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#1534: This Week in Haiti 17:39 12/15/99 (fwd)
"This Week in Haiti" is the English section of HAITI PROGRES
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"Le journal qui offre une alternative"
* THIS WEEK IN HAITI *
December 15 - 21, 1999
Vol. 17, No. 39
A REVIEW OF "THE IMMACULATE INVASION":
MESMERIZED BY HAITI... AND THE U.S. SPECIAL FORCES
by Stan Goff
I put off reading The Immaculate Invasion, Bob Shacochis's
account of the 1994 U.S. military intervention in Haiti, for
the same reasons I avoid reading books about Vietnam. I
don't like stirring up past and painful emotions.
The book jacket synopsis reads: "Based on eighteen months in
the field in Haiti - where he bunked, ate, and dodged
bullets as a non-combatant with a team of Special Forces
commandos - Shacochis's book brings us the stories of the
'new military.' Here are the most highly trained and
sophisticated warriors in history, deployed in a surreal war
zone 'where there are no friends and no enemies, no front or
rear, non victories and, likewise, no defeats, and no true
endings.' With the eye of a novelist, Shacochis captures the
exploits and frustrations, the inner lives, and the heroic
deeds of young Americans as they struggle to bring democracy
to a country ravaged by tyranny. This is what it is like to
be a soldier in a military environment in which 'acceptable
losses' has evolved to mean 'no losses whatsoever.'"
I was one of those soldiers, the operations chief for a
Special Forces (SF) team. I had an "on the ground" view of
the "immaculate" invasion, but my movements were limited.
Shacochis, however, was able to move around freely, in and
between the moving parts of the operations. Thus, his
narrative and anecdotes felt like a complement to and
expansion of my own experience, and it resolved several
mysteries for me about just what in the hell was going on at
headquarters. I appreciated that aspect of the book.
But in other areas I was disappointed. Shacochis almost gets
Haiti right. He almost gets U.S. foreign policy. And he
almost gets the military. The problem - as we used to say in
the Army - is that "close" only counts in horseshoes and
hand grenades. It's what he misses or avoids, or denies,
that most needs to be said. And in not saying it, he
collaborates in Haiti's isolation and oppression. He
collaborates in the deeply racist characterization of Haiti
as deviant and incapable of self-governance. And finally he
collaborates in justifying U.S. foreign policy and in
perpetuating the pathological U.S. ideology of militarism.
"In a country as fucked up as Haiti," he begins on the first
page, "you had to wrap your hands around the throat of
everything - the language, the music, especially the songs
and potent rhythms of the songs, because in the people's
centuries-old war against the tyrants, drums were weapons,
words were deadly ammunition."
At other points in the book, the reader feels that the
heavies are not just Haitian tyrants, but the Haitian people
themselves. The masses of Haitian townspeople and peasants
become the exotic backdrop for Shacochis's adventure.
What's on display is the intrepid journalist and his
facility with the English language. What's not on display is
the dominant U.S. role in Haitian economic, political, and
social life since the turn of the century. The U.S. is
I will grant that Shacochis catches the cadence and the
idiom of Creole and culture. He also took the trouble to
learn something about military organization, protocol,
procedure, and policy - something I have noted over the
years that the vast majority of journalists get way wrong.
He gives wonderful descriptions of the markets, the slums,
the countryside, the roads, the music, the bourgeois bars.
His scenes are detailed and amplified by his poetry to the
point of being almost rococo. But in all his devoted
attention to the trees, he fails to see the forest.
Furthermore, by emphasizing all that is dramatic in Haiti,
he obscures the more pedestrian evidence - economic and
historical evidence - that renders Haiti and its people more
like us, his North American readers, more comprehensible,
less exotic, less "the other."
"In a country as fucked up as Haiti...", "How the Haitians
seemed to accept fucked-upness as an essential condition."
The theme is repeated again and again. Haitians as exotic.
Haitians as perverse. Haitians as incompetent. Let's dissect
just one passage. On leaving Haiti, Shacochis writes that
"the nation was in a shambles, and what was there to hope
for now? People were beginning to say, Maybe the price of
democracy is too high. Haiti had no jobs to give its sons
and daughters." In other words, Haitians don't seem ready
for "democracy" or to feed themselves. The reality, which
Shacochis misses, is that the U.S. mission was never to
"Restore Democracy" nor bring economic development but only
to stabilize existing class relations, with a co-opted
Aristide to provide a nationalist-democratic facade. He
never understood that the US was calling the shots before,
during, and after the invasion.
"The government had proved incapable of either reforming or
privatizing its corrupt monopolies." First, the state
"monopolies" are not inherently corrupt, as the first 7
months of Lavalas administration demonstrated. Secondly, it
wasn't that the government was "incapable" of "reforming or
privatizing" them. It was that the Haitian people have
fought tooth and nail against the "improvements" Shacochis
"Lavalas has divided like an amoeba, each cell at the
other's throat." A colorful metaphor, but hardly
enlightening about a complex political struggle. It equates
the antagonists and suggests Haitians are innately divisive.
And then there is Shacochis, the agnostic. "[A]n epidemic of
assassinations had been orchestrated by - depending on who
was raking through the evidence - Aristide, the oligarchic
families on the mountaintop, or the CIA." You see, Shacochis
is really not sure who is the aggressor and who is the
victim. He shrugs when asked to decide who is behind Haiti's
current "insecurity": Aristide or the CIA. This is how he
cleverly defends the U.S. low intensity war against Haiti.
While posturing as a critic, in reality he defends the
Shacochis was taken in by a Special Forces (SF) detachment,
literally and figuratively. He was "saved" from the angry
masses (when he was unwisely hanging out inside a hated FAdH
caserne with de facto criminals) by ODA 311 (the SF team),
so he repaid them-and all of SF-by papering over their ugly
side and accentuating their perceived "professionalism and
ODA 311 allowed him to encamp with them at the Limbé
caserne. They obviously sensed his profound paranoia about
Haitian crowds and his inexperience with combat. They fed
his paranoia with dramatics I could spot even in a second-
hand account. They were both playing with him and doing the
Special Forces macho-narcissistic strut. He bought it, and
the book became an apology for SF. This latent Tom Clancy
tendency contaminates the entire read. It becomes an awful
nod to militarism and chauvinism, the flip side of his
irrational fear of and contempt for the Haitians, for whom
he simultaneously declares his compassion.
His portrait of ODA 311 is not without value. His
humanization of the team members is important. People who
oppose the military, for whatever reason, tend to stereotype
military life and service members, and this polemical bent
hurts their credibility and their ability to understand how
things actually work.
Shacochis also gives a true picture of the fundamental
incompetence of General David Meade, the conventional
commander who was placed at our head to torment us during
Operation Uphold Democracy; of the ersatz brilliance and
idiosyncratic millenarianism of Colonel Mark Boyatt, the
Special Forces commander; and of the collective personality
of an A-Detachment. But he never asks the question, why SF?
Special Forces are designed for deployment into "politically
sensitive" environments. They are older than regular troops.
They hold higher security clearances. They are accustomed
to working in concert with agencies like the State
Department and their CIA-controlled political sections. You
can put them at the end of a rope, then jerk the rope
around, and they keep to themselves. They don't freak out
and shoot people as readily as young soldiers, so they are
less apt to create "incidents."
His love for the men of Special Forces and his apologetic
tendency on their behalf lead Shacochis to conclusions that
are spookily reminiscent of right-wing critiques of the
Vietnam invasion. The military, he seems to say, was being
hobbled on a righteous mission by the in-fighting and
maneuvering of politicians. Historical myopia, I suppose.
The people in the military need their rationalizations, too.
It's the only way they can continue to do what they do -
which has never in U.S. history had anything to do with
guaranteeing democracy or human rights, and has always had
to do with the business of defending business interests. The
uniform that I wore and that Shacochis's friends wore is
given an outrageous and unearned prestige to keep people in
it. Sometimes we are asked to murder. Sometimes we are asked
to die. But the role of the military as an institution is to
enforce the will of the dominant class in the U.S. and to
continue bankrolling the bloated trade in military hardware.
He ascribes the apparent stasis of the operation to
competing tensions, to the unrelenting impasse of
competitive politics, civil and military. But the truth is,
the operation went exactly as it was supposed to. It was a
tightrope walk to re-install a co-opted, defanged Aristide.
We were pawns, and our mission - the one truly consistent
mission - was not democracy, but stability.
To his credit, Shacochis did recognize the hypocrisy of the
U.S. mission with regard to FRAPH, and he did make the
connections. He was rightly enraged by Task Force Commander
Admiral Miller's minimizing the FRAPH attack on a crowd of
pro-Aristide demonstrators, September 30, in Port-au-Prince.
Shacochis spotted the dissembling of the U.S. Embassy. He
was bowled over by the official military policy - which was
handed down to me and with which I never complied, leading
to my expulsion - that FRAPH was to be treated as the
"legitimate political opposition."
Shacochis can't see that this directive made perfect sense.
The mission was never to restore popular power. It was to
put Aristide's face on a neoliberal fraud. Lavalas was a
movement with real potential to be mobilized, and the U.S.
could not provide the counter-balance even with its
monstrous military forces. Bad publicity. Huge political
minefield. But by rehabilitating the FRAPH and giving them a
little slack in their leash, the U.S. could blunt the power
of Lavalas... and eventually split it.
The author seemed surprised when he learned that the
directive to define FRAPH as a "political party" came to
Special Forces directly from Clinton's staff at an embassy
briefing. If he'd have drifted past Fort Liberté for a chat,
I would have told him that straight up. My own men protested
when I began telling Haitians in our sector that this was
clearly a ploy by the U.S. government and that it stank of
CIA. But I had worked out of embassies before - in
Guatemala in '83 and El Salvador in '85 - and this was not
some new maneuver. My own warnings to the Haitians were
characterized during the investigation the Army launched
against me as "seditious."
The teams were in on it, too. Bob Shacochis fell so in love
with his team that he began omitting and ignoring things
about them that would portray them as less heroic. I have
seen copies of letters from team sergeants, contacting the
local FRAPH, soliciting and offering assistance in
identifying and rooting out the "Lavalas communists." Here
were some team sergeants and team leaders who really
understood their mission, who had read between the lines.
The description of ODA 311 dumping a mentally ill man in the
country just to be rid of him in town is harrowing.
Shacochis inadvertently exposes his heroes here. Did he
realize the team would not have done the same thing to a
white man? The essential colonial cruelty of several SF
members comes through starkly, but Shacochis whitewashes it
with pro-American pathos.
His own presence and the fairly unusual presence of an
African-American team member served to drive the racism of
the white team members underground. But it's there. Racism
is SF's dirty little secret. SF members often see themselves
as the last bastion of white male supremacy. He de-
racialized the SF contempt for Haitians as a group, just as
- sadly, I think - he does with his own contempt for
Haitians. He actually repeats the epithet "boukie," in his
narrative, never understanding that this is how it begins.
We have to dehumanize "them." It was "gooks" in Korea and
Vietnam. It was "ragheads" in Iraq. It was "the skinnies"
After reviewing an incident when I'd gone off on one of my
team members for using the term "nigger-rigged," Army's
investigators looking into my activity in Haiti asked if I
really thought SF was a racist organization. I did. I still
do. My own experience leads me to believe that two-thirds of
the organization's members harbor clearly white supremacist
beliefs. The major who was interrogating me asked if I
thought it was racist when soldiers referred to the Haitians
not as "niggers" but as "the fucking Haitians." He was
looking for an out for himself and a hook for me.
"What do you think, sir?" I responded. He answered at
length, with paragraph after paragraph of adjustment and
explanation, that of course it wasn't racist. For a moment,
at least, I was the skilled interrogator.
But Shacochis seems oblivious. He gives a very sympathetic
account of ODA 344, Master Sergeant Frank Norbury's team. I
knew Norbury and his team. Our team rooms at Fort Bragg were
25 feet apart. We were both Military Free Fall parachute
teams, and we jumped together. Back in Bragg, ODA 344 had
its own T-shirts. The "344" was written with the two 4's as
SS lightening bolts. Shacochis probably never saw the T-
shirts, but if he went to the team house in St. Marc, as he
said he did, then he couldn't help but notice the same Nazi
"344" carved prominently in the wooden support column at the
front of the house. Given Shacochis's keen eye for detail,
his failure to mention this in his narrative is very
curious. Was it an oversight, or did this fascist graffiti
not "fit" into his portrait?
I was back in Haiti in December 1995, on leave, and dropped
by 344's team house in St. Marc. Frank had taken to
entertaining himself by shooting neighbors' cats, dogs, and
chickens with a pellet pistol. Their team had been the first
to train Haiti's new Palace Guard, and they all agreed
proudly that their "boys" would be in charge of the next
coup. But I guess they talk and act differently toward one
of their own than they do with a reporter. My own expulsion
had been buried, and the word wasn't out yet that I had
become politically unreliable.
"Fuckin' boukies!" I'd hear time and again from 344. Again,
they were stripping the Haitians of their humanity. The
population had to be redefined as "the other." But Shacochis
may understand, because in my opinion, he erected the same
barrier, albeit with a compassionate facade.
The author took an emotional nose dive when ODA 311, at the
behest of commanders, eagerly initiated an operation that
rousted the entire population of Limbé as retribution for
the murder of a FAdH lieutenant. His dismay, combined with
his blind allegiance to the standard lines - about
democracy, about SF, and about Haiti - threw him into a
funk. His liberal, moral universe broke down. Sometimes
reconciliation and justice just can't co-exist. Sometimes
the only solution left to people is revolutionary violence.
And revolutionary solutions cannot be attained within the
convenient and fundamentally anti-revolutionary boundaries
of existing orders.
This is the fundamental point Shacochis never gets. Our
mission in Haiti was to stop a revolution, not a coup
d'état. The Immaculate Invasion obscures this, and that is
my main problem with the book. We were deployed to Haiti not
to protect or restore democracy, but to protect class
privilege and to prevent the inevitable popular uprising
that would have come in the invasion's stead. Bill Clinton
and the technocratic global economic elite he represents
wanted to fold Haiti into the New Economic World Order. So
far they have failed, not due to Haitian exoticism, fucked-
upness, ignorance of democracy, emotionalism, nor government
incompetence. It is due to popular resistance... democratic
(Stan Goff is the author of Like to a Little Kingdom, an
account of his experiences as a U.S. soldier in Haiti and
other world theaters. The book is presently available in
serialized form at www.fatbrain.com/ematter).
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