Masochism. I write nonfiction as a rule, and it is one thousand times easier than fiction. Because nonfiction does not require the emotional investment, and you can't resort to mere facts to ensure you haven't strayed from certain truths. I've been writing about war for over two decades, and about gender for a good portion of that. But how these two things mix to become twice as volatile is hard to get across in a theoretical or even historical conversation. I wanted to wrestle with these two things through the development of a story. And to use the actual experiences of others and myself to smash the pernicious myths that perpetuate militarism.
But doesn't war also demonstrate great virtue sometimes, selfless sacrifice and even heroism?
Of course. But the Deepwater Horizon disaster probably produced a few heroes as well. We still have to say it was a disaster. An oil company destroyed a huge expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. And the truth of the matter is, war produces vice, too. It produces more vice than virtue. We need to quit glorifying it. This novel doesn't portray a single crime that doesn't have its analog in actual recent wars.
"Smitten Gate" is like a world tour. You go from the US to Belize to Honduras to Afghanistan, even Somalia. Have you been to all those places?
No. My army career was before the Afghanistan era, and I've been to every country in Central America except Belize. I did work in Honduras, and a half dozen other Latin American countries. And I was deployed to Somalia. I chose Belize as Farah Gillet's home, because one of the paradoxes of hyper-regulated military life is what Gloria Andalzua called mestizaje, a mixed arena. The military amalgamates racial and cultural difference, giving it a kind of creolized internal culture. I like creole culture, being an incurable Haiti-phile. I like the way these porous boundaries dislocate us a bit and force us to accept the tension between self-assertion and the need for mutual recognition. And how they contrast with the breakdown of Dale's symbolic boundaries in the book.
You say you will write a sequel to "Smitten Gate." What will it be?
The tentative title is "New Moons and Sabbaths." I like biblical reference titles. "Smitten Gate" is an allusion to the Isaiah quote at the beginning of the book. "New Moons" will take Deangela Dale, the secondary character in this novel, and put her firmly out front, eight years later. If I say more, I will be spoiling both books.
Your main character, Abner Dale, is a Special Forces soldier. Isn't this used a lot nowadays?
Indeed, too much. But this literary trope is usually to show some superhuman dude who mans the dangerous border between civilization and savagery, often by becoming pretty savage himself. It maps onto that most common and unfortunate story convention -- redemptive violence. I wanted to show more closely what these men, these operations, and this field, special operations, are actually like, without the mystique fostered by the military and the entertainment media alike. Someone might read this, thinking they are going to get the same kind of sugar-sticky satisfactions they get from the Spec Ops genre, so to speak, but they'll discover something a good deal more sinister and a good deal more true.
What other books have you written, and are you working on anything besides "New Moons and Sabbaths"?
I have one draft at Wipf and Stock, a book on money, called "Mammon's Ecology," and I'm doing another book for Wipf and Stock on violent female leads in film, called "Caeneus." I published "Borderline" (Wipf and Stock) in 2015, about gender, militarism, and church. Prior to that, I wrote a book about my participation in the 1994 invasion of Haiti, called "Hideous Dream." In 2004, I published "Full Spectrum Disorder," about the Bush era and Rumsfeld military doctrine. In 2006, I published "Energy War," about the role of energy in international conflict, as well as "Sex & War," which I've let languish, because "Borderline" did a much more thorough treatment of the same theses.
Normally, I go on a kind of tangent about militarism and epistemology. This year I'm leaving all poking and sniffing and bloviating around the Veteran-as-signifier, to others. Because the signifier Veteran on Veteran's Day is contrived as a prop to show the sacredness of war. At the very inner core of our national rituals valorizing The Veteran is the love of war.
Wars are carried out by armed organizations, generally understood as the military, though there is a long menu of differing armed organizations engaged in a diversity of forms of war. Those organizations are comprised of humans, mostly male humans, but more and more including a female fraction as well. What does war and the preparation for war do to those people who are in those organizations?
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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;
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.
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).
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.
child-king incapacitated from a lifetime of indulgence by bullied servants,
Donald Trump is quickly ripping the Republican Party asunder. His sinister calculations,
aimed by a coterie of crackpot advisers at being America’s own Duce—like the
neocon Bush-clique fantasies of democratizing the oil patch for Yankee capital—has
had its opposite effect. The party he commandeered through a hostile takeover during
last year’s election follies has technically won both houses of the federal
legislature and the executive branch; but contrary to capitalizing on that
newfound power, it is metamorphosing into a political calamity.