The Left and the Military: Leaping the Chasm (by Stan Goff)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Wed Nov 13 17:31:38 MST 2002

Military Matters

The Left and the Military: Leaping the Chasm

by Stan Goff

_The Freedom Road Socialist Organization is pleased to post the first
of what will be an irregular series of columns by Stan Goff on
military affairs. This obviously has considerable importance for
everyone trying to build opposition as the Bush administration's
generic "war on terror" escalates into a planned invasion and
occupation of Iraq. Stan's expertise is derived from over two decades
in Special Forces in the US military, from Viet Nam to Haiti. He is
the author of Hideous Dream, a penetrating first-hand account of the
1994 US intervention in Haiti which contains rich lessons about the
operation of US imperialism, the culture of the armed forces,
questions of military doctrine, and the resistance of the Haitian
people. It is available from Soft Skull Press [@

When I wrote Hideous Dream (Soft Skull Press, 2000), like every
writer I think, I had a reader in mind. I have been justly accused of
being somewhat arcane in that memoir. The reason is, my reader was
the only person I really knew at the time: a soldier.

I went back, of course, at the behest of my editor, to insert
explanations, but he let me keep the basic idiom intact. Soldier to
soldier. I still hope soldiers read it. It is intended, at least to
some degree, to validate their experience.

Since my retirement from the Army (February 1, 1996), I have divested
myself of all personal relations inside the military. My friends and
associates are now almost exclusively political activists who we
might perfunctorily refer to as "the left."

In 2001, after a book signing in Chapel Hill, NC, I had the pleasure
of meeting anthropologist Dr. Catherine Lutz, who was in the final
stages of publishing her own book about the military, Homefront, A
Military City and the American 20th Century (Beacon Press, 2001). The
book is her study of Fayetteville, NC, the city adjacent to Fort
Bragg. It is a well-written, very readable, and very important work.
She let me have a copy of the draft going to the publisher. I was
impressed by the scope and erudition of the book, but I was very
moved by Cathy's personal accounts of soldiers. I had grown very
impatient with leftist stereotyping of the military and the
omnipresent factual misrepresentation of the military by both the
corporate and leftist press (for utterly different reasons). Here was
a very visible and active faculty radical from the state's flagship
university who had actually talked to soldiers and ex-soldiers, and
who presented them in all their humanity and complexity.

I would later learn that Cathy grew up in a military household.
Hollywood's stereotypical mystique of the military and the left's
simplified demonization of the military are abstractions that don't
hold up well when you've seen your father, a colonel, rummaging
around the bathroom, paralyzed by a spouse's anger, sick and
vulnerable, playful, reflective, sad, silly... or seen your mother
wash his dirty drawers.

If there is a chasm between these two worlds, the communities of the
armed forces and "the left," then it is a very deep chasm, but a
close one over which we can easily jump. Just don't look down.

I jumped, and so did Cathy.

And when the time comes for the deep transformation of this society,
a significant portion of the armed forces will either support us or
refuse to attack us. Otherwise it won't happen.

If we accept that, then we need to study the military. We study
bourgeois economists, so we can study workers in uniform.

We need credibility when we declare on military matters, and
credibility is surrendered when we mask complexities in the interest
of short-term polemical advantage.

In particular, if we are to reach out to the people inside the
military, most of them working class, then we have to do two things.
We have to get our facts straight. And we have to think about their
experience critically. Most soldiers are voracious readers. One
reason I failed to read much from the left while I was in the
military, or even from the mainstream press (which soldiers mistrust
enormously-are we listening?), is that within two paragraphs I'd
generally encounter some technical or factual error, or some
preposterous stereotype.

Fact is, many on the left have not taken the leap, from moral
judgment and theoretical pigeon-holing to study and criticism-alas,
symptomatic of the larger malaise on the left. People rely on
impressions, largely gained from second-hand polemics or
entertainment media. And we miss much. Short-cut thinking always
misses much.

The military is a violent macho culture. Surely that's no surprise.
So are many team sports. Often enough that judgment ends examination.
Warfare did much to shape the gender roles that now dominate our
culture, even those aspects of the male script that are no longer
recognizable as martial. Military institutions exist as the primary
external armed body of the state, and in many countries as the
internal armed body as well. All true. Military organizations are
bureaucratic and they cover up their crimes and mistakes. Well and
good. So do corporations, and there are workers there, too.

But how many on the left will acknowledge that the institution with
the most effective affirmative action program in the country, at
least with regard to race, is the United States Army? Interracial
marriage is more common in the military than the civil sector by
orders of magnitude. How many on the left recognize that on a
military base there resides a community that is in some respects more
socialist than capitalist?

Every resident of a US military base has come to expect high-quality
schools, a plenitude of commons-including parks, recreations centers,
gymnasiums, stadiums, swimming pools, cinemas, craft shops, hiking
trails, community centers, and nature preserves-a three-tiered
universal health care system, counseling centers, and safe,
well-designed residential neighborhoods where housing, maintenance,
and utilities are provided free. The disparity between the highest
and lowest pay in the military is less than 13 to 1, compared to an
average of 458 to 1 in the civil sector.

The majority who remain in the military remain there for these
reasons. It never occurs to them that what they like about the
military is socialist. They frequently hate the deployments, the
occasional violence, the bureaucratic backbiting, and the ubiquitous
incompetence. They put up with all these negatives because they and
their families enjoy some modicum of security and well-being.
Soldiers know some of the concrete possibilities of socialism better
than the rest of us. They've lived them.

When we refuse to take up the issue of women or gays in the
military-masking contradictions by saying we are "against" the
military anyway-we are missing the point that this is an issue of
gender equality in federal employment. Queer people are isolated
altogether, and women are legally excluded from the majority of
positions (not specialties, that is different), and from those career
tracks within which advancement is the fastest. Little understood
outside the military is the negrophobia of the Special Operations
subset within the otherwise thoroughly integrated armed forces. Here
too is a wedge, a teachable moment for Black soldiers when we might
begin to organize.

Every successful revolution requires either the neutralization or
active participation of military people. It's time we factor that
into our thinking. It's time we thought about organizing within the
military. We need them, and they need us.


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