Imperialism Starts at Home, an Interview with Stan Goff
Stan Goff knows better than most people about what really goes on in the US military. He retired as a Master Sergeant in 1996 after serving for 26 years, most of them with the Special Forces, Delta Force, and as a military instructor at West Point. In the process of his military career he was deployed to Vietnam, South Korea, Colombia, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Somalia, and Haiti. He is now an anti-imperialist activist and a member of the coordinating committee of Bring Them Home Now. He is the author of Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti, as well as the forthcoming Full Spectrum Disorder. He lives in Raleigh, NC.
Derek Seidman, an editor of the new radical youth journal Left Hook, interviewed Stan Goff last week.
Derek Seidman: We really appreciate you doing this interview Stan. First, can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your experience in the US armed forces, and how you came to be a war resister?
Stan Goff: I don’t know if I’m a war resister as much as an anti-imperialist. I mean, I see where they are the same thing on a contingent basis, but I don’t identify with those who simply oppose “war,” generic, on moral grounds. I see war as a systemic outcome, but feel we have to pay a lot of attention not only to the military form of imperialism, but also to its economic, political, cultural, and ideological forms. I see all these things as part of a unified but nonlinear and dynamically evolving whole.
I joined the army in January 1970. I won’t detail the whole process, but one thing led to another, and it became a career. I began in the infantry and drifted into special operations. My first assignment was Vietnam. Then there was a hiatus from conflict zones until the eighties, when I went first to Guatemala, then six more conflict areas besides Vietnam and Guatemala between 1983 and 1994. Working special ops in Central America, I had the experience of working directly under embassy supervision on a couple of missions, so I had a glimpse of foreign policy that most soldiers don’t get. That’s when it began to dawn on me that these military adventures and all these classified operations were being driven by motives that were as much financial as geo-strategic, and that there was some kind of symbiosis–which I didn’t clearly understand yet–between the financial and the military.
I also became keenly aware of racism all around me. I became interested in understanding it because, besides being powerful, it is actually pretty complicated and even mysterious. And I found myself becoming a proponent of allowing women into combat arms–a nascent feminist current in my thinking. These were the threads that began to unravel the old notions and create the space for studying and seeking new ideas that would better explain my own experience. By the nineties, I had become interested in social theory, and by the time I left the army in February 1996 I was involved with various political activists on the left, where I was brought into a very lively culture of organizing and debate.
My opposition to US military adventures was a natural outcome of that. But I am seeing these adventures not as a pacifist, but through the interpretive lenses I have taken away from all that study, debate, and organizing, like Marxism, feminism, deep ecology, and world systems theory. Each of these perspectives yields a lot of useful information about the inner dynamics of capitalism, patriarchal constructions of sexuality and how they structure the totality of social relations, the energetic and material limits to growth, the relationship between material and social entropy, and US imperialism as a global social structure.
(Read more about Stan’s life and how he came to oppose US imperialism at: http://www.indyweek.com/)
DS: If you were a soldier in Iraq right now, what would be going through your head?
Goff: Trick question. There are over 120,000 US soldiers in Iraq right now, and each of them is unique in many respects. And at different points in my own career, I might have responded differently depending on what I was doing. As a grunt, or a support troop, I would probably be pretty low. Special ops folks are usually kept busy planning, planning, planning, or conducting some fairly sketchy operations, like the Phoenix-style stuff that just got that SBS troop killed, that are so all-occupying in the execution that a lapse in professional focus can lapse your life.
DS: A lot of pundits argue that the soldiers made a conscious decision to serve their country, and that they need to live up to this responsibility and not criticize what they’re being made to do–it is, after all, the duty they signed up for. What do you say to this?
Goff: Horseshit! This is a big, smelly red herring. They made a conscious decision alright, but not in a vacuum. The decision was to join the military. But they were weighing their real options in the real world when they made that decision, working off of limited information, limited experience, Madison Avenue “Army of One” sales pitches, and an economy that offers most people a glorious career in serial shit retail jobs. That’s the reason rich frat boys like George Bush often don’t do military service. They have more options. The lack of options is a real thing that can’t be erased with a lot of abstracted, two-dimensional, libertarian, we-are-all-free-agents nonsense.
And joining the military is a contractual agreement that is circumscribed by law, not some holy vow to surrender your brain. How is occupying Iraq “serving” the United States? Unless we can define what the United States is, it’s pure demagogy. They were not ordered to Iraq by the United States. They were ordered to Iraq by the Bush administration. That’s why this volunteer military thing is a red herring. The decision didn’t come from the troops. It came from the political establishment. Whether they are “volunteer” or conscript doesn’t change that.
The question of criticism while on active duty is a very nuanced legal question, but I would counsel those on active duty to be cautious, or at least know what you’re getting into if you speak out. The military can always retaliate, even when you are within your legal rights.
DS: Your son is stationed in Iraq. What do you hear from him and others about what the situation is like, both in general and for the soldiers in particular?
Goff: My son has asked me not to speak for him publicly, and not to pass along his comments made in private correspondence, and I am going to respect that. He will be very happy to come home and see his 11-month old baby, relax, make love, go to the refrigerator, sleep in once in a while, and not have to carry a weapon.
Other correspondents are telling us that morale is rock bottom, support is spotty, and they are beginning to believe that all politicians are pathological liars.
DS: Can you tell us about Military Families Speak Out? One of the main anti-war slogans is “Support the troops–Bring them home now”. What do you think about the fact that the growing criticism of the war and occupation has to do not with the fact that the US is doing something wrong, immoral, and harmful for the world, but because our soldiers are getting killed in doing it?
Goff: That’s the key to building a movement. The vast majority of people are not motivated by abstractions. They are motivated by what they can feel on their skin. The entry point for this movement into the consciousness of new people is not through morality. The ruling class has the best stage, the best sound, the best lighting, the best scriptwriters, the best actors, and the best broadcast ability to construct morality. Naturally, we fight them tooth and nail on every single lie, but even the content of our message is often lost, because of the WAYS that people process messages, which has also been constructed by the ruling class. The freshest stratum in any movement are those who are there through trauma and fear. Soldiers getting killed is a very serious thing, because these are our families. Our experience in the Bring Them Home Now campaign is that in fighting to bring troops home, this fresh group is exposed to a lot of new ideas, and because they are in a painful space they are in a teachable space. It doesn’t take long for them, once they begin to question the first motive to question all the motives. It’s not as long a step as people think from asking the first question to questioning imperialism itself. I know. The truly surprising thing is how incredibly thin the whole fabric of mystification is once it’s exposed to a little critique. Americans don’t know how to critique, and they are threatened by it. That’s why the first step has to be something more fundamental than analysis, like revulsion, fear, and pain.
DS: Lastly, what do you think are the immediate concrete tasks of the anti-war movement? How much of this involves trying to reach out to the troops with their growing demoralization and resentment?
Goff: I’ve long been an advocate of reaching out to the military, but not in the ham-handed way some people have tried. Saying goofy shit like “Overthrow your officers!” is not going anywhere now. The BTHN campaign is addressing real issues, with a lot of emphasis on outreach to military families. Soldiers might reactively engage in shouting matches with a stranger from the movement, but they have respectful, thoughtful discussions with spouses and parents and siblings. They also confide in them when they themselves experience doubts.
Eventually, of course, I believe the soldiers will have to overthrow some of their officers, but not until we overthrow all of our bosses. The important thing for revolutionaries–if that term is to mean anything other than phrase-mongering and adventurism–is to build and maintain a bridge with the military. The day will come when we will need them, and they will need us.
I’m not sure we have just an anti-war movement anymore. Since the full scale invasion, I think we have three movements. One is a UN movement. Another is an anti-war movement. The last is an anti-imperialist movement. The former objected to the war on legalistic grounds, believing that the US would be justified in escalating the attack on Iraqi sovereignty with a Security Council resolution.
The UN movement wants to substitute a UN military occupation for a US occupation as part of a return to some mythical pre-Bush paradise of multilateralism. They profess a caring for Iraqis, but fundamentally buy the whole “white man’s burden” theme that the Iraqis are incapable of self-government.
The anti-war movement is far more eclectic, but they are those who are uncomfortable with the UN option except as some short interim measure, and generally opposed to armed conflict under any circumstances. This is the “Peace is Patriotic” group, who still haven’t quite grasped the essence of American nationalism. There is a substantial section of this stratum–not the hardcore religious pacifists–that can be won over to an anti-imperialist position if they are provided a few new analytical tools.
The anti-imperialist section is composed broadly of “anti-globalization” folks, radical feminists, Black and Brown nationalists, socialists, and anarchists.
If there is a strategic imperative for us in the Euro-American metropolis’, it is to consolidate this anti-imperialist pole, then begin bringing in sections of the anti-war movement, beginning with those who feel the system, as it were, most directly on their skin. Poor people. Immigrants. People of color. Women. But also white middle class who have been downsized into the proletariat, so to speak. This entails a massive popular education campaign, which is easy to say, and hard as hell to do. Figuring out how to do that, however, is absolutely imperative.
There is a right-pole to mirror our left-pole, and it is white, middle-class, and armed to the teeth. When things really start to slip, economically, and these folks avalanche out of the middle class into the street, many of them will be susceptible to the siren call of blood-and-soil nationalism, and they’ll look for scapegoats. I believe this is a real possibility in the next few years, and that gives added urgency to our job to fight for every soul.
Finally, imperialism starts at home. Think of it as colonialism. That’s not an analog, it’s a real thing. There are colonized nationalities here in the United States, and their struggle for self-determination–which means political power–must be seen as a key struggle for the whole movement. The other struggle that has been perennially set on the back burner during every upsurge of social unrest is the struggle for self-determination by the largest colonized population in our society: women. That is a mistake. In fact, this may be the deepest of all our struggles, for lots of reasons I don’t have time to elaborate here. But more and more, I am coming to believe that the struggle against patriarchy will be the linchpin of any successful revolution in the future.
If you would like to give feedback to Stan, he can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
You can read some of his writing here: