On Revolutionary Optimism

I saw an old reel of a speech by Fidel Castro not long ago, where he said that “a revolutionary is never a pessimist; a revolutionary is always an optimist.” This from a person whose political demise has been predicted by an enraged US lumpen-bourgeoisie and their gusano pals through ten US presidents, and who in the face of a malicious embargo has still managed the elimination of homelessness and illiteracy, reduction of infant mortality below that of the US, and provision of one physician for every 200 citizens of Cuba. This only scratches the surface of the accomplishments of our neighbors off the coast of Florida. I just came back from Haiti, where the only place anyone but the rich can find medical help at all is at the hundreds of Cuban clinics across the country, which Cuba has provided to Haiti at no cost.

It is hard to be an optimist these days, especially when we have access to the internet, where we can quickly familiarize ourselves with a seemingly infinite list of particular and terrible manifestations of this system in its current US imperial form. It is overwhelming, and people who are overwhelmed begin seek higher levels of personal serenity through acceptance. This tumble into despair is based on a mistake, I think, and so as we approach the second anniversary of the US ground offensive into Iraq, I want to explain why I think that is a mistake, and why I think old Fidel is exactly right.

The depredations of this system are no longer symptomatic of a class that is aggrandizing their power, but of a class astride a system that — almost like like the yeast used to make a bottle of wine, that expands madly toward its own point of no return to extinction — is in an inevitable decline. That’s hard to see sometimes, because they have accumulated so much power, and because that system has so penetrated every dimension of our lives all over the world. And the chieftains of communications have so monopolized the images we see of the world and the interpretations of that world to which we are exposed that this power is magnified, while this decline is denied and minimized. But recognizing the accumulation of insults to humanity in this system’s billions of daily doses of misery and defeat does not imply that we have failed by failing to defeat the system in each and all of its symptomatic forms.

That’s the mistake. That’s the first step down the path of despair.

Revolutionary optimism is not pollyanna optimism that leaves everything to God, or fate, or whatever. A correspondent on an old list I was on said, “Praying for peace is like praying for a weedless garden.” Revolutionary optimism contains an element of faith, too, but not faith in some intangible realm that envelops our own, and not faith that the world is permeable to our incantations.

Revolutionary optimism and faith is the optimism of an activist and a movement that makes up its mind not to quit until it prevails, and faith in ourselves and the efficacy of collective action. Faith is starting the journey without knowing exactly how we will get where we are going, but with the belief that through organization and perseverance and the development of strong revolutionary cultures and communities, we can get there. We have no idea what the last battle will look like, or what the battles of others might look like in other places. We make the fight that is in front of us, here and now. When that one is done, we can step back and see how our interventions have changed things, and prepare for the next.

Despair is individual. It dies with each of us. The revolution is for our grandchildren, for future generations. Think about it. And the best way to fight despair is to connect with a community and do something.

I am an activist in the movement against the United States’ attempt to consolidate a permanent and vastly expanded military presence in strategic Southwest Asia. The mass movement in the US and abroad is now making the demand that the US end its occupation of Iraq. The political rulers of the US have taken grave risks and fought off one challenge after another, even from factions of their own class at times, to achieve this goal of a permanent and expanded military presence in this region, because they think it is vitally important to maintain the US position as an imperial hyper-power. They may be right.

If they think achieving this objective is essential to the maintenance of that malignant power, then I tend to think that resisting that agenda has some special strategic value for us… something that goes well beyond the day-to-day struggles against the particular and symptomatic outcomes of the system. Defeating them on this agenda, I believe, will help weaken them and accelerate the end of that imperial power, and the organization we achieve as a movement in the process will strengthen us and give us new wisdom for the next stage, which we can not see clearly until we have resolved this phase.

I just believe we can defeat them on this one, and a lot of us have made up our minds not to quit until we do.

One of the key vulnerabilities of the administration strategy is its over-reliance on the military. The military is not composed mostly of bureaucrats who are protecting their careers. It is composed mostly of enlisted people, who are often only a short step out of high school. They are often ignorant and confused, but then so are most of us. Many of them are also idealistic, and they believe the horse manure that has been shoveled at them, from ‘Army of One’ Madison Avenue recruiting pitches to the US military as protector of the weak in a caricatured world.

The reality of Iraq has been particularly hard on the most idealistic of these youngsters, and on some older troops as well.

One of the interesting things about this struggle against the occupation of Iraq are all the comparisons being made to Vietnam, especially comparisons to the resistance that developed against the invasion and occupation of Vietnam from inside the military. There is resistance within the military against this war, too. But it is different in several ways.

First of all, during Vietnam, the US public and the world did not get into motion against the war for several years. In fact, there was more public support for the Vietnam war when Nixon began the process of getting out than there is for the Iraq occupation now. Now half the US opposes the war, and there was an internationally networked and highly militant opposition to the war even before the occupation began in March 2003. So there is a general situation that lends itself more to doubt about the official excuses for the war. That public doubt affects the people who are in the US military.

There is also the internet, where more dissident voices are available, including many well-crafted analyses that give the lie to administration bullshit. Soldiers are on the net.

During Vietnam, much of the antiwar effort was concentrated in universities, and many of the activists who tried to connect with dissident GI’s and to carry the message against the war to military service members were college students… which was difficult, because there was a good deal of social distance between working class military people and the often class-privileged college students. This time around, resistance developed early… inside military families.

A soldier does not feel suspicious and stand-offish with his mom or his spouse or his sister like he might with some unknown college student. I mention women, because the core of the military families antiwar work — while it certainly includes dads and brothers and such — has been women. This is another departure from the experience of Vietnam.

Finally, there was no Veterans for Peace or Korean Veterans Against the War already on the ground and organized when the aggression against Vietnam took off. But there is a very vital Vietnam Veterans network and a Veterans for Peace now, which constitute a set of voices that have special access to soldiers, and who have created communities prepared to support dissident soldiers in a variety of ways.

So the Bush strategy is vulnerable, and the institution upon which he has placed the burden of this strategy — the military — is vulnerable to our interventions.

I am optimistic.

There’s plenty to be optimistic about. Since the resistance from within military communities started, military families groups and veterans groups have combined their efforts. Military Families Speak Out spawned Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of families whose loved ones have been killed in the war. Veterans for Peace has midwifed Iraq Veterans Against the War. GI counsellors from legal and faith communities, including the GI Rights Hotline, the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force, Quaker House, and Catholic Worker have developed personal and working relationships with each other, and have begun to network their efforts with antiwar military families in UK. We have linked up with September 11 victims’ families in September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. We have also integrated our work and collaborated with national organizations like United for Peace and Justice and International ANSWER. Press and activist organizations from all over the world seek out spokespersons from this network.

In Iraq, there is a powerful and multiform resistance to the occupation that is proving to be very resilient. But that is only half the battle to stop the occupation and derail the imperial goal of an expanded and permanent US military presence in the region. In the United States and UK, we have a special responsibility, and that is to attack and destroy the credibility of the Bush-Blair enterprise and to mount an increasingly militant resistance at home until the political cost is so high, they must leave.

I am optimistic. This is inevitable, because certain people have simply made up their minds not to stop until we win. But we have to continue to pull the weeds in the garden.

We have a big weed to pull on March 19, the second anniversary of the invasion. I want to invite anyone and everyone to come help yank on it. It’s in Fayetteville, North Carolina, home of Fort Bragg, the 82nd Airborne Division, the United States Army Special Operations Command, and Special Forces Command.

We need numbers. We need big numbers, because when they are big enough, especially at Fort Bragg, even the capitalist press has a hard time ignoring it. We need numbers, because then the press that is drawn by their own competition to the site will have to see and hear the voices of opposition coming from soldiers, from veterans, from soldier’s families, and from those who have had their loved ones sacrificed on the alter of Empire. We need numbers to further polarize our society, to deepen that polarization until it becomes a crisis for the rulers. Big numbers are optimism in action, and our optimism right now is our most potent weapon.

If you can, come to Fayetteville. Google search “fayetteville march 19” to find bus schedules and details. Buses are coming from Georgia to Maine. Plan a road trip. Catch a plane.

There will also be events bracketing the demonstration in Fayetteville, including the Hip Hop Against Racist War concert on March 18 and the first annual national convention of Iraq Veterans Against the War on the 20th. There will also be a Southern Organizers Conference on the 20th. A list of presenters for March 19 is available at http://www.ncpeacejustice.org/article.php?id=91.

Don’t despair, and we’ll see you there.

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee. His periodic essays on the military can be found at http://www.freedomroad.org/home.html. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is bthn@mfso.org.

Goff can be reached at: sherrynstan@igc.org

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).