A review of Stan Goff's
"Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti"
This Week in Haiti
March 28 - April 3, 2001
Rare is the individual who can withstand the relentless and insidious indoctrination which takes place in modern capitalist society. The military culture submits its recruits to even more rigorous brainwashing, making its escapees rarer still. But those who manage to rebel, clearly analyze, and speak out against the dynamics of the U.S. military-intelligence-financial complex after having been on "the inside" are the rarest of all. In this respect, Stan Goff's Hideous Dream is a true gem. After nearly a quarter-century career in the U.S. military, Goff participated in the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti as a Master Sergeant of Special Forces (SF) team number 354. The Master Sergeant or "Top" is the non-commissioned officer (NCO) who, in effect, cracks the whip and leads the team to achieve its goal (although he works under the command of a captain).
Goff's goal -- at least as he chose to interpret his commanders' directives -- was to assist Haitians in liberating themselves from the grips of military dictatorship and paramilitary death-squads which directed the 1991-1994 coup d'etat against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and to be an agent of the Haitian people's will. Although this was a reasonable interpretation of U.S. Commander-in-Chief Bill Clinton's stated objective, Goff's forceful moves to "uphold democracy" -- such as arresting death-squad members and publicly admitting that the U.S. had backed Haitian dictatorships -- brought him within a whisker of a court-martial, the fate which befell another literal-minded soldier, Capt. Lawrence Rockwood, who attempted an unauthorized single-handed prison inspection on Sep. 30, 1994 (see Haiti Progres, Vol. 12, No. 51 3/8/95).
Both Goff and Rockwood learned the hard way that their "mission was never to restore popular power," as Goff explains in his introduction. "It was to put Aristide's face on a neoliberal fraud... Our mission in Haiti was to stop a revolution, not a coup d'etat."
The book plots the final stages of Goff's radicalization, which crystalizes in Haiti, a process which began 24 years earlier when, as a young infantryman on patrol, he called a Vietnamese peasant "a fuckin' gook." The man then offered him a stalk of sugarcane asking "Why can't we be friends?"
"For the rest of that day, I fought hard against the hole he had driven in my dam with the simplest act of courage and hospitality," Goff writes. "That night the dam ruptured in the darkness, and I cried quietly through a whole guard shift, wanting more than anything to just go home."
In another scene marking his road to political consciousness, Goff relates his outrage and deception when a lieutenant colonel told SF team leaders on the Port-au-Prince airfield the first night after the intervention that they would be working with the Haitian Army [Fad'H], rather than against it. " 'Bullshit,' I said, too loud. Helmets turned in the dark," he writes. "The implications were converging on me too fast to sort them out. This was to be the one mission I could be proud of when I had a clear look back at it... Here was the badge I sought, disappearing before my eyes. I had wanted so badly to do this one thing. One decent thing to salvage me and my country... Just one decent fucking thing as absolution!"
The book is studded with such poignant vignettes, and Goff's emotions pour onto the pages with the force of an open fire hydrant.
The author is as unsparing with himself as he is with those around him. An implacable foe of racism, he describes with intimate detail and brutal honesty his ultimately futile battle to root out bigotry from his soldiers. Goff's anti-racist crusade in the intrinsically racist Special Forces finally pushed his troops to mutiny. They turned to his superiors to have him drummed out of the service.
Nonetheless, he had turned his team from one of the worst in the Special Forces into one of the best. Through night-time parachute jumps and long-distance treks with 110-pound rucksacks, Goff's Detachment 354 earned a " 'killer team' reputation." Goff and a few of his men were among the first to surreptitiously venture out of the U.S. compound at the airport into the streets of Port-au-Prince in a Humvee, where they were greeting by cheering throngs. "I was completely overtaken by it, exhilarated beyond words," he recalls. "I made up my mind then and there to do everything I could not to betray the hope that flooded around us."
They took an aggressive stance against the Haitian Army (Fad'H) starting from their deployment out of a helicopter in Gonaives, where in front of a crowd of thousands, Goff grabbed a club from a Haitian soldier's hand and flung it away. "The wild chorus of approval from the crowd was deafening, and they flooded toward the now terrified, retreating Fad'H soldier," Goff writes in one stormy scene. In Gonaives, Goff became known disparagingly as "Batman," and his team "cowboys."
The author takes the reader on a soldier's-eye-tour of the U.S. intervention from Ft. Bragg, to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, to the landing at the Port-au-Prince airport. His comical anecdotes, like having to piss into a bottle on a crowded helicopter ferrying troops across the Windward Channel, brings home the very human realities of "U.S. deployments," which have become so lionized in the popular imagination by the mainstream media's Pentagon spin-masters.
In fact, "Hideous Dream" is essential reading for anyone seeking an antidote to the ceaseless glamorization of the U.S. military, especially those who have read Bob Shacochis's "Immaculate Invasion," another account of the Haiti invasion (see Goff's review in Haiti Progres, Vol. 17, No. 40 12/22.1999) Shacochis became infatuated with the Special Forces and portrayed them as heroes, albeit flawed. Goff strips away this romantic fuzz and bares the incompetence, pettiness, and stupidity of this "elite" corps and the military in general. A recurring comic thread in the account is how the 354 was constantly being "busted" for not having their uniform sleeves buttoned at the wrist in Haiti's 90 degree heat.
The book is tremendously entertaining, deriving much of its humor in describing such absurdities. In one scene, Goff explains his astonishment when his team was forced to rehearse an assault on the Gonaives barracks in which the commander would be killed. "I had always learned that if you are planning a course of action that has a high probability of unacceptable casualties, you change the course of action to preclude that contingency," he writes. "Yet here we were, practicing the commander's demise again and again."
Such amusing commentaries are spiced with Goff's down-home expressions which pepper the account. I liked, for example, when his nerves were "stretched tighter than a rat between two terriers" and when some group went after someone "like ducks jumping on a June bug."
The final half of the book recounts the 354's experiences in the northeastern town of Fort Liberte, where they were based. On arriving in town, Goff immediately arrested FRAPH leaders, befriended the Lavalas mayor, and established an icy relationship with the local Fad'H garrison. Goff refused to let the team set up in the comfortable hotel of a former Duvalierist ambassador Neal Calixte -- who was also arrested but immediately released on orders from Washington -- but instead forced them into a hot cramped house in town which had formerly been used by the French NGO Doctors Without Borders, a decision which would ratchet up the team's growing resentment against him.
The author also reveals his early naivete, describing how a former Tonton Macoute and military attache temporarily duped his team into cracking down on Lavalas partisans by misrepresenting them as Tonton Macoutes. The complexities of Haiti, far from a comic book battle between good and evil, are laid out in instructive and self-baring concrete examples.
Portraits make up much of the account. There is the murderous Gonaives Fad'H Captain Castera "clean cut, uniform pressed to a razor edge, shoes gleaming, mustache trimmed so perfectly it seemed painted on, nails manicured, smelling of cologne;" the team's mild-mannered translator Lieutenant Percy "his head pitched indefinably, as if bravely awaiting a blow;" hyperactive eight-year-old Ft. Liberte neighborhood girl Eaulin, who "constructed strange architectures with stones, searched the crannies of broken buildings and trash dumps for bits of food and treasure, or played 'jacks' with small rocks;" Lt. Col. Schroer, a "clueless asshole" with a Napoleon complex; Ft. Liberte mayor Adele Mondestin, who became one of Goff's closest friends; and then the members of Goff's team: Ali, Gonzo, Rod, Pedro, Kyle, Skye, and Dave Grau, a "shiftless" warrant officer who ended up ring-leader of the mutiny against Goff and his captain, Mike Gallante.
Also amusing are Goff's portrayals of the journalists, missionaries, spooks, aid workers, and "international policemen" with which his team came in contact.
Goff writes full-throttle prose punctuated by poetic ruminations. A Shakespearean scholar (his title is culled from Julius Caesar), medic, and former West Point instructor, Goff also takes time throughout to make penetrating social analyses. "I'm only supposed to relate -- to be evocative -- because I'm a soldier, and if I begin to tread in the realm of theory, if I begin to form conclusions, I become threatening, and I lose my charm," he writes in his last chapter "Epilogue." "But I've already broken a whole jar full of taboos, so fuck it." He proceeds to lay out his radical social vision based on his years in the military and lessons learned in Haiti.
"Revolutionaries are not normal people," Che Guevara once remarked. Trained precisely to combat revolutionaries, it is clear after reading Hideous Dream, that Stan Goff became one, a true abnormality. "I was an instrument of imperialism for quite a long time before I realized what I had become," he writes toward the end of the book. "I learned what I was, and began learning who I must become in Ayiti."
Passionate, intelligent, and brutally honest, Stan Goff's account is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti, the modern-day U.S. military, and the imperial wars still ravaging countries like Yugoslavia and Colombia today.
("Hideous Dream," 483 pages, published by Soft Skull Press, 2000, available at http://www.softskull.com)
Copyright (c) 2001 Haiti Progres. All Rights Reserved.