Stan Goff, Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2015). xxiii + 446 pp. £32.50. ISBN 978-0-7188-9407-8 (pbk)
Reviewed by: Shawn Aghajan, University of Aberdeen, UK
The first four sentences of Borderline neatly summarize its theses: ‘War is implicated in masculinity. Masculinity is implicated in war. Masculinity is implicated in the contempt for and domination of women. Together, these are implicated in the greatest sins of the church’ (p. 1). The fact that a Christian pacifist penned these lines is unsurprising. More remarkable is that their author is also a retired Special Forces sergeant in the United States army whose 24 years of service took him to Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada and Somalia with a brief stint on the faculty at West Point. Stan Goff’s CV explodes the common charge levelled against pacifists that they are only able to keep their consciences clean by letting others get their hands dirty with the morally sordid necessities of war. Goff would readily confess that neither his conscience nor his hands are clean, and this helps to explain why, after his conversion at age 56, he has come to understand non-violence to be an inextricable part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Goff rejects violence, not because it is ineffective—history is rife with examples to the contrary—but because it is an idol of the powerful, something to which Christians have no intrinsic claim. He argues that though masculinity is a malleable cultural construct, the historically consistent identifiers of what it means to be a man are the subordination of women and execution of war—essentially two sides of the same macho coin. Jesus’ question to Simon the Pharisee, ‘Do you see this woman?’ (Lk. 7:43a) is the leitmotif weaved throughout the book in order to challenge from several different directions what Goff considers the myopic male wielding of power over and against women. The borderline from which this book draws its name is the arbitrary one drawn between genders, races, classes and nations that historically has been defended vigorously by means of violence. Goff writes that for the Christian such boundaries have been abolished through the death of Jesus, who offended so many precisely because he traversed these barriers. The cross is the only truly redemptive violence in history, though the powerful often recast their use of violence in salvific language.
Goff illustrates in some detail how popular films as well as a selective historical memory continually underwrite the legitimacy of the American version of the myth of redemptive violence. It is no coincidence that the American Western became increasingly popular after World War II, Goff explains. The images of cowboys gunning down bandits, subduing lawless ‘Indians’, and rescuing helpless women tied to train tracks served to reinforce the American belief in the necessity of the armed strong man to keep society safe from villains. The Western resonates with America’s perception of itself as the sheriff in the white hat providing peace through force to the helpless in the midst of a dangerous world. This trope did not fade with the waning of Westerns’ profitability. Movies since 9/11 like Man on Fire and Zero Dark Thirty remind viewers that sometimes the only recourse for heroes is to resort to morally dubious violence like torture in order to right an injustice suffered, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Hollywood is not the sole propagator of faith in redemptive violence and its corollary, the male prerogative to wage war. Goff draws his readers’ attention to the fact that the US Department of Defense has also produced its fair share of pernicious fiction. To illustrate this point, he juxtaposes the stories of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman. In the government’s sanctioned fiction, Lynch was captured by the Iraqi army in a firefight and then interrogated and tortured in her hospital bed, before being ‘rescued’ by Special Forces in another heroic firefight.
The actual narrative does far less to corroborate America’s confidence in its own moral rectitude in war. By Lynch’s own account, she was neither interrogated nor tortured in the nine days she was in the Iraqi hospital. The US army’s mendacity was compounded by the drama that it orchestrated in staging Lynch’s rescue. Despite knowledge that enemy soldiers had withdrawn from the hospital, US forces cut power to the hospital, blew open its doors and handcuffed doctors and patients. Uncharacteristically, the operation was recorded by the military and the edited video was released the very next day. Six months later Hollywood followed suit with its own made-for-TV movie.
Goff draws attention to the irony that the memory constructed by the US army spin doctors and media that lapped it up was hardly blemished by being exposed as a fabrication because the little white lies they fed the public reinforced all the appropriate hierarchies. Lynch, who was made an honorary male by her participation in the military and willingness to fight to the death, resumed her rightful role as damsel in distress at the hands of the sub-human Iraqis. This set the stage for the heroic rescue by Special Operations, ‘the epitome of moral American manhood’ (p. 186). The fact that the story of Lynch was seized upon by both feminists and anti-feminists to advance their own agendas concerning the fitness of women for combat only serves to underscore Goff’s claim that we do not see this woman, merely her utility within debates about gender and violence.
If Lynch’s ‘rescue’ reinforces the American ideal of women in combat, Pat Tillman is her masculine counterpart. After 9/11, Tillman opted out of a lucrative contract in the National Football League to enter the military. This initial sacrifice and his subsequent service in Afghanistan epitomised the virtuous and selfless citizen fulfilling his duty to his country. Yet Tillman’s service would ultimately require giving his life, and he was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded a silver star for valour in action against the enemies of the United States.
The problem with the military’s account of Tillman’s death is that it was not true, and people at every level of the army’s chain of command knew it. Tillman was not killed by the enemy but by ‘friendly fire’ from his comrades. Telling the public the truth about Tillman’s death was not a prudent public relations move. This was an exceptionally poor time to be candid for a military that, only a day earlier, had gone into damage control when its improprieties at Abu Ghraib were made public. The depth of this deception is revealed by the fact that the lingering public recollection of Tillman’s death (to the extent that it is remembered at all) is primarily one of a ‘good American son’ who made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’, with the other aspect of his story erased: a duplicitous military that blatantly attempted to cover up its own failures. The former story reinforces the national narrative that the sacrifice required for freedom is no less than the death of a nation’s children on the altars of just wars around the globe. The truth casts serious aspersions on this understanding of citizenship.
Goff traces the origins of American willingness to make such sacrifices (or at least finance the sacrifices of others) to the sacralizing of the nation after the Civil War in which, ‘Manliness was consecrated with a blood sacrifice, and the blood sacrifice of the nation came to supersede the blood sacrifice of Jesus. The nation became the new deity’ (p. 169, emphasis original). As a result, he argues, the church offered little resistance to the de facto ‘outsourcing’ of its moral decision concerning warfare to the state, understood in Augustinian terms as the ‘providential’ guardian of the ‘common good’. What would be unintelligible, however, to Augustine and any subsequent just war accounts is the legitimation of total war for the survival of the state. Goff contends that contemporary wars are inevitably total wars as evidenced by the fact that they kill more civilians than soldiers (he defends this claim by citing the BBC’s statement that by the end of the twentieth century, 75 per cent of war casualties were noncombatants; p. 112).
What moral sleight of hand is needed to convince one’s citizens that fighting for the common good necessitates that three civilians die for every professional soldier killed in combat? Goff suggests that the American answer to this question is found in the Lieber Code, ostensibly written to reign in unjust combat practices during the Civil War. Any limits the document sought to impose on war were hamstrung by its allowance for their circumvention due to ‘military necessity’. This exception, vaguely delimited as ‘that which is indispensible for securing the ends of the war’ (p. 167), could outflank any moral criticism of questionable practices in war as long as the tactics could be portrayed as obligatory for winning the war. Goff insightfully observes that the Lieber Code is the elastic boundary that could be stretched to cover any multitude of transgressions, so it is unsurprising that it became ‘the loophole through which Sherman would ravage Southern farms in 1864, and through which twenty-two thousand Dresden civilians would be firebombed to death in 1944, and through which fell two atomic bombs on Japanese cities’ (p. 168). The Lieber Code, like other attempts to write ethical warfare into law, tacitly formalised the belief that war could be either just or effective but not both.
Borderline is a substantial argument bolstered by autobiographical, feminist, philosophical, cultural and theological voices. Critics may charge that in trying to evaluate the problem of war and gender from a variety of angles, Goff has failed to treat any of them adequately. Philosophers, anthropologists, theologians and military personnel, as well as feminists from each of these disciplines, may find Goff’s analysis of their field to be too selective or thin an account to be useful. In his humble, self-deprecating style, he would likely own these criticisms while defending the necessity of each vantage point to ‘explain why masculinity constructed as domination, in war and in relation to women, is really just one story … of manliness … [T]his very construction has steered the church away from the story of the Gospels’ (p. xvi, emphasis original).
Goff’s unique experiences enable him to narrate this story (often with lurid details and ‘salty’ language that may make some readers uncomfortable) from a rare perspective that few civilians could access on their own. It cannot be easily dismissed as a flaccid, pacifist indulgence in an over-realised eschatology. Rather than relegate justice to the ‘sweet by and by’, Goff’s account gives Christians sufficient cause (and the tools with which) to interrogate contemporary accounts of gender and warfare. Such a thesis casts significant doubts on the notion that Christians can imbibe the dominant cultural myth that national exceptionalism is justly defended by violence without compromising their witness. Even if the reader thinks Goff’s portrayal of the sacralizing of the state is hyperbole, it is difficult to contend that the American desire for security and its subsequent faith in its military power to provide that security by any means necessary does not come precariously close to idolatry. Goff reminds his readers that what differentiates Christians from the ‘ideal’ citizen is that, ‘We are not called to be powerful. We are not called to be respectable. We are not called to be patriotic. We are not called to be masculine. We are called to be holy’ (p. 400, emphasis original). If Goff’s account of Christian calling is true, Jesus’ disciples should be leery of entreating the protection of the very golden calf we have formed from our own treasure, because in doing so we may very well be calling down judgement upon ourselves.