Stan Goff's Full Spectrum Disorder

by John Steppling

Book Review

September 6, 2004   

Cover photo of 'Full Spectrum Disorder'

Stan Goff, Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century, Soft Skull Press, March 2004; ISBN: 1-93236-012-3 - ppb: 192 pages, $13.95.

(Swans - September 6, 2004)  In an era when far too many of the voices on the left sound domesticated, overly cautious, and academically neutered (which means fearful of losing employment), or engaging in a style so obtuse, and intoxicated with a post structuralist jargon (targeted only to those battling for tenure) that they are all but unreadable, it is rather startling to come across a writer so direct and a voice so singular, authentic, as Stan Goff.

Goff is a retired veteran of Army Special Forces, Delta Force, and Rangers. His prose is awash in that distinct aura that comes from those who have been there, and managed to return. What is special about Goff, however, is that he refuses to simply bear witness....he does that as well....but he undertakes a rather exhaustive investigation of the theoretical foundations of what he has spent a good portion of his adult life experiencing first hand: the Imperial crusades (and burlesques) of the last thirty years. Walter Benjamin said, someplace, that we have no real experiences anymore. In an age of cyber reality that seems, in retrospect, a spectacularly prescient comment. Goff has clearly had real experiences. He writes a near radioactive prose infused with anger and a deep desire to see real change in a society and a planet on the verge of collapse. One might expect a book written by a man with Goff's background to sound a bit like James Jones meets Tom Clancy, but instead one finds something closer to Blaise Pascal or Rosa Luxemburg. Perhaps it's better to compare him to a tough white boy version of James Carr or Huey Newton.

Goff was in Somalia, in Haiti, in Colombia, in Grenada, and in El Salvador. In a sense, this book tracks the radicalization of Goff (the chapter on Colombia seems pivotal in this regard) via his military assignments. There are actually two tracks on which this book runs. The first is this autobiographical scan of life in the military, a deconstruction of the psychology of those drawn to the authority and violent compensations of war, and the second is an analysis of the waste economy of US Imperialism and how it ravages the mostly poor regions of the planet. Goff is perhaps at his most insightful when examining the illusions and terrors of the elite realm of masculinity that is Special Forces. The effects of a mediated and fully marketed reality have come to take a psychic toll on our populace, and in the form of the working class soldier one finds a perfect model for this analysis. In the form of the Special Operations soldier one finds an even more profound study for the cruel repercussions of those inoculated with the jingoistic advertisements of the war machine. It is evidence of Goff's fine writing that the specific studies and stories he tells are always revealing of the general and wider geopolitical picture. I should add that Goff is also the most compassionate of writers and observers. The judgments he makes, and he makes many, are never mean spirited or venal, they are born of a passion for deep systemic change and revolution. Goff understands and respects soldiers; he only decries the purposelessness of dying for corporate greed. He reserves his contempt for the criminally insane like Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
"The US military has become a high tech weapon of mass destruction, following a trajectory of development that began before the end of the cold war and leading into an era that is nothing like the cold war. It is eroding its own ability to engage in military occupation except at phenomenal international cost, and undermining its own ability to maintain a coherent doctrine by destroying states and assuring the global expansion of Mogadishu. And occupy it must, or it will fail... If the Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans who are being bled gray by external debt ever get together and say they will default, US power will drop like it's been shot through the brain stem." (p. 157-158)
Goff sees rather clearly the implications of our militarized economy and both the hegemony and fragility of US financial clout. The desperate death throes of the US Imperial leviathan have rarely been revealed so clearly and cogently.

Many will be surprised at some of Goff's conclusions, but none can question the moral authority of a man who has spent so much time in intimate contact with the ugly machinery of death. There are things I question about Goff's analysis, details of his arguments about gender and class, and aspects of his feminist critique -- but details are all they are. I want Goff on my side in whatever comes next. I would imagine it hard for anyone not to trust a voice like Goff's. An autodidact (he has an important paragraph or two on "credentials" and the need for more working class intellectuals) and a committed radical, Goff speaks to issues without apology, and without insecurity. I trust I am making clear that this is nothing like arrogance, for Goff is never arrogant -- quite the opposite. It is his humility in the end that sets him apart. Goff is acutely aware of the delusions of his youth, of his compulsions and terrors, the things that drive some of us to prison, addiction, the army, or pure madness. This sober self-observation lends his critique an additional layer of poignancy and gives the book something close to a feeling of the spiritual -- a word I usually am loathe to use. This is a writer who refuses anything he finds suspect, and in this regard he reminds me a bit of Jean Genet. There is no polite equivocating, no posturing for fairness. Goff knows the enemy would like nothing better than a polite opponent, one who doesn't want to appear unseemly or rude. This isn't the sound of the crunchy granola free-trade latte-sipping designer liberal left. Goff began life in the working class, and that means on the outside...and the outside is where he has chosen to stay. Perhaps our common backgrounds account for some of the response I had reading this book; the toughness and lack of bullshit aren't qualities usually associated with academic debate, but certainly beyond that lies the obvious shining intelligence that comes through on each issue and on every page and which will, I believe, find responses in anyone seriously searching for the truth.

I leave you with this quote:
"The old official masculinity, enduring, quiet, emotionally distant, and unconcerned with its coiffure -- illusory and oppressive as it was -- now looks almost attractive in the face of the new one -- immodest, loud, and fascistic -- vicariously played out on stages and in studios by a lumpen-bourgeoisie with its own gangster aesthetic. Found attractive by the nazi-fying anti-intellectual sector of the American white "middle" class as its standard of living comes under attack from some mystifying force and is itself blinded to the origins of its fatal malady by a culture of huckster anticommunism and commodified resistance, the new machismo of George W. Bush is politics as low performance art by those who have the freedom to indulge l'imaginaire, that habit of consciousness that Sartre characterized as an escape from social reality.

There is certainly plenty from which to escape for our intrepid neo-con adventurers, and the pitiful cowering Democrats (who will almost certainly replace them), as the private school thugs atop the world's hierarchy thrash this way, then that, seeking a way out. But they cannot escape from value, only make it ever more top heavy, and they cannot leap over the Grand Canyon of ecological collapse that lies ahead." (p. 227)

Stan Goff, Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century, Soft Skull Press, March 2004; ISBN: 1-93236-012-3 - ppb: 192 pages, $13.95.

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Book Reviews on Swans


John Steppling is a LA playwright (Rockefeller fellow, NEA recipient, and PEN-West winner) and screenwriter (most recent was Animal Factory directed by Steve Buscemi). He is currently living in Poland where he teaches at the National Film School in Lodz.

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Published September 6, 2004
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