The Bridge

WARNING: This commentary may cause anxiety.

The United States government has initiated a chain reaction that it can no longer control. The stalled vengeance assault on Fallujah is merely a symptom. So is the uprising triggered by the US closure of a Shia newspaper in Sadr City, Baghdad, followed by gunning down the demonstrators who protested (Ah, yes, we don’t even hear about that when they talk about the latest demon, Muqtada al-Sadr… Memory is so short.).

The chain reaction is far broader and deeper than the battlefield fiasco in Iraq right now. Once brown people start to pick up guns, other brown people follow suit. The myth of invincibility of the United States military — called into question even before the Bush Doctrine arrived at this particular Iraqi cul-de-sac — is shattered. No one is shocked. No one is awed.

Nothing left now but plain grimy brutality. Apache helicopters are buzz-sawing through neighborhoods with chain guns and rockets. Bombs are being released onto mosques. The hospitals and morgues are receiving a rich harvest.

I remember a sign at the entrance of Camp Mackall in North Carolina, where I began Special Forces training. “Rule #1: There are no rules. Rule #2: Obey the first rule.”

The post 9/11 renewal of ground wars in Southwest Asia swept me up into a new role. A career soldier who is a leftist; a leftist who is a retired soldier. I became a trump card that antiwar activists could play against the patriot-baiting of the right, so I’ve been trotted out in front of one audience after another, from town halls to CNN, as a spokesperson against the Bush Doctrine’s militarism.

But people transform their roles. They deviate from the scripts.

I’m a leftist who carried a gun, in a culture where what passes for the left is terrified of guns. So people pay attention to me. In audience after audience, I have noted that people pay attention to me. They are engaged before I even speak, because they know that I can kill, and that gives me an immediacy… not because I am different than them, but because I am so very much the same. I laugh at good jokes. I rock babies. I take an interest in the weather.

This is more than morbid fascination.

We are a culture insulated from our own basis. It is a condition of metropolitan modernity, more so even of post-modernity. In a consumer society, where general-purpose money has eaten away every bond of community, where alienation — and even narcissism — is defined as normalcy, where nature is seen as something apart from and below us, the very personhood of each of us is deracinated and left to drift through the retail landscape like a grieving banshee. Planned obsolescence applies even to our identities.

We really have no idea who pays for this privilege of superficiality, but those billions who are doing the paying — far out of our reified view — are getting a clearer idea all the time.

Of course, this culture is pure charade. We can pretend we are as disembedded as we like, but we are invariably physical — diaphragms heaving incessantly, articulating gases in our guts, dissipating heat, concentrating urine, sloughing off dead cells, yawing and eating and scratching and sleeping and fucking and finally, dying.


Inside this whole charade, where money “grows” and media-stunned young women aspire to be models for Victoria’s Secret, resides liberal hypocrisy. Outside it resides imperial militarism — the last refuge of capitalism as it devours its own social and material bases like a vampire stranded alone on a desert island.

Soldiers who were raised inside this cultural charade are now outside it, in Southwest Asia getting blood on their hands so we can have malls and road trips and household appliances and climate control. The personhood of soldiers (mostly male) has become a battleground, too, between masculinity and cognitive dissonance. Warfare is the practice and masculinity is achieved in the practice, but they are confronted now with other persons — people who are first reduced in the media, then defined in training (The Enemy), then dehumanized in the word (Raghead!), then commanded by the occupier as subjected persons, then — if obedience is not swift — erased. This is where the soldier either recognizes or denies the hypocrisy, because the fuller reality of the system is right there before his eyes. Now he has a choice to make.

I’m talking to you, soldier, and not judging you. This is an invitation to take back your personhood. This is an invitation to confront every fear, breach every obstacle, take every risk; to leap over your old self and enter into a deeper struggle.

Capitalism has to build bridges from its metropolitan hypocrisy to the scenes of its imperial crimes, and that bridge is made with the backs of soldiers. We have to build a bridge from the scene of the crime to clarity.

To do that, we can’t back away from this gun-question, this whole issue of violence.

When the guerrilla picks up the gun, the imperial soldier must pay attention. When an alienated teenager in Columbine picks up a gun, we metropolitans pay attention. We should.

People with guns should be taken seriously. People who have lived with guns should be taken seriously, and they are. Some of us are not going to be bothered with Victoria’s Secret or any of that other bullshit. We are looking right through those mirages, right through to our animal actuality, right through to the horror vacui of a world where people can and do erase other people, and no deity descends to make things right. There are no decrees from on high, and you are still responsible.

Many of my associates in the antiwar movement talk about “reaching out” to the military. They want to convert them. They want to transform them from robotic killing machines into Ghandians. These are the liberals.

Soldiers don’t listen to liberals, and neither do the majority of people. They intuit the detachment of them, their other-worldly abstraction, their desire to have their cake and eat it too. When people are frightened or angry, they may be confused about the source of their fear and anger, but they know they want to be with someone who will fight. Liberals have never learned this.

A young woman I met recently was surprised by her own first encounter with several soldiers. She is not a Nation Magazine “leftist,” but a revolutionary young woman who recognizes that social transformation is neither painless nor bloodless, and she has no illusions about that. What astonished her about these young soldiers was her own recognition that they were, like her, willing to take tremendous risks — up to and including the loss of their own lives — to fight for what they thought was right. It was the very quality that she had been seeking from her own political allies.

She wondered aloud whether it is easier to turn a person with intellectual clarity into a courageous person, or whether it was easier to help a courageous person to achieve greater clarity.

“Should we be trying to make smart people into fighters, or fighters into smart people?”

Damn good question. May have the elements of a false dichotomy, but it’s still a good question. She is a hell of a lot closer to the mark than those who see the military as brainwashed aneroids in need of a religious epiphany. She knows that soldiers are not robots, and she doesn’t want to empty them of their belligerence, which is an appropriate attitude for our Umwelt. She wants to free them from the bonds of their illusions. The cruelty to which these soldiers have been inured has the potential to be turned against hypocrisy, then against the system. Clarity is often cruel; cruelty is often clear.

The imperial soldier is constrained by the superstitions of patriotism, and the soldier becomes a danger to power when he recognizes the speciousness of patriotism. For now, he mimics the confident acceptance of the official narratives, but he experiences the contradiction like a recurrent rash. A friend of mine said that soldiers are political scientists. They are embryonic political scientists at least, waiting for midwives… the right questions, perhaps, or the right nightmares.

I think soldiers need to reach out to the left as well. Maybe we soldiers have a contribution to make to your clarity. Academic leftists can talk to you until they are blue in the face about reification — be it the reification that confuses the transient with the eternal, or that substitutes the abstract for the specific. But every military leader, beginning with a 19-year-old corporal, knows that before every task there must be an assessment of the situation — one that takes account of the mission, the enemy, the population, the terrain and weather, one’s own capacity in technology and personnel… and the time available… as a unified and changing whole. Dialectics, anyone?

While metropolitan leftists will extol the virtues of the Vietnamese NLF — rightly so — some of us saw them dying for their struggle. Their corpses were us. We have seen ourselves as corpses. Politics doesn’t happen in clean, well-lighted places. It happens in the sand and mud. It happens in the rivulets of blood coursing into the edges of an Iraqi hospital floor. It’s happening in the head of some unnamed Marine or Green Beret or tank gunner, who is looking out over the truth of the imperial landscape in Sadr City or Fallujah or Kut and recognizing that he has been thrust into this drama anonymously and that he now shares a more intimate space with his “enemy” than he ever will with the oil companies and military contractors and politicians who sent him here.

Ani DiFranco says, “Those who call the shots are never in the line of fire.”

Non-violence can be an effective tactic, but so can violence. It’s only liberal hypocrisy that denies the latter. For Iraq, it is the only tactic. And the armed resistance in Iraq — regardless of its methods or ideologies — is doing more to halt the runaway train that is global capitalism than anything else in the world right now. (You want white hats and heroes, go by a cinema ticket.)

We cannot imagine the sheer joy of rediscovery being felt throughout the region right now as people see these fighters striking back at the source of their long humiliation — imperialism, and by extension against imperialism’s local attack dog, Zionism.

Ghandi and King were important people, courageous people, people who embraced non-violence as a core principle, yet that non-violence as a tactic is what worked for them. It worked in a specific time and context. The notion that this tactic is a generalized principle, that it can work now, fails to account for that context. Without the Soviet Union, warts and all, there would have been no Ghandi, and there would have been no King. Had the struggle for credibility in the global periphery not been engaged by the US and the USSR, non-violence would have been suicidal. Even that struggle was based — at the contextual end of the road — on the military power of the Soviet Union that stood eye-to-eye with imperialism until it collapsed from the effort.

There is a difference between imperial thuggery and armed resistance to imperialism, and in this era of exterminist imperialism, armed resistance has become for more and more people the synonym of self-defense. The occupying soldier fragments his personality with the gun. The resistance reclaims its humanity with it.

It was Sartre, in his introduction to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, who said, “The native cures himself of colonial neurosis by thrusting out the settler through force of arms. When his rage boils over, he rediscovers his lost innocence and he comes to know himself in that he himself creates his self. Far removed from his war, we [the privileged white metropolitans -SG] consider it as a triumph of barbarism; but of its own volition it achieves, slowly but surely, the emancipation of the rebel, for bit by bit it destroys in him and around him the colonial gloom. Once begun, it is a war that gives no quarter. You may fear or be feared; that is to say, abandon yourself to the disassociations of a sham existence or conquer your birthright of unity. When the peasant takes a gun in his hands, the old myths grow dim and the prohibitions are one by one forgotten. The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity.”

As a solider, I needed this history to understand my own, and to come to terms with my own, and to transform my own into this project. And as a soldier, Sartre’s words, and Fanon’s, have special meaning for me precisely because there is nothing abstract about them. I was part of that history — it doesn’t matter on what side; that was a pure accident.

And so I started helping build this bridge.

Soldier, I am saying, here is the cause, here is the side of history your grandchildren will want to see you were on. Soldier, study this history and this movement, so your courage and your blood aren’t sent into space like those idiotic capsules full of snapshots and mementos for some alien life form to discover.

And to my comrades now, I have grim news from those places where soldiers go.

You will not win with non-profits. You will not win with non-violence. You will not win with non-committal. To win you must become effective, and when you do, you will be attacked. Then you will fight or you will be exterminated. You may even fight and still be exterminated. No guarantees. We are responsible.

You will never make a revolution behind the bourgeoisie’s back, because the bourgeoisie has eyes in the back of its panopticon head. You will never make a revolution while the ruling class sleeps, because it never sleeps. You will not sneak up on necessity, and no one can evade it.

Soldiers have seen it.

That’s why they don’t listen to liberal platitudes about morality in the abstract. They know about the power from the barrel of the gun. It ends debates. It forces people to pay attention.

People listen to me, and I see them peering at me, trying to imagine what I am the way people sometimes try to imagine others having sex. I am arguing against imperialism, and I can talk about commodity fetishism with the best of them — because I applied myself to it with the same rigor and intensity that I did to trauma protocols as a Special Forces medic or marksmanship fundamentals as a sniper. Yet these audiences can hear about imperialism from a host of others.

But there in front of them is someone who has been willing to take life or to give it away. And they are paying attention.

Only it’s not me. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that. I’m just a circumstance. What they are really paying attention to is themselves, to the questions they haven’t confronted, to the doubts that plague them about their politics, to the incessant whisper of mortality.

And I’m paying attention to them. I study Rosa Luxemburg, Alf Hornborg, Robert Connell, Joy James, Robin D. G. Kelley, Mao Zedong… and I study the academic research and the social theory and science and philosophy. Because simply understanding the final argument of the gun is not enough. We soldiers need to understand before and after the gun, and we need to understand — as much as we can — where our personhood is rooted in social constructions and where society is rooted in the biosphere and how there is no clear line of demarcation between biology and symbols. We need the context.

So as a leftist I build this bridge toward my brothers and sisters under arms. I don’t judge… I can’t.

The ultimate liberal hypocrisy is the one that shuns the soldier as if the soldier lives in a parallel system, not recognizing that militarism doesn’t float over history any more than the make and model of your automobile. If you turn on your lights with a wall switch and drink clean water from your tap, if you walk in the park, if you wear a stitch of manufactured clothing, if you’ve shopped on a vacation overseas, if you so much as breathe in the United States of America, you are as much a part of the body of actually-existing imperialism as any nervous, trigger-happy Marine killing a family at a Baghdad roadblock.

Different rooms, same house.

Deforested Haiti cooks on charcoal so you can cook with electricity. A child in Botswana dies of AIDS so I can work on this computer. And personal ethics will not transform this.

It’s a system, an expression of an immensely complex and dynamic web of relationships and realities, and it will default to its basic program — capital accumulation — again and again and again, until it is destroyed.

And it will go down like a raving beast, if the reader will forgive this metaphorical shift.

We need this bridge between the left and the military, because when the time comes, when the hypocrisy fails at last and confronts us with the painful reality of transformation, when the gun is all that is left and the choice is to seize or diminish our humanity, the soldier will need to become a revolutionary, and the revolutionary will have to become a soldier.

The time will come when we are all participants. Most of the world already is.

Soldier, leftist… “abandon yourself to the disassociations of a sham existence or conquer your birthright of unity.”

Fallujah lives!

STAN GOFF is the author of Hideous Dream and Full-Spectrum Disorder. He can be reached at:
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Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. He is a veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, and seven other conflict areas. His books include Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Books), Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books), Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign (Cascade Books), Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men (Cascade Books), and Smitten Gate (a novel about Afghanistan, from Club Orlov Press).