a Review of Stan Goff’s Full Spectrum Disorder

Stan Goff is using his 26-year career in the U.S. Army as a sounding board for his communiqués on the necessity of forming vanguards to inspire socialist revolutions around the world. In his new book, “Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century,” Goff bristles at how revolutionary vanguards have been given a bad name by a wide range of “Marxoid cults” that essentially have become arcane debating societies.

“A revolutionary vanguard is an organization that can mobilize mass movements to victories,” he says. “The proof is in the pudding. Fidel Castro’s 1950s guerrilla army was a real vanguard. A sect that indoctrinates its new members on a college campus and obliges them to hawk newspapers no one wants is not.”

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that a person who spent most of his adult life in a mega-hierarchical organization such as the U.S. Army is peddling the notion of a vanguard. Goff’s career as a military trainer involved barking instructions to domestic and foreign soldiers. His new mission as Private Citizen Goff is to help the political left leverage its frustrations so that it can build a formidable movement to topple the established political and economic order.

One of the problems with Goff’s grand visions for a vanguard is that its members almost always turn into facsimiles of the leaders of the old regime. Take a look at the vanguard group calling the shots in Columbia’s decades-long guerrilla insurgency. If the FARC came to power in Colombia, as Goff predicts would happen if the United States were to cut off aid to the reviled Colombia government, there is little chance its leaders would discard their authoritarian practices and embrace a benign democratic socialism.

Goff shares with his readers some attention-grabbing ideas about the future of liberal democracy. For starters, he sees no future for the current U.S. political system. “I have not one iota of doubt that America – as it is now politically constituted – will self-destruct,” Goff writes. Visions of Armageddon are common among the ex-military crowd, many of whom view the shadowy architects of the phantom one-world government as the greatest threat to freedom.

But Goff aims his bombast in a different direction than the neo-John Birchers. America’s “imperial privileges will go by the wayside,” he writes. “In that convulsive process – closer than people realize – we will see the naked face of internal colonial oppression as well, the overt subjugation of Black and Brown peoples inside the USA, and not long after, the open attack on the entire US working class – working class divided by white privilege and susceptible to the siren call of a new American fascism.”

Goff is the quintessential ex-military man who thinks he knows it all. After reading Full Spectrum Disorder, I came to the conclusion that Goff probably does not know it all, but he surely knows enough – especially about U.S. political culture and military practice – to write a compelling book.

In his new career as a chronicler of the criminal ways in which political leaders in Washington use the U.S. military to subjugate parts of the world, Goff refuses to scold the thousands of young men and women who keep the war machine running by signing up for duty each year. Instead, Goff attacks the self-righteous among us who have the nerve to point out that today’s soldier is under no compulsion to participate in the preservation of empire. “Things are just never simple enough for an ideologue who still believes that soldiers are all robot killers, and that the world is divided into good and evil,” Goff writes.

Full Spectrum Disorder, Goff’s second book with Soft Skull Press, serves as a travelogue for Goff’s army adventures. He takes us to Haiti (the setting for his first book, Hideous Dream), Somalia, Latin America and Vietnam. Goff also offers prescient analysis of the U.S. invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq.

Full-spectrum dominance, Goff explains, is the key term in a Defense Department blueprint issued during the Clinton administration. “Full spectrum” refers to three things: geographic scope, level of conflict and technology. “This is a doctrine that implicitly aims at world military domination, taking on everything from street riots to thermonuclear war, accomplished with a blank check to weapons developers for an array of highly sophisticated gadgets,” Goff says.

This is also the doctrine from which the Bush administration adapted the military strategy for the invasion of Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added a few new wrinkles to the theory, including substituting formulaic digital thought for human leadership, Goff says. “This dramatically increasing and ever more exclusive reliance on technology in fact carries with it a corresponding increase of latent disorder that can happen abruptly in a kind of tectonic shift,” he explains.

Goff describes how armies of resistance around the world will increasingly become more brazen in their confrontations with the U.S. military and its surrogates. “The liberation fighters of the future will learn to make allies of chaos and their enemy’s ignorance, which feed each other,” Goff writes.

Goff’s macro assessment of resistance aptly describes what’s going on in Iraq today. As I write, the Bush administration and the nation’s media establishment are still digesting the news about the latest exploits of Iraq’s resistance: shooting a U.S. Army transport helicopter out of the sky near Baghdad, killing 15 soldiers and injuring a couple dozen. Some members of Congress are lobbying for additional soldiers to be sent to Iraq to help with the pacification of the Iraqi population. But Rumsfeld says the U.S. casualties are a “necessary” component in a war to liberate Iraq and that his commanders on the ground are telling him there is no need to expand the occupation army.

Despite the U.S. military’s swift overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, there were still thousands of tanks and armored personnel carriers unaccounted for in Iraq “and they didn’t drive themselves away,” Goff writes. The list includes: hundreds of thousands of small arms; up to 3,000 wire-guided anti-armor missiles; more than 1,500 artillery pieces; possibly a half dozen SCUD launchers; more than 1,000 MOWAG light anti-aircraft weapons; and a decent supply of unfired surface-to-air missiles.

Throughout the book, Goff never lets the political establishment off the hook for the mess it has caused. The neoliberals (the Democrats) and neocons (the Bush administration) are equally devoted to preserving the status and privileges of the U.S. ruling class, Goff explains. The differences between the factions revolve around two opposing delusions: “[T]he neoliberal delusion that there is a way to return to the multilateral gluttony of the recent past – with the U.S. reassuming its role of benevolent father – and the neocon delusion that the U.S. can eat its economic cake and have it too by playing the part of a global protection racket on energy markets. The neoliberals cannot solve the problem of rebellion in the periphery and the falling rate of profit. The neocons cannot solve the problem of military costs – economic and political.”

What may turn out to be the most controversial portion of Full Spectrum Disorder is its intriguing analysis of U.S. action in its own hemisphere. In Colombia, where Goff trained that nation’s special forces in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration needed a rationale for boosting its military presence there. “Drugs can fill in for the World Communist Conspiracy only so far,” Goff writes. With the success of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombianas, or FARC, the country’s largest leftist guerrilla group with ties to the illegal drug trade, the United States could have its drug war and its war against Communists together, “like rum and coke,” Goff says.

But Goff explains that FARC has nowhere near the same involvement in drugs as Colombia’s military or the country’s network of right-wing paramilitary death squads. The U.S. government’s involvement with the Colombian military represents another chapter in its “troubling history of fighting alongside – not against – drug traffickers,” Goff says. The CIA’s resume includes fraternizing with the masters of the Golden Triangle heroin empires, opium traffickers in Vietnam and Cambodia, the drug-trafficking anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan, and the heroin traffickers of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Goff observes with approval FARC’s ability to operate a viable military organization. “[T]he Colombian armed forces are largely conscripts, led by a venal and corrupt officer corps, and suffering the daily stings of class resentment and blistering racism,” Goff says. “The FARC-EP [People’s Army] is racially diverse, and 30 percent women.”

The “metropolitan anticommunist” left, Goff says, claims that FARC has evolved into an authoritarian monstrosity that oppresses the people of Columbia on the same level as the government. “This is a classic case of the left falling for the slanders of the mainstream press, assisted in their fall by ‘bourgeois right,” or moral imperialism – the convenient morality of the fed and fat of the imperial center,” he contends.

While the Zapatistas in Chiapas tend to receive a fair amount of positive press among liberals and leftists in the United States and Europe, FARC fails to elicit the approval of the liberal media or the blessing of those who should be its allies, Goff says. “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,” he writes.

Goff’s message has resonated on the left because it’s not everyday that a retired U.S. Army NCO speaks so bluntly about U.S. imperialism. In Full Spectrum Disorder, Goff’s writing style is colloquial but authoritative. It’s the perfect antidote to the scripted garbage produced by the retired military officers who serve as paid analysts for the major U.S. media outlets.

Goff’s celebration of the FARC for its ability to build and maintain an impressive fighting machine in Colombia will raise some eyebrows. Given his deep roots in the U.S. military, though, Goff will hold onto the type of reader who would otherwise put the book down if the same material had been written by an armchair intellectual.

And don’t let Goff’s seemingly harebrained ideas of a revolutionary vanguard keep you from picking up a copy of Full Spectrum Disorder. These passages only add to the allure of the book, which actually is a first-rate analysis of the U.S. military in the 21st century. Full Spectrum Disorder not only will find an audience on the left but is likely to make it onto certain course reading lists at the military academies.

Current and former members of the military will appreciate how Goff takes an honest look at their work without denigrating them. Members of the political establishment, on the other hand, may not like the book’s message about the looming long, dark period of political and social chaos that is likely to grip the United States and much of the rest of the world for as long as the ruling class continues to avoid making systemic changes to how it governs.

MARK HAND is editor of Arlington, Va.-based Press Action. He can be reached at mark@pressaction.com.


Mark Hand is a reporter who primarily covers environmental and energy issues. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.