Guest Writings
06/08/04 A Review of Stan Goff's Full Spectrum Disorder – by Derek Seidman

Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century
by Stan Goff
Soft Skull Press
203 pp.
Stan Goff is a unique voice on the American Left. Before becoming an activist, author, and outspoken progressive voice, he spent twenty-six years in the military, many of them with Special Forces, participating in notorious US interventions in places like Panama, Haiti, Grenada, Somalia, and Vietnam. As he retrospectively remarks, his military career turned out to have provided him “the most superlative education imaginable” on both a personal and political level. In his most recent book, Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century, readers are presented with the fruits of this education. It is a must-read for anyone on the Left looking to gain some important insights into the US military, the people who are in it, and the direction in which it and the system it works for are heading. It is also a very challenging book for all the right reasons, sure to make the honest person think a lot more critically about a lot of things.

The bulk of Full Spectrum Disorder is hard analysis of the military, its foreign ventures, and the general tensions throughout the US world order. Goff's analysis is strong and stimulating, and what really makes it unique is how much it is informed-both in content and in style- by the experiences and lessons of his life. The book covers a wide array of topics, yet with perceptible threads connecting it all together. Though I couldn't possibly cover them all with justice done, I'll point out some of the things I liked the best.

While not apocalyptic, Goff's take on the world definitely has a deep sense of urgency to it, and the book is premised on the author's recognition of increasingly high stakes. As he writes, comparing our world to a balloon being filled with increasing, soon-to-be unsustainable pressure, “[m]y argument is not that the balloon will explode tomorrow. It is that it will explode.”(7) This sense of urgency informs most all of his analysis of the world and the struggles going on within it.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the insights the reader gets into the military and foreign interventions, both from Goff's acute (and as it is backed by his experience, unique) analysis and from his personal stories and recollections. His accounts from places like Peru, Colombia, Haiti, and El Salvador that are often chilling and grant intimate access into the psychology, tensions, and shady doings of US foreign interventions. Most of this stuff is difficult to find anywhere else.

In Guatemala, for instance, he tells of sitting in a local bar, talking with a CIA agent (formerly a Special Forces sergeant) who had just returned from executing an ambush in some Indian areas in the North, conducting a scorched-earth campaign against supposed sympathizers to the leftist guerillas. Upon describing it, the sergeant euphorically blurted out: “Best fuckin' thing I got to do since Nam.” Goff hinted to him to not say such a thing so loudly, to which the sergeant responded loudly, staring down the whole bar, “Fuck them! We own this motherfucker.”

When they walked out later, the shit-faced sergeant couldn't find his car, so he pulled his pistol out on a terrified attendant and threatened to shoot him until Goff was able to wheedle him away. Full Spectrum Disorder is filled with anecdotes like this that show the twisted emotions, power trips, and psycho-masculinist dark sides of counter-insurgency operations. This is important because it colors in his analysis with the human complexities involved, adding another, vital dimension.

In addition to these personal glimpses, Goff offers his analysis on everything from the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, to the destructive evolution of the Special Forces and imperial overreach. I highly recommend his chapter comparing the Zapatistas to the Colombian FARC-EP. Goff evaluates their respective strategies from a stringent standpoint (to the detriment of the Zapatistas) of “war as politics by other means”, and a morality that is derived from this recognition (”Either the struggle is worth a war or it is not. We can't have it both ways”). It is one of the most challenging arguments made to the Left in the entire book, and it ends with this note: “So I will say this about the Zapatistas and the FARC-EP. At the end of the day, the difference between the two, aside from those who are condoned or condemned by those outside the conflict, is that one is winning and one is losing… because one understands the iron logic of war, and the other does not” (44).

One overriding theme of the book is (to use the title) the full spectrum disorder of the US military and, concomitantly, the assertion that “[the neocons] true weaknesses [is] ruling class myopia and astonishing hubris. They are constitutionally incapable of understanding history as a process that involves the masses” (100). Acting as if high-tech weaponry, control of information, special intelligence, and pleasant euphemisms can provide some kind of efficient formula for an empire, the US ruling elite gets a glitch in system when the aspirations, emotions, hatred, and tactfulness of the masses complicates things.

Take Iraq, for instance: back and forth between ill-fated ground operations that risk troops being besieged by asymmetrical warfare and domestically-unacceptable high casualties, and massive raids that massacre and alienate the population, the US is caught in more of a bind of “hearts and souls” than it can understand. As an imperial occupier, you're stepping into a complex web of dynamics that are inherently against you, and your actions occur within this context as seen and felt by the occupied. Car-bombings, military screw-ups, and almost anything else imaginable only go to intensify the resented state of affairs. The fact that a lowly band of Iraqis can take the initiative and create chaos with a little imagination- all occurring within and appealing to the political context of occupied vs. occupier-shows how unstable the US's hold on things really is. (Not-to-be-missed is Goff's perspective on the “initiative” in military-political conflicts that is throughout the book. See my interview with him here for more on all of this.)

If Goff's book is an analysis of the military, imperialism, and the tasks of the Left (among many other things), it is also part memoir, and deeply personal. One of the things that gives the book its power is that the reader can sense within it the personal struggle that led to its appearance, the discipline, the honesty and straightforwardness in Goff's admissions. Personal tales of coming-to-be in a masculinist, militaristic environment add depth to whole narrative, and Goff is really good about gender issues. He tells of his early initiation into the masculine world, the transgression involved in going from “Boy to Man, Male to Alpha Male. Soldier, teenager, now nihilist”. This aspect of the book adds to its complexity in dealing with not only the many-side problem of the military, but human beings in general. Our gender identity, so programmed into us, is in many ways a linchpin of problems involving militarism, consent to power (when power appeals to us in gender-affirming term), and mental and emotional bondage. Goff's next book, in fact, is going to be on gender and militarism. Look for it.

In the last sentence of the book, Goff writes, “If we want simple, we'd best avoid life” (191). All-too-often the Left looks out on the world through Manichean goggles, with little or no space for ambiguity and uncomfortable contradictions that might taint the purity of a grand, simple, and self-fulfilling understanding of things. My favorite aspect of Full Spectrum Disorder is that it takes an opposite route: it doesn't merely tolerate much of the gray, complex reality we as Leftists need to deal with, but confronts it head on. Goff writes, “[The] simultaneous refusal to either to deny reality or to quit struggling within it had much to do with my eventual drift into a politics of resistance, and if there's an orientation in this book, that's it.” (6)

In the last chapter, Goff writes about his stepson Jessie, who had entered the military and is now in Iraq. It is a short, heartfelt chapter, both nostalgic and forward-looking, very honest- a fitting ending to the book. In one part he tells us:

“I wrote something to an email list about my emotional reaction to Jesse's military service, and a self-righteous shit wrote me back that Jessie had chosen his course of action, he had made his decision, and if he is lost in the gangster's project of international plunder, oh fucking well…

“I didn't bother to tell him that I was as concerned with the possibility that Jesse would learn xenophobia, that Jesse would be called upon to kill, that Jessie would have his human trust buried, as I was with the prospect of Jessie being killed in action-a dreadful possibility to be sure, but one I considered more remote that others. Things are just never simple enough for an ideologue that soldiers are all robot killers, and that the world is divided into good and evil” (190)

If the Left hopes to make some real inroads, it needs to recognize and stomach complexities and the coexistence of seemingly contradictory things, and learn how to approach them effectively. There's an incredible diversity and unevenness is the political consciousness of people in the USA, and often progressive impulses are channeled into reactionary outlets (for which the Left should feel in some part responsible, since it has not done as well as it could have to provide an alternative). These circumstances might not be ideal, but they are the hand we've been dealt. A sense of certainty can put the mind at ease, but it can lull a revolutionary towards irrelevance. If we wish to see a better world, it is in our interest to not shy away from the tough things that don't fit like a piece of a puzzle into some textbook of revolution. This will take a lot of creativity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to listen to and learn from the people we're trying to reach. Again: “If we want simple, we'd best avoid life”.

This is the thrust is of one of Goff's most poignant chapters, “The Left and the Military”. Here the reader gets some insights that they would hope an author like Goff could offer up. Like much of the book, the chapter is written with a determination to tackle a tough and complex issue. It's an honest attempt to push the Left past lazy thinking with regards to soldiers.

After the “Beltway Sniper” run a few years back, many on the Left pointed to John Muhammad's military training in the early nineties as an explanation for his more recent actions. Goff argues convincingly that this is not only wrong-laziness, in fact: an all-too-common instance of simple reduction by a Left that thinks it has an easy materialist answer for everything-but that it is very much to our detriment in efforts to reach out to soldiers:

“We need credibility when we pop off on military matters, and the left surrenders its credibility all the time when it masks complexities in the interest of some short-term polemical advantage.

“In particular, if we are to reach out to the people inside the military, most of them working class, and a disproportionate number of them oppressed nationalities, then we have to do two things. We have to get our facts straight. And we have to think about their experience critically.” (144)

Ultimately there may be no constituency more vital to reach than the military. When we lazily fall back on easy (but faulty) explanations concerning military matters, it discredits the Left in the eyes of this important group: “No one with more than two weeks experience in the military will take [this explanation] seriously, and many will use it to dismiss everything they hear by socialists thereafter…Those of us in social movements bear a special responsibility, because when we say silly things, that silliness is not simply attributed to the person who says them. It is transferred to the whole movement.” (146, 149)

He goes on:

“Every successful revolution requires either the neutralization or active participation of military people. It's really time we factor that into our thinking. It's time we thought about organizing within the military. And organizing is not helping out a handful of conscientious objectors (though that is important) or dropping into Fayetteville with antiwar petitions for GIs to sign. Organizing is getting to know them, listening to them, building relationships with them, and standing alongside them when they confront their own institution.” (151)

Goff is doing more than urging those of us on the Left to actually put in some work and learn more about the military and the folks within it-something long overdue, seeing the central place this institution occupies within the political terrain on which we struggle. He is also pushing for something more general when he writes that, “[w]e have way too much at stake to go for easy answers” (149). In fact, the whole of Full Spectrum Disorder is a fine example of trying to do some hard, disciplined thinking outside of the box.

Full Spectrum Disorder is a timely, thought-provoking, and acutely insightful book. You'll learn a lot of new things and be personally challenged to think more critically about the world, the mission of the Left, and yourself. I highly recommend it. I'll leave you off with the final, fitting paragraph from the chapter “The Left and the Military”:

“My vision is that the American armed forces, when they are harshly taught, as the current conjuncture will teach them, will unite with the people, that sections of it will break away and become the defenders of their families, and thereby a liberatory force. As America's political class becomes ever more lawless, ever more compelled to scrap bourgeois democracy and slouch toward fascism, we shall need them, and they shall need us.” (151)
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Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century is available here.

Derek Seidman, 24, is co-editor of the radical youth journal Left Hook (www.lefthook.org). He lives in New York City and can be reached at derekseidman@yahoo.com.

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