An Interview with Stan Goff
Recently, Left Hook co-editor M. Junaid Alam was able to fire off some questions to Stan Goff, a former US Special Forces Master Sergeant with more than two decades of military experience who is now heavily involved in anti-war work with Military Families Speak Out and the Bring Them Home Now campaign, and is also the author of Full Spectrum Disorder and Hideous Dream. Below, he offers his sharp insights on recent tactical, military, and political developments taking place in Iraq, discusses the very real growing signs of discontent within the armed forces, and what the anti-war movement should do about it.
Alam: Stan, thanks for doing this interview with Left Hook.
Goff: Thanks for Left Hook. And I want to apologize for rushing through this. Things are getting hectic these days.
Alam: The decimation of Fallujah did not either curb or destroy the insurgency. Instead insurgents continue to dominate Iraq’s geographical center, threatening US supply lines and striking at will. Meanwhile, US-trained Iraqi forces seem prone to falling apart, as recently evidenced in Mosul. Does this mean US war planners’ hopes for finding an “exit strategy” are unfounded?
Goff: The situation in Iraq generally and in places like Fallujah is incredibly unclear in the details. Reporters who attempt to get inside these zones are subject to be kidnapped, caught in the crossfire, or even targeted for death as American forces have done on a couple of occasions. And the problem with communiqués from any partisan in an active battle is that these communiqués are inextricable from tactical and political objectives – so in terms of their empirical value, they are always highly questionable. This is not moralizing. It’s just part of the political constitution of war.
Having said that, there is little doubt about the large tendencies we are observing there. Almost from day one, contrary to all the hype from the Pentagon about “winning the war and losing the peace,” and a “great tactical victory,” the US forces, and to a lesser extent the British forces, lost the initiative – that is, the ability to choose the time and place and manner of combat engagements. They want to swallow this fact up and regurgitate it to the public as “fog of war,” which is plain bureaucratic bullshit. They are losing, and they have been losing in some sense from the very beginning, as some of us were pointing out by April 2003.
Several factors contributed to this almost immediate loss of advantage. One that is now clear is a fairly thorough and sophisticated preparation by some forces for a protracted guerrilla struggle that has neutralized the technical advantages of the US military as well as US military doctrine. Two is that US military doctrine itself was thrown into an abrupt flux by the acceleration of Rumsfeld’s new warfighting doctrine in the middle of active preparation and conduct of two huge military operations. New doctrine take years to rationalize and debug, and Rumsfeld force-fed his to his own generals – which could account for why they are standing silently behind the right-wing Republican dogpile that is hitting Rumsfeld now in the wake of that Reservist asking about “hillbilly armor.” Three is that the loss of the Turkish front for the initial ground offensive took them completely by surprise and pushed them into last minute revisions of the ground offensive plan as their weather window was closing. This put the Iraqi resistance at least a year ahead in its development, because it created this huge geographic space, now called the Sunni Triangle, for a tactical withdrawal that preserved untold numbers of fighters and materiel, as well as safe-areas for reorganization. Finally, the combination of reliance on, may his name never be spoken, Ahmed Chalabi for post-invasion intelligence scenarios, and the incredibly brutal way the entire operation has been carried out – which has created a near absolute ideological resistance to the occupation. This generalized Iraqi opposition is difficult to overestimate.
None of this impacts an “exit strategy,” however, because there never was one, though we may start to hear ruling circles start to clamor for one now as this whole situation goes further into the toilet. The intent of this invasion was to establish a permanent military presence in the region, and to gain complete control over the Iraqi economy. Apparently, these are still the objectives among the inner circle around George W. These guys are a little like Slim Pickens in the final scene of Dr. Strangelove.
Another goal of the invasion was to demonstrate US military invincibility to the rest of the world. The reality has accomplished exactly the opposite. There is no more significant outcome of this war than that.
If the decision is finally taken to get out, and there is a real chance that this could happen if the resistance continues to refine its tactics and strengthen its popular bases, it will not be a decision taken coolly, but one forced on whichever administration we have here by the Iraqi resistance. That’s not an exit strategy. That’s getting kicked out.
Not only have the Iraqi forces frequently deserted, many of them have flipped into the resistance – I suspect more than we even know – and many took the training as preparation for defection back to the Iraqi side. This war will not likely be Vietnamized any more than Vietnam was. Instead, we have thousands of miles of pipeline that can not be secured, surrogate cops who have a life expectancy of about a month, a puppet government that does little else but attend to its own physical survival, and bases that now have to be supplied not by vehicle convoys, but by the far more expensive and complicated method of airlift. The resistance has turned the whole place into a kind of grinding, low-grade Dien Bien Phu.
Alam: As the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recently admitted, US foreign policy is only increasing hatred and resistance of America. At the same time, the US clearly does not have the manpower to launch further aggressive maneuvers on a large scale anywhere, including Iran. So what is impelling the ruling class toward this seemingly unsustainable course?
Goff: I don’t know what the DSB might have said. I didn’t hear it. It is frightening to think that I might agree with them on anything, even something this brainlessly obvious. Aren’t those the guys who’ve been pushing this strategic missile defense thing? Another one of their jillion dollar toys failed to launch last week. It didn’t fail to hit a bullet with a bullet, which is what reputable scientists call the whole scheme. It failed to take off. There are hobby stores right down the road from where I live that sell rockets that 12-year-old kids can make launch. These guys are on the Pentagon gravy train, and they work very hard to keep their pals on the same gravy train.
You are right about how this operation has constrained the US ability to intervene militarily elsewhere. Even in Haiti, they couldn’t send enough Marines to consolidate the February coup further out than a couple of upscale areas in Port-au-Prince. Now they have pushed the Brazilians and a couple of other damn fool governments into doing it for them. This is creating political ripples at home in these Latin American nations, Argentina and Chile are the other two big contingents, and being commander of the MINUSTAH has become about the most unenviable job on the planet. They are talking about sending contingents into the Philippines to assist relief efforts after a hurricane. Right. It just happens to be in an area where the NPA is well-entrenched and well-liked. But a couple battalions of Marines doesn’t cover a lot of territory, and when you add a long logistical tail off of established lines of communication, they become a kind of low-impact, high-maintenance, high-cost black hole.
Iran is more vulnerable to a US invasion than Iraq was, if the US had the assets, which it doesn’t now. That’s because there is a conventional force protecting a conventional state. This is the enemy that US doctrine is designed to defeat, but it has to have the freed-up capacity. It doesn’t.
I’m watching Iran closely these days, because they may very well come out of all this as the most significant power-broker in the region, with the potentially Iran-oriented Shia majority in the South of Iraq. Wouldn’t it be something if it was George W. Bush who finally won the Iran-Iraq War?
The real nightmare, of course, for the US right now, is the collapse of the Saudi royal family. This possibility was a huge factor in the decision to invade Iraq and establish bases there. And it is the real way in which Osama bin Laden and friends fit into the overall picture in the region. Since 1990, when he was shut out of the Saudi defense from a potential Iraqi attack, and the Royals chose the US over him to conduct the defense of the Holy Land, his main objective encompassing all other objectives, in my opinion, has been to overthrow the royal family. With the erstwhile assistance of the Bush administration, he has come closer to that than he might have otherwise dreamed.
A fraction of finance capital in the US, people like George Soros the international currency pirate, have identified the increased probability of an uncontrollable storm within this kind of wild instability that could blow away the bloated mass of fictional value that surrounds their little summit like a thick cloud. And no one wants to risk pissing the region off in such a way that we lose access to oil, even the little portion that comes from over there to the US. For all the silly talk over the last few years about a dematerialized economy, the US is still using over 25 percent of the world’s primary energy for around five percent of the world’s population. Turn the taps off here where I live, where the average commute to work is 25 minutes, and watch the burbs – Goerge W. Bush’s base – shrivel like a philodendron left out in an ice storm.
I don’t remember if it was Marx or one of those other smart people who said it, but the ruling class is caught inside this system every bit as much as the rest of us. Maybe more. They can’t change course easily. Especially in this period of capitalism when it is driven so much by hot money, by speculation. They have literally eaten away their own capacity to do long-range planning, and I think they see a train wreck on the horizon. That’s why the Hail Mary thing they are trying in Southwest Asia. But Hail Mary plays don’t often work, do they?
The longer this goes on, the higher the likelihood of conscription, too. And not just that back-door Stop Loss conscription, but a plain old-fashioned draft. Rumsfeld opposes it, but he’s looking more and more expendable these days. The scary thing about a draft is that it has to be made urgent somehow to keep it from becoming a political time bomb. That requires an event.
Alam: There’s been a lot in the news about US soldiers criticizing or resisting the war in one form or another – a unit that refused to deliver supplies, thousands of deserters, attacking war claims, troops suing against stop-loss orders, pointed questions aimed at Rumsfeld in Kuwait. As someone involved in organizing dissenting soldiers and their families, what do you make of all this? Do you see a pattern of growing disillusionment within the ranks?
Goff: Do we ever! Our contacts with the GI Rights Hotline, Quaker House, the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force, and the military families network are very sensitive barometers to the morale and discipline inside the armed services, and all of them are reporting dramatic spikes in requests for assistance of all kinds, from filing for conscientious objector status to asking about the risks of intentional AWOL to wanting to know what agreements the US has with Canada that might force their repatriation.
The little mutinies in the ranks do not constitute questioning the war or its reasons, but it’s a beginning. When someone is willing to refuse an order to stick his or her neck out, that’s a very strong indication that they have already determined that this war is not about protecting the US. If they believed that, there would be a greater spirit of sacrifice. For the most part, these folks are patriotic in their own chauvinistic, uninformed way. So refusal to do something demonstrates a nascent level of consciousness that we have to build on.
I did a presentation recently in New York with Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out, and we used it to begin drumming up support for a massive demonstration in Fayetteville, North Carolina this year, next to Ft. Bragg. We are doing it on March 19th and making a national call for the anniversary of the 2003 ground offensive. Last year we had around 1,800 folks and it was very well-received. Even active duty military joined in – in civilian clothes, of course. This year, we want to take it to five digits. Come along, and bring 100 of your best friends.
Now that things are starting to visibly break down inside the institution of the military, people have begun to express a renewed interest in GI and military family organizing. There’s a Marine vet named Jimmy Massey from here in North Carolina who is shopping a book around that is about to blow the lid off of some murders that were known and sanctioned by members of the chain of command in Iraq. We are encouraging whistleblowers, not just for the obvious reasons, but as a form of therapeutic intervention for PTSD – witnessing. And the dissent of the families, some of whose stories are horrendous, shreds the legitimacy of the Washington gang.
Alam: With the elections over and the situation in Iraq worsening, the college campus-based anti-war movement, represented by CAN, is on the rebound. Part of what it’s doing now is helping organize speaking events for Iraqi veterans against the war. How do you think the youth anti-war movement can best link up with anti-war vets, learn from them and lend support?
Goff: Come to Fayetteville!
Inviting anti-war veterans, and don’t forget military family members, to various public events is a good start. Iraq Veterans Against the War has quite a few members who are near enough to college-age. I think the college students and the vets can learn from each other. Collaboration is the learning process. But even without the vets and families, any public education effort, forums and teach-ins and so forth that make the public smarter about the war are helping the overall movement. The trick right now is not necessarily linking up, which will happen over time as resistance grows, but to put fire back into the belly of the anti-war and anti-empire movement, and to get us back up on our feet. This damned election anesthetized us.
Alam: Appealing to dissenting soldiers is a political imperative for the American anti-war movement. But how do you approach the contradiction of trying to organize soldiers against the war while condemning soldiers for killing or torturing Iraqis? Is there a bigger culprit to be targeted for the atrocities?
Goff: No contradiction there for me. We not only want to appeal to those who are dissenting, it’s time to start encouraging dissent in the ranks and more. Some folks were uncomfortable recently when I said that we should see the US armed forces as ours, and begin to reclaim them. But we have to begin to see this struggle for what it must become, a fight for control over state power. That includes the military. And we have to attend to the situation in Venezuela and Cuba. A strong military committed to a people’s agenda is essential. I am not calling for supporting the troops. This is a call for their eventual wholesale defection from the bourgeoisie’s control. In the same address, I called for the arrest and indefinite detention of the whole executive branch. That should put things in context. How are we going to preach revolution as long as it remains a figurative term? We have to set our sights higher.
Our focus should never be on individual crimes unless we point out the context. There are some situations that are atrocity-creating. There are those who execute the plans and those who make them. There are those who make the plans, and those who order them made. There is racism and xenophobia and shocking ignorance at the heart of our system, and we on the Left know that those who own the means of production also own the means of production of what passes for knowledge.
If all we do is condemn individual acts of violence, then we fall into the trap of claiming moral equivalence between the Iraqi resistance and the forces of occupation, but even worse than that, we abdicate our responsibility to explain how a situation like this comes to pass.
Fighting for the minds of the very soldiers who have been tasked to carry out this war even as we condemn their every act in the execution of the war is the very essence of what we have to be doing. Fighting for their loyalty, and fighting to turn their loyalty from the ruling class to the people, even as we endorse the Iraqi’s right to resist by arms, is exactly who we are and who we have to be.
Otherwise we are just fence-sitters, a bunch of self-righteous political spectators. Our job is to show that this is not black-and-white in the simple-minded terms we have been given, but that it is a complex and dangerous situation that can only be explained with an analysis of class and imperialism.
That’s why I want to pull my hair out when I hear people saying stuff like “Peace is Patriotic.” This is drivel, and it is getting us nowhere. Dumbing down movements makes movements dumb. We cannot out-simplify the Right. They’ll beat us every time. These are the people that won’t allow high school science teachers to explain the fundamentals of biology. They empower ignorance. Our challenge is to fight ignorance. That’s harder than what the Right has to do… for now anyway.
Alam: Recently you gave a powerful speech in NYC. At one point you said, “Our job is not to be conciliatory. We are not diplomats. Our job is not to comfort the comfortable by reinforcing their denial. Our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Because we were there. We know what these people have sent our children to do, and what they have sent our children to become.”
In the longer run, what kind of movement - and what kind of strategies - will we needed to not just “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” but prevent the comfortable from afflicting others in the first place?
Goff: That’s the jackpot question, isn’t it? What is to be done? Always has been; always will be.
I’m not a big believer in long term strategies. I believe in strategic goals, but not in trying to map out in detail how we get from here to there. In the short term, we have to escalate. This is that tricky business of walking a line between co-optation and cowardice on the one side and reckless adventurism on the other. Finding the right place to push and the right people to push there is the key. Think about SNCC and the Freedom Riders. There’s a certain amount of trial-and-error in this, but one thing I’ve noticed is that the more conservative forces in any movement will always tend toward inertia, and the steps that advance movements generally meet resistance not only from conservative elements, in terms of tactical approach, but also from entrenched leadership for obvious reasons. SNCC was bold, but it was disciplined. And they broke laws. We will definitely have to break laws, but this has to be done strategically, not just knocking out McDonald’s windows – which is a good way to get picked off by provocateurs and infiltrators.
Each formation will have to find its own way in this movement, and the movement will have to be creative and flexible enough to build on discovered strengths and to ruthlessly abandon our weaknesses, as well as learn how to work in various kinds of alliances – local, national, and international.
I have been flogging a kind of formula lately that I call 3-D. Delegitimate. Disobey. Disrupt. One might think of these as three separate activities, or as things that can go on at the same time. I like to fantasize about them as phases. One massive effort at achieving some threshold of delegitimation, followed on by the kind of mass civil disobedience that makes cops go home ashamed of themselves at night, followed by actual disruption of business as usual – once there is enough public support to ensure that what we do doesn’t just piss off working class people. I’m thinking here about the Bolivians who blocked all avenues in and out of La Paz and closed the capital down. Now that’s a disruption! But it has to have broad support, or it becomes a pretext for jailing a movement’s leadership.
Short-short term, like this year, I think we have to put everything into finding ways to push through or bypass media propaganda and reach as many people as possible with any information and analysis that exposes our government and this war for that government’s and that war’s essential criminality. This effort needs to be in your face and relentless. It needs to inflame public opinion on both sides and sharpen political polarization. And as much as anything, we need to begin the process of doing what the Left can do – in that process of polarizing – to destroy the Democratic Party, which has now become a complete drag anchor on the working class, on women and LGBT folks, and on oppressed nationalities. We desperately need to start the development of a red-black-green party of some kind as an alternative that sees electioneering as secondary to militant street, community, and workplace struggles. At least, that’s how I see it.
But I don’t have a crystal ball, and I am not a long-term veteran of the Left. I’m just some guy that fell into this politics with a very peculiar standpoint owing to my heterodox personal history. This conversation about how to refound a viable revolutionary Left in the United States in the context of this anti-war work is one we should all be having.
Alam: Stan Goff, thank you for your time.
Goff: Thanks again for being part of that process I just described.
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