our use of overwhelming force led to a stalemate. Vietnam was a notorious disaster. And the attempt to impose a U.S. military presence on Lebanon failed miserably.
Our most glorious military victories — the invasions of Grenada and Panama — have been attacks by the world’s most well-funded military on nations that have fourth-rate militaries or no militaries at all. The Iraq War is an attack on a nation that has been shattered — militarily, politically, and economically — by warfare, sanctions, and the destruction of its economic infrastructure during the first phase of the Gulf War. To claim that Donald Rumsfeld’s military has had a great success in Iraq is like saying it’s a great success for Mike Tyson to knock out a ten-year-old in the third round.
The last time the U.S. had a striking military success was probably Sherman’s March, during the Civil War, which was the first time that troops deliberately bypassed engagements with enemy troops and went after strategic targets instead.
Elliott: Didn’t this policy lead almost immediately — in the case of the burning of Atlanta — to attacks on civilian targets?
Goff: All armies in all places have always attacked “civilian” targets. There are no exceptions to this fact. Yet people persist in believing the notion that civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure are somehow the exception. This is a fantasy to convince citizens to support the state’s actions.
Sherman’s use of force against strategic targets was simply a recognition that military and civilian resources had become integrated because of the Industrial Revolution. It was a quantum shift in warfare. Supplies were being moved by rail, so he went after the railheads in Atlanta. The principles first put into use by Sherman — what some military theorists call “general war” — would flower into the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and finally Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We are seeing it on a smaller scale today with Rumsfeld’s meritless “shock and awe.”
Elliott: Your son recently returned from Iraq. How do you feel about his decision to join the military?
Goff: I didn’t want him to, but it didn’t surprise me. He was working at McDonald’s, and he had an infant son and no healthcare. He grew up on a military installation. What am I going to do, tell him the military is all bad? He knows better. In fact, the years that he lived on a military installation were the best times in his life. It’s like living in a park. It’s the only thing in this country that even approaches a socialist society. Of course, Rumsfeld’s trying to get rid of military schools, and military healthcare has already been turned over to an HMO.
Elliott: What changes would you like to see made within the military? Is it possible to reform it?
Goff: The military cannot be changed, for better or for worse, without a transformation of the state and the socioeconomic system within which it operates. The military is just one facet of a larger system. I would like to see a change in our military mission, however, which right now is to invade other nations to protect our power and the global business regime.
I would welcome the end of U.S. global power, because it has been an essentially destructive and exploitative force in much of the world. Leftists need to be honest and admit that our standard of living, constructed as it is on consumer culture and fossil-fuel energy, is based on draining the wealth of other nations. This was once accomplished through controlling markets, and now is done more through encouraging countries to go into debt to the World Bank or some other global financial institution. We can support our profligate lifestyle only through military intervention.
I at least have a grudging respect for those on the Right who openly admit that if we don’t crush the will of people all over the Third World, then we can’t live the way we do. The Left often wants to soft-pedal it and tell people that we can live even better without the use of military power, but that is a grotesque misrepresentation. I agree with African revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral, who said, “Tell no lies and claim no easy victories.” I think the American public needs to be confronted with the truth: that we are a dirty, dangerous, destructive society, and that we export that dirt, danger, and destruction to poor people around the world so that some of us can live in a suburban Stepford fantasy.
Elliott: Do you think it’s fairly common for a person in the military to become disillusioned with U.S. foreign policy?
Goff: Certainly there is a long history of it. If you are in the military for a career, of course, there is a tendency to identify with the foreign-policy goals and objectives of the national command authority. But you encounter a lot of contradictions in the field. In Special Forces, you get a much clearer look at the politics behind it all than you do in the infantry, where you sit behind some concertina wire with a weapon and never get out and mix with the population. In Special Forces you are required to learn target languages, establish a rapport with the locals, eat their food, and acclimate yourself to the social conventions. Whether you cling to your old notions or not is another question. The way to maintain your belief in the rightness of what you’re doing is to adopt a racist, imperialist worldview, which is far more common than disillusionment.
When our beliefs don’t match up with our experiences, we develop cognitive dissonance, a kind of mental conflict. To settle it, we either have to deny our experience or give up our beliefs. In a narcissistic culture like ours, it’s a tough thing to admit that your beliefs are wrong. To say that you were wrong, that your parents were wrong, that possibly your whole society is wrong — that’s a tough proposition in any culture. It’s almost like surrendering your identity. For men, it’s like a surrender of masculinity.
Police officers are carrying assault rifles and wearing body armor and helmets. . . . Meanwhile the conventional armies are trying to perform both military and constabulary functions in urban environments. If things keep moving in this direction, the military and the police will become indistinguishable except in name and jurisdiction.
Elliott: You were in Haiti in 1994 as the operations chief for a U.S. Special Forces team, and you ended up facing a possible court-martial. What happened there?
Goff: [Laughs.] It’s a long story. Basically, I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to read between the lines of the official guidance and find my real orders, which couldn’t be given directly because it was a politically sensitive situation. The Clinton administration was reinstalling populist leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti, but only because it feared that a revolution against Haiti’s right-wing dictator might result in a true popular government taking over. Aristide was left-wing in a populist way, but easily co-opted.
While the American public was hearing that we were restoring the legitimate president of Haiti, the troops who were obliged to carry out this task were receiving vile anti-Aristide propaganda in our intelligence summaries. We were expected to infer from this contradiction that we were not to facilitate any genuine return of popular sovereignty, and that we were supposed to subvert the local committees of the democratic Lavalas movement, which had helped to elect Aristide by a landslide in 1990. We had to figure this out without anyone officially telling us what to do. They didn’t want to end up with a situation where we could say, “I received an order.”
I interpreted the guidance my own way and was very pro-Lavalas. But my team members were also seeing these intelligence summaries, and there was a strong racist and anti-Aristide element among them. Eventually my team rebelled against the direction I was taking and reported me to the task-force command for violating General Order One, which prohibited any of us from eating local food, drinking with the locals, mixing directly with the population — all these things Special Forces can’t function without doing. Of course, everyone there had violated General Order One.
During the investigation, no one asked me anything about General Order One. They asked me why I was so pro-Lavalas. Was I being seditious? In fact, one of the more bizarre accusations leveled at me by members of my own team was that I had become too “pro-Haitian.”
It’s probably a good thing that I was relieved, because if I had stayed there three more months, I would have had a nervous breakdown.
Elliott: Were there any other people there who felt the way you did?
Goff: Nobody on my team. We were isolated from other teams, with the exception of resupply runs and radio communications, which were very official and cryptic. My team commander followed my lead not because he agreed with me politically but because our actions had been incredibly efficacious. We had achieved a higher degree of stability than probably any other team, primarily because we had gone out and identified ourselves publicly with the popular force on the ground, which was the Lavalas movement. We were in a district that had a higher-than-average number of Haitian reactionaries, but still, the vast majority of the population was pro-Lavalas. By identifying ourselves with the Lavalas leadership and showing active support for them, we gained the cooperation of the majority of the people. So we were able to get on top of problems quickly before they got out of hand.
I could do this because the mission guidance was vague. One of the things it told us to do was conduct “stability operations.” By that criterion, we were wildly successful. But that was not our real job. Our real job was to make sure that no Haitian political movement had the power to challenge the U.S. presence in Haiti.
Elliott: Doesn’t giving vague and contradictory orders to soldiers in the field lower our military’s effectiveness? Don’t soldiers ever misinterpret the orders?
Goff: Of course vague communications have a deleterious impact on a mission, but they are a necessary institutional evil if the military is to avoid responsibility. And the U.S. military always avoids responsibility, not because it is the military, but because it is a bureaucracy. All bureaucracies are inherently insular and self-justifying. They function only because those who work in the system are invested in it for their livelihoods.
As for soldiers “misinterpreting” orders, that hardly ever happens. Part of institutional culture is learning to read between the lines of official rules and policies. A situation like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, for example, categorically could not have happened without the knowledge and tacit approval of nearly every level of command. The so-called investigations now will only measure the effectiveness of the firewalls of plausible denial at each level of command, and serve to bewilder the public.
Elliott: What creates a climate in which such abuse can occur?
Goff: The occupation itself. The obligation of our troops right now is to dominate people. That’s what they do. That’s going to be carried to its limit whenever the opportunity presents itself.
These troops are confronted with tremendous cognitive dissonance, and there are only two ways to resolve it: Either they are going to acknowledge the Iraqis as equal human beings, in which case they are confronted with questions like “Why am I telling them what to do?”; “Why am I pointing my weapon at them?”; and “Why am I even in their country?” Or the soldiers are going to reduce the Iraqis, both psychologically and physically, to a subhuman level.
I believe that the methods that were employed in Abu Ghraib were probably sanctioned from the very top. It’s difficult for me to imagine otherwise. Of course, now that we’ve gotten caught, the people at the bottom are expected to sacrifice themselves to protect the king. That’s why Rumsfeld, when he went up to testify under oath before the Senate, brought six other people with him. Anytime he was asked a question that would have put him on the spot legally, he handed it over to one of his cohorts. It was a transparent strategy to escape responsibility, but only Senator John McCain tried to call him on it. God bless McCain for that, even though he’s a reactionary.
Violence is systemic because the occupation itself is an act of domination. This abuse scandal has turned into a recruiting tool for the Iraqi resistance, due to their cultural sensitivity to sexual humiliation — though it must be said that anyone would have been “sensitive” to that kind of treatment. These problems have been out there for two years now, however, starting in Afghanistan. There’s a documentary film by Irish filmmaker Jamie Doran called Afghan Massacre. It shows U.S. complicity, and direct involvement, in the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan. Yet no one in the media even talks about it.
Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross have been documenting atrocities in Iraq. In April 2004 the U.S. military killed six hundred civilians in an attack on Fallujah. The civilian death toll was reported by the wire services and major newspapers, but nobody batted an eye about it. Those killings strike me as a far more horrendous problem than sexual humiliation of prisoners, but it was the pictures from Abu Ghraib that shocked everyone. CBS even gave the U.S. military two weeks’ warning before releasing the photos, so that the higher-ups could get their story together.
The soldiers who were guards at the prison said they didn’t hit the prisoners, but they did “force them to assume uncomfortable positions.” But what if the prisoner said, “No, I won’t assume the uncomfortable position?” What do you think they did?
Elliott: Used more force.
Goff: The notion of using limited force in a situation like that is ridiculous. It doesn’t pass muster. Nobody asks the next logical question. There are these invisible boundaries that the mainstream media won’t go beyond.
Elliott: What interrogation techniques were you taught?
Goff: I was not an interrogator. The last interrogations I observed were in Vietnam, where our South Vietnamese allies kicked and beat civilian detainees while we looked on with orders not to intervene.
Elliott: Are there any circumstances in which it would be legitimate to use such tactics? To obtain information that could save lives, perhaps?
Goff: Hypothetical questions like that are impossible to answer because they have no context. We never act under just “any circumstances.” All circumstances occur within a complex historical reality.
Within the context of Iraq, I don’t believe there’s any situation that justifies the use of force, because I don’t think we belong there. The context is an imperial military invasion and the destruction of a sovereign nation. This is a war of plunder for the purpose of establishing permanent U.S. military bases in the Middle East and eventually gaining control of the world’s remaining oil supplies. But the U.S. government can’t say that we’re over there because of the oil, so they refer to the “war on terror” and the “liberation of Iraq.” And the media, which are so incredibly polite and supportive of what our government is doing, repeat this constantly. One has to be deliberately disingenuous to accept it, but we habituate ourselves to that kind of disingenuousness until it becomes natural to say, “Well, yeah, I guess it is true.” For such an “advanced” society, the U.S. has the most indoctrinated citizens in the world.
Elliott: You’ve said that the lines between the police and the military are becoming blurred. Why is this?
Goff: It’s partly because, for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities. Rural people have been forced off their land and into urban environments like Calcutta and Mexico City, where there are not many economic prospects. Demographically the population has become much younger, and the economic activity has fallen more and more outside the legal system. In many cases crime is the only choice available. There are a rising number of gangs, and a type of neighborhood-based urban warlordism is beginning to take shape.
In response to this, the police and the military are both changing their functions. Police officers are carrying assault rifles and wearing body armor and helmets. They are relying more on SWAT tactics for things like drug busts. Meanwhile the conventional armies are trying to perform both military and constabulary functions in urban environments. If things keep moving in this direction, the military and the police will become indistinguishable except in name and jurisdiction. The Third World and the Middle East are the testing grounds for this experiment.
Another practice that erases the old boundaries between law enforcement and military is the employment of private security companies as both constabularies and mercenary forces. The second-biggest armed contingent on the ground in Iraq right now is the mercenaries. The British have eleven thousand troops on the ground; we have twenty thousand “civilian contractors.” The technicality that makes them “not mercenaries” is that they are corporate in structure and contracted through the Department of Defense, so we pay them, but they have no congressional oversight. Maybe that’s one reason Rumsfeld likes them. They are not accountable. They also don’t show up on official casualty tallies. Their missions are spelled out in corporate contracts, but how they get the job done is not well monitored. The law governing their actions is the UN charter, and it is beyond vague. I think the Department of Defense wants to use more contractors, but it will only exacerbate the biggest problem that the U.S. military has now: its fundamental inability to acknowledge the political context of this war.
With the rise of globalization, all armed conflicts are going to become more ambiguous in character, neither criminal nor political, but somewhere in between. As the system devolves further, if we don’t have a vital and active Left prepared to seize the reins and effect a state-managed transformation of our society, there is a good chance we’ll fall back into a feudal state, or a form of urban warlordism that would have some modern-day feudal characteristics.
I believe that the methods that were employed in Abu Ghraib were probably sanctioned from the very top. It’s difficult for me to imagine otherwise. Of course, now that we’ve gotten caught, the people at the bottom are expected to sacrifice themselves to protect the king.
Elliott: In Full Spectrum Disorder you connect the war in Iraq to the war against the working class at home. Do you think domestic class struggle is behind the decision to go to war?
Goff: I don’t think class struggle is ever the determining factor in a decision to go to war, but I think it’s always one factor. Wars are helpful to the U.S. ruling class because they focus attention on external enemies and distract from the systematic war being waged against the workers. The problem in the U.S. is that working-class people don’t admit that they are working-class. They call themselves middle-class. They don’t understand that they are being robbed. The last three decades have seen the biggest transfer of wealth in U.S. history from the so-called middle class to the rich.
Elliott: How does wealth get transferred?
Goff: You can look at state government here in North Carolina for an example. Except for education, transportation is the biggest expenditure in the state budget. We have nineteen people on the Board of Transportation, and all of them are appointed by the governor. They take the taxpayers’ money, in the form of the state transportation budget, and roll it into pork-barrel road projects all over the state. Does the money go to public transportation? No. It’s spent on roads because of the asphalt lobby. The Department of Transportation board members all gave money to the governor’s last political campaign. That’s just one example of how the rich take money away from the working class on the state and local level.
The real vulnerability is that working-class people think of themselves as middle-class. Historically, when the middle class is thrown into political crisis, it does not embrace revolutionary politics; it embraces reactionary politics. Twentieth-century crises in Spain, Italy, and Germany led to the rise of fascism in all three of those countries. Fascism is a middle-class phenomenon. It requires the scapegoating of minority populations. A powerful preexisting racism, like we have in our culture, pushes people in that direction.
Elliott: Do you think the U.S. is in danger of becoming a fascist society?
Goff: It’s worrisome. If we do see something like that in this country, I don’t think it will look like Italian fascism, or Spanish fascism, or German fascism. It will be our own special form. The people who are closest to that kind of consciousness right now are right-wing Evangelicals, who make up a huge percentage of the Republican Party base. There is a powerful undercurrent of white supremacy in their worldview. It’s easy to make fun of them, but we need to be wary. Even though these right-wing Christian Zionists can appear ridiculous sometimes, they are politically well organized and very powerful. It’s a big mistake to underestimate them, especially if you are an oppressed minority, or queer, or if you’re female; they are incredibly misogynistic.
Elliott: You’re not a pacifist. How do you relate to pacifists within the antiwar movement?
Goff: I have some philosophical disagreements with them. But I have philosophical disagreements with my spouse, too, and we’re still married. Right now my pacifist friends and I are in absolute solidarity about trying to stop this nation’s latest military adventure.
I think pacifists are fundamentally decent human beings, and it’s hard not to like them for that, even if sometimes I disagree with them. If I disliked everybody I disagreed with, I wouldn’t like anybody at all — even myself. [Laughs.]
I would love to be a pacifist. I don’t want to hurt anyone, and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt. My argument with pacifists is that it’s also important to recognize people’s right to defend themselves against extermination. Look at the Jewish people who fought back against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. Should they have just lined up and allowed themselves to be exterminated?
I believe that the Iraqi people have the right to resist with arms the U.S. military occupation, even though for a while my son was one of the people they were firing at. It’s not those young soldiers’ fault that they are over there. Nor is it the fault of the people fighting for self-determination in Iraq. It’s the fault of the people up in Washington, D.C.
Elliott: You want to bring together antiwar activists and people in the military to try to form some sort of united movement. How do you see this happening when these two groups come from such different backgrounds?
Goff: It’s true, people who are part of the antiwar movement tend to have high levels of education, whereas many people who enter the military do so for economic reasons. I went into the military so that I wouldn’t have to work in the airplane factory where my mom and dad worked. I had no desire to drive rivets into airplane fuselage. That sounded to me like death, whereas joining the military sounded like an adventure.
Elliott: So how do you bring these two groups together?
Goff: We’re working on it. More and more disillusioned GIs are becoming a part of the Bring Them Home Now campaign. And, of course, ex-soldiers are actively involved in Veterans for Peace.
I’m not comfortable with how the antiwar movement sometimes uses soldiers and veterans as a way of legitimizing its cause. And I’m also not comfortable with how readily some veterans will adopt that role of token vet. For a while I thought I was going to be a professional antiwar veteran. Everyone wanted me to speak. I understand that veterans have a degree of immunity against the patriot-baiting the Right engages in. But when antiwar activists put veterans in the spotlight as a way of saying, “Peace is patriotic,” it sends a mixed message.
I don’t care about patriotism. I agree with Samuel Johnson that it’s the “last refuge of scoundrels.” It’s twisted to think that somehow we’re all united against the rest of the world simply because we live inside the same geopolitical borders. “We’re all Americans”: what the hell does that mean? I may identify with you because we share a common culture, but am I supposed to value your life more than I do the life of someone outside our culture? That’s the implication of patriotism. I’m glad to accept people’s invitations to talk, but I quickly disabuse them of the notion that I’m there to talk about patriotism.
I also don’t want to be identified as just a soldier, as if the only thing that gives me value is that I once wore a green beret. I’ve got other identities. I’m a writer, too, and I don’t write just about military topics. I’m also a grandfather.
Elliott: I heard you speak recently, and one of the things you said was: “Hope is hidden in contradictions.” What do you mean by that?
Goff: I actually stole that idea from Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht. He said, “Within the contradiction lies the hope.” It means that periods of instability create opportunities. Stability creates inertia. It’s when things get shaken up by contradictions that inertia can no longer be sustained. We can use instability as an opportunity to shape the future, and we are entering a period of extreme instability in this country: economic, political, and otherwise. Something’s got to be on the other side of that. If we want a world in which our grandchildren can grow up safely, then we’d better be engaged. Our actions will determine what we leave to the next generation. It’s not a choice; it’s a duty.