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Interview: Stan Goff with Jennifer Van Bergen

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Tim Murphy

Jul 31, 2003, 9:54:47 AM7/31/03

TO Interview: Stan Goff with Jennifer Van Bergen
t r u t h o u t | Wednesday, 16 July 2003

Editors Note | Stan Goff is a former Sergeant with Special Forces and
military instructor at West Point, among other posts. He is the author of
Hideous Dreams, about his experience in the 1994 American incursion into
Haiti. Goffs upcoming book, "Full Spectrum Disorder," from Soft Skull
Press, will be available in December.

[JVB] Thank you, Stan, for taking the time to do this interview. Your
extensive military background, which we'll get into in a moment, certainly
qualifies you to speak on military matters. I want to remark, though, that
it seems unusual for former military, especially those who were in Special
Forces, to come out as strongly as you have against military measures. From
your book, I sense that you are as much a social commentator and analyst as
you are a former military man. Without going into your background yet, can
you give truthout readers a short reason for this? How did you come to speak
out as you're doing and, briefly, what is your main message?

[SG] I've always been intellectually restless, as I think anyone is who is
truly interested in what is going on around them. Not interested in
appearances, but interested in understanding how things work and damn the
consequences. The military actually exposed me to some of the most
educational experiences around, not the least of which was travel and the
occasional obligation to live among and at the level of poor people in
peripheral countries. Measuring my own experience against a lot of reading
and studying led me to the left in a pretty gradual but inevitable way. I
don't hold my views because of some religious devotion to an idea, but
because leftist analysis conforms most consistently with my own experience.
That doesn't mean it conforms with my comfort level. But when we stay
comfortable, we quit growing. So I try to stay a little uncomfortable
intellectually, an important thing for an auto-didact.

And a friend of mine who died recently said that soldiers are natural
political scientists, because politics can be a matter of life or death to
them. If I have a main message, it's that I'm from inside the military
system, and now I am from inside the political left, and I want to build a
bridge between the left and the military. Not militarism, but the people in
the military.

[JVB] Tell us about your background.

[SG] My parents' families were from Arkansas and Michigan, but I moved a
great deal when I was a kid. My dad followed work. I was actually born in
San Diego. My family lived outside St. Louis when I joined the Army at 18.
Both my parents worked at McDonnell-Douglas as riveters on center fuselage
assembly of the F-4 Phantom close air support aircraft.

[JVB] How did you start out your career in the military?

[SG] I just hung around doing spot work and learning how to get into
trouble right after I graduated high school in 1969. After a few months, I
started to see myself stuck in St. Charles, taking a job on the assembly
line at McDonnell. I believed the whole official narrative about the world
communist conspiracy and in its evil, so I enlisted in the Army in January

[JVB] What conflicts did you fight in?

[SG] My first duty assignment was Vietnam. It was the 80s before I worked
in any more conflict areas. I didn't fight in them all. They included
Guatemala, Grenada, El Salvador, Peru, Colombia, Somalia, and Haiti.

[JVB] I realize youve written about Haiti in your fascinating book,
Hideous Dreams, but could you tell us anything briefly about any of the
other conflicts?

[SG] Well, there was a common denominator that it took me a couple of
decades to figure out. We were engaged in conflicts against poor people. I
didnt realize it at the time Haiti was the watershed actually but this
is the military role in an imperial state. While the national chambers of
commerce in these places, with their eager compradors, assisted US
corporations to drain the value out of these countries, the militarys job,
often through the surrogate militaries of the host nation as we called it,
is to stand guard against all those masses of people in the host nation from
whom the value was being drained in labor and resources. If you steal enough
from people, they hit a point where they become rebellious, and to continue
stealing, you have to use people with guns.

Aside from that sort of macro-analysis, one thing that stands out in my
mind is how badly many of the operations went, and how important it is for
the US military to spend huge sums of money on arms and high technology.
Grenada and Somalia are examples. Real emblems of stupidity in planning and
execution. Thats why I tell people not to buy into the hype about US
military invincibility. Person for person, and dollar for dollar, the US
military is the most inefficient in the world. And the most fragile. They
are fragile because of their overwhelming dependence on high technology, and
fragile because the troops come out of a pampered consumer culture where
real physical hardship is anecdotal. Sustained hardship, as we are seeing in
Iraq now, devastates morale.

[JVB] What kind of a commander were you? What did your colleagues think of

[SG] I was never a commander. That title is reserved for commissioned
officers. I was a non-commissioned officer, a sergeant. I did, however, act
as the senior enlisted member of infantry and special operations units. I
had a very good reputation overall. I had an aptitude for planning and
operations. And while I'm pretty small, I was pretty wiry and I had very
good physical endurance. I was well-respected by my subordinates, my peers,
and by officers.

[JVB] When did you get into the Special Forces?

[SG] Actually, Special Forces was a late interest for me in the military.
I started out an infantryman. I gravitated into the Rangers, which is a
highly disciplined force of specially trained shock infantry that is part of
the Special Operations community. I worked for a year as a tactics
instructor at the Jungle School in Panama, then went to try-outs for Delta
Force. Delta is designated as a "special forces detachment," but it is not
Special Forces, that is not part of the 18 Branch, the Green Berets everyone
hears about. Delta is a very small, very specialized and highly secretive
unit that does almost exclusively direct action missions that are
politically sensitive. It's known as a counter-terrorist unit, a military
SWAT outfit if you will. It's a unit that puts a very high premium on skills
for entering man-made structures like buildings and vehicles, and a very
strong emphasis on precision marksmanship. After Delta, I taught Military
Science for a while at West Point. Then I had a break in service, where I
went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and trained SWAT teams at the Y-12 nuclear
weapons facility.

I re-entered active duty, with a loss of rank, in 1988, working for just
over a year as a platoon sergeant at 1st Ranger Battalion in Savannah. Then,
at the advanced age of 38, I went through Special Forces Assessment and
Selection, another torture try-out. I was the oldest guy to finish with my
group, probably one of the oldest guys to ever go all the way through it.
Like I said, I had a high threshold for pain. Then I went through the
Special Forces Qualification Course as a Special Operations Medic. I spoke
Spanish, so I was assigned to 7th Special Forces Group, who are responsible
for Latin American work. I left 7th Group to be attached to 75th Ranger
Regiment in 1993, and accompanied them to Somalia that year. Then I was
promoted to Master Sergeant, and you can't be a medic in SF as a Master
Sergeant. Your job then is to be a team sergeant in charge of an A
Detachment. So I went to 3rd Special Forces, a Sub-Saharan Africa and
Caribbean Group, and went with them to Haiti in 1994. In December, 1995, I
went on terminal leave, and was officially retired February 1, 1996.

There, now you have my whole career before you.

I should say that I retired under a cloud, and that whole tedious story is
in my first book, "Hideous Dream."

[JVB] What do you do now?

[SG] I have been working in the non-profit sector, mostly on liberal
political and social justice issues. Right now, I am the field organizer for
an environmental group concerned about nuclear energy risks. I should say
that I am not a liberal. I find most liberals to be conservatives who want
to be forgiven.

[JVB] How do you feel about those years in the military? How do you feel
about the military now?

[SG] I've written quite a bit about how I felt about various aspects of my
military life. There's no one monolithic impression. Parts of it I liked
very much. The travel. The economic security. The exposure to other
cultures. The highly physical nature of the life. Other aspects of it I
hated. Bureaucratism. Institutionalized stupidity. The hegemonic sexism and
homophobia. I don't regard military people as any more or less culpable for
what they are sent to do, however, than anyone else. Lots of people like to
stereotype the military, like to sit up on whatever privileged hilltop they
can perch on and cast little stones of sanctimony at the military. These are
people who say we live in a system, but they don't really believe it. In
their most secret hearts, they've bought the whole bourgeois narrative about
personal responsibility, individualism, the history of kings and generals,
all of it. Now once someone understands the nature of that system, and they
are in the military, well, then you've got a genuine role conflict. And
that's my issue with the U.S. military. It is an instrument not of defense,
but of control and plunder of peripheral peoples.

[JVB] What do you think about Bush's build-up of the military?

[SG] Bush is making more politically fatal mistakes than I can count these
days. His so-called build-up of the military is one of them. He is not in
fact building up the military, depending on how you define that. He is
building up the weapons industry, at the behest of his mad military advisor,
Donald Rumsfeld - a weird man who has convinced himself without a shred of
evidence to support it, that he is a military genius.

Rumsfeld has convinced himself that technology can replace human
leadership and ingenuity on the battlefield, so he is prevailing on his
intellectually challenged boss to buy lots of expensive toys. I write at
length about this Rumsfeld Doctrine in "Full Spectrum Disorder," the book
that's coming out in December from Soft Skull Press. This whole trend is
being reinforced within the administration by his coterie of neo-con
economists who think they can replicate the Reagan era recovery through
military Keynesianism. Like I said, the sum of these errors will be far
greater than their parts. Unfortunately, other people will pay with treasure
and blood, and the whole clique will retire in comfort to write their
bullshit memoirs and give lectures. The military itself, if you look at the
humans who populate it, is undergoing the same kind of attacks on its living
standards as the whole rest of the American working class, in order to pay
for Rumsfelds killer drones and super-subs.

[JVB] What do you think about him reducing veteran benefits? What do you
think about his giving tax cuts to the rich while reducing vet benefits?

[SG] I think it will bite him in the ass at the end of the day. The
problem is, they have to cut. They are trapped on the runaway train of their
own economic nostrums, their own overwhelming rich-white-boy hubris, and a
very real, very deep crisis of capitalism itself. In response to a column I
wrote recently taking Dubya to task for his inane 'bring 'em on' comment, I
was flooded with supportive emails from pissed off vets and military
families. They were all talking not only about the hypocrisy of this
faux-cowboy preppy daring people to attack soldiers while he sat in the air
conditioned White House, they expressed a profound sense of betrayal at
benefits cuts, for active duty people and veterans. Bush's entire neo-con
hallucination about world domination is based on the projection of military
power, yet he manages to alienate the very people who will lay it all on the

[JVB] What did you think about the invasion of Iraq?

[SG] I think it has turned into a tremendous tar baby. And the more he
fights this tar baby, the deeper he will become stuck in it prior to 2004.
People know it had something to do with oil, but they don't understand the
complexities of oil.

Americans are not critical thinkers by and large. We suffer from a
collective sociogenic learning disability based on the complete
commodification of our consciousness by consumerism and electronic media. So
we are not only bitterly unhappy and alienated, we are intensely stupid and
attached to denial.

So understanding what invading Iraq had to do with oil takes a little
study. They didn't just go there to steal. There was a confluence of factors
that were economic, strategic, and political. People like Andrew McKillop
and Michael Hudson have written at length on these points. The main point is
that the US economy has been converted into a credit and debt scam aimed
against the rest of the world, and backed up by military force. But the
scheme is falling apart as the rest of the world is losing the ability and
willingness to pay. The US economy is dreadfully weak, with the real
material economy now gutted by parasitic speculation, and the only source of
strength left is the military, which they are now trying to use to gain
control over the world's energy supply.

[JVB] About the fact that we now know that Bush lied about WMD's?

[SG] Every thing this administration has told the public has been a lie
from the very beginning. The way you determine whether on not the Bush
cabinet is lying is by whether or not their lips are moving. They started
with a fraudulent election, consolidated by a right-wing judicial fiat. They
had planned the invasion of Afghanistan as a first step for developing a
standing military presence in the region the summer prior to 9/11. They'd
even informed the Pakistanis of their intention to invade in October. Then
the 9/11 hijackers fly in like a scourge against the nation, but like Santa
Claus for the Bush's neo-con clique. All the plans were put on fast forward,
and the pretext was now available for advancing a very aggressive domestic
agenda for the development of a police state infrastructure. September 11th
was a neo-con wet dream.

[JVB] What about Afghanistan?

[SG] Afghanistan and now Iraq have fore-grounded the just deserts of
overweening pride and plain imperial racism. They underestimated their
putative enemies, failed utterly to understand the cultures they were
invading, and maintained an unshakable faith in the ability of high
technology to deliver stable apolitical military victories. Now they have a
dual quagmire.

[JVB] Bin Laden? About the fact that we didn't find him and now no one is
even focused on him at all?

[SG] That's because he was never the issue. Controlling the region as a
way to position for economic war against Europe and China was... and is.

[JVB] What about the Patriot Act? What about the Military Tribunals? The
Guantanamo detainees? The "unlawful enemy combatants"? Do you think the Bush
Administration is violating the Constitution? The Geneva Conventions? (Other
international laws?)

[SG] This is the most lawless administration in living memory, and that's
a real accomplishment given the parade of arch criminals who have occupied
the Executive Branch for the last 100 years. There is a wealth of material
available on the net and elsewhere warning us about the Patriot Act. The
Patriot Act has one major flaw. Once the decision is made to apply it
generally, instead of against scapegoat populations, the U.S. government
will be faced with the most heavily armed population in the world. There's a

certain grim poetic justice there. The tribunals and detentions are just
plain exercises of impunity against every internationally recognized
standard of legal practice in the world. This is also well known. The Geneva
Conventions forbid unilateral invasions in the absence of a real and
immediate threat. Period. It's unequivocal. People say we should be cautious
with the term fascism. I agree. We are now faced with a wannabe fascist
administration. They would do well to recount how Mussolini ended up.

[JVB] How do you feel about Bush's war on terror?

[SG] Bill Blum once said that the difference between a terrorist and a
superpower is that the latter has an Air Force. This whole slogan, 'war on
terror', is used to tar any government that fails to comply with the U.S.
diktat. They actually allege that Cuba sponsors terrorism. That's
preposterous, and everyone damn well knows it.

[JVB] You're aware of the allegations that Bush went AWOL while he was

[SG] I've read them.

[JVB] What do you think of that?

[SG] I don't really care. I sort of avoid that whole chicken-hawk thing,
even though it has wide appeal. It's pretty gendered, for one, and it
tacitly endorses an ideology of militarism. What Bush is doing would be
wrong and stupid even if he had a chest full of combat ribbons to rival
Smedley Butler. That doesn't mean I won't out him when he sits in D.C. and
says shit like "Bring 'em on."

[JVB] Do you think this war is race-based?

[SG] Politics is economics by other means, and war is politics by other
means. Let's get this straight right now. Our entire system was constructed
from day one on the subjugation, exploitation, or extermination of whole
peoples. There has to be a cover story about that kind of practice, a
justification. Racism provides that justification. Frontal racism, like
slavery and Jim Crow, and implicit racism like 'white man's burden' and
'exporting democracy.' In that sense, not only this war, but this entire
society is race-based.

[JVB] Is there is anything you would like to add?

[SG] Just that we need to bring all the US troops home immediately, and
allow the Afghans and Iraqis to determine their own futures. And that we
need to try in every way possible to politically destroy the Bush
government. They are both stupid and reckless, and that is a dangerous


Jennifer Van Bergen is a frequent contributor to Truthout. She holds a J.D.
from Cardozo School of Law and will be teaching a course on The
Anti-Terrorism Laws, the Constitution and Civil Rights at the New School
Online University, NY, this Fall.

) : t r u t h o u t 2000


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