By Stan Goff
Soft Skull Press, 499 pages, $18.50 paper

Review by Madison Smartt Bell. Madison
Smartt Bell is the author of "All Souls'Rising" and, most recently, "Master of the Crossroads."
April 8, 2001
From the Chicago Tribune.

"Hideous Dream" is the story of the last campaign in the military career of Stan Goff: the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994. Goff went to Vietnam at age 18 and participated in subsequent U.S. military actions with various elite corps, including the Rangers and Delta Force, and in Haiti was master sergeant of a Special Forces A-team -- a group of eight men in charge of keeping order among many thousands of Haitians in the area around the town of Ft. Liberte.

For its account of the recent U.S. occupation of Haiti, Goff's book merits comparison with Bob Shacochis' "Immaculate Invasion," and it provides as privileged an insight into the world of the U.S. military elite as Mark Bowden's "Black Hawk Down," about the 1993 U.S. raid in Somalia. Goff also takes a hard look at the practice that George Bush, during his recent presidential campaign, renounced as "nation-building."

At the start Goff declares loudly that he is not a writer, and the book does have some organizational flaws that betray him as a novice. But his best passages are better than most pros could offer. "Above the combat patch was a blue and white airborne tab," Goff writes about insignia worn by a black drill sergeant during his basic training. "The color pierced the predawn halftones ahead of anything else, a bit of brilliance, as Smith's silhouette strode before the morning formation. The patch defeated darkness."

Goff went to Vietnam to get a patch like that, and here's what happened to him there:

"The first time I tossed a burning heat tab onto the thatched roof of a barn, it was like pledging a fraternity. . . .

"You don't just set the building on fire. You giggle when the weeping, wailing family tries to put it out. Then you are crazy enough to be safe."

Vietnam was "nation-building," too, or at least at one point was supposed to be. Twenty years later, Goff saw the Haiti mission as a shot at redemption:

"One decent thing to salvage me and my country. One decent thing to make amends for remaining silent about the old woman in the potato patch, for rationalizing the Indians scavenging in the hopeless trash dumps of Guatemala, for ignoring the torture victims in El Salvador, for my ignorance of the Third World that existed 30 miles from Ft. Bragg in the poverty-racked Black communities of Eastern North Carolina." It may be that President Bill Clinton saw it that way too.

What actually happened has been reported in the U.S. media with a certain lack of clarity. The nature of the mission changed in mid-air. When the planes took off, the soldiers had been told that the Haitian army and its associated paramilitary death squad were enemies to be neutralized as efficiently as possible, on the road to the restoration of the legally elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his party, Lavalas. By the time the planes landed, the army and the death squad had morphed into quasi-allies with which the U.S. military was expected to cooperate. Shacochis and others have reported the state of cognitive dissonance this switch induced in the troops. Goff's own reaction was frustration and rage.

His strongly sympathetic identification with the masses of the Haitian people at the heart of Lavalas and Aristide's popularity is based in part on his own attitude toward race. Goff, who is white, denounces the U.S. military in general and Special Forces in particular as racist. "When you raise Black children," he writes of his own domestic situation, "you can't be white any more." At the end of his tour, Goff is asked if he had "become a Haitian." His retort: "I was really being asked if I had turned Black."

Like a great many visitors, Goff falls deeply in love with Haiti and Haitians. He succinctly expresses his understanding of the cultural differences he encounters: "What people tell you in Haiti means something different to them than it does to you." On the same basis, a good number of Goff's colleagues regarded the Haitians as a gang of liars. In Ft. Liberte, where the supervision of a sympathetic captain gave him a lot of latitude, Goff took his team to arrest various death-squad members and other allies of the deposed military regime on the say-so of local Lavalas figures. It is possible he was more caught up in factional vagaries than he realizes, but it's hard to quarrel with his motives: In his view, the U.S. force had come to liberate a people, and in 1995 the overwhelming majority of the Haitian people were all for Aristide and Lavalas.

Left to his own devices, Goff would have gone about "nation-building" much differently than did the U.S. military, whose ever-shifting policies were founded on bewilderment, appallingly bad information and all the self-contradictions emanating from the politicians back home. (Goff is not the first to document the mission's deep confusion about its own objectives, but he shows the effects at ground level more vividly than most.) At Ft. Liberte, he had a rather astonishing freedom to set his own policy -- sometimes through gesture: Forbidden to disarm the men of the Haitian army, he symbolically disempowers them by breaking one of their batons before an enthusiastic crowd. In the end, though, he and his cooperative captain are relieved from their post and brought up on charges founded on accusations from the other members of the team, whom Goff's extreme pro-Lavalas posture had alienated.

Certainly Goff is an extreme personality, and a bit of a loose cannon, even by his own account. He notes that he was once guilty of insubordination about 20 times in the course of a single heated conversation. One can understand how the men on his team could have come to resent the rigidity of his radical populism, when all they wanted was to occupy a comfy beach hotel (rather than the cement block Haitian house where Goff quartered them) and forget about politics altogether. He comes out far to the left of the average American citizen, never mind the average soldier. Goff went to Vietnam with his head stuffed full of Ayn Rand, but this book ends with an essay in the style of the late African revolutionary Franz Fanon.

Goff is intellectually honest, ready to examine and criticize himself quite ruthlessly; nevertheless, the reader looking over his shoulder may spot a thing or two he missed. His reservations about the U.S. military are well-supported, and yet you have to admire an institution that could educate a man like him -- not just a radical, but an artist: Haiti, he says, "grinds abstractions down, one bare foot at a time, not with a killing twist, but with a light and passing tread, the way rocks are smoothed by the sea."

With lines like that, Goff shows a real writer's ability to connect with the irreducibility of experience. Beyond the analysis of the military and the political case, the pure rendering of the experience is where the value of this book resides.

For its account of the recent U.S. occupation of Haiti, author Stan Goff's book merits comparison with Bob Shacochis' 'Immaculate Invasion.' At the start Goff declares loudly that he is not a writer, and the book does have some organizational flaws that betray him as a novice. But his best passages are better than most pros could offer.


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