Stan Goff’s military resume reads like a chickenhawk’s wet dream: retired Army Master Sergeant, airborne infantry, Ranger, Jungle School cadre, Green Beret, Delta Force operator, instructor in military science at West Point, service in Vietnam, Grenada, Haiti, Columbia, Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mogadishu, and most likely other places he can’t talk about.
But by the conclusion of Goff’s 26-year career the dream had turned into a nightmare, not least because he had abandoned the body of lies that many American soldiers cling to as a way of justifying the unjustifiable. No more lying self-talk for Stan Goff. He’d seen and learned too much.
About a month into my son’s 2007 combat deployment to Baghdad with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, he called me and announced, “this whole thing is bullshit, dad.” I should have sent him Goff’s 2003 book “Full Spectrum Disorder,” but I didn’t know about it back then. I had no idea how expertly Goff had autopsied the corpse of the American empire, laying out all its diseased organs for inspection on the cold steel table of his own experience and withering analysis. Come to think of it, even if I had known I wouldn’t have sent the book to my son after all. He might have gone AWOL on the spot and hitched a ride all the way to Fort Leavenworth.
For a long time after crossing the event horizon of military retirement, Goff self-identified as a Marxist, and much of his early published writing rests on more or less standard anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist themes. But embedded in that body of work were two intellectual currents that mark Goff as a superb synthesizer: systems thinking and feminism. “Full Spectrum Disorder” includes two chapters that critically examine US military strategy in light of chaos and entropy, two key concepts in systems thinking And in 2006, Goff published “Sex and War,” an exploration of the psychology of war that draws on the feminist criticism of writers like Patricia Williams and bell hooks.
Adaptability is the critical element in the resilience and sustainability of systems. Goff’s commitment to intellectual adaptability flowered in the mid-2000’s when he began to read Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, Ivan Illich, and other Christian radicals and pacifists. By 2008, Goff had embraced Christianity and was baptized as a Methodist. In 2011, he crossed the Tiber and reconciled with the Catholic Church.
Today, Stan Goff lives in Michigan, works on peace, permaculture and community sustainability, blogs at Chasin’ Jesus, and will soon release a new book titled “Borderline – Reflections on War, Sex, and Church.” Goff’s nom de Facebook is “Pistis Christou.” I interviewed him via email.
MARK GORDON: Stan, when did your view of American foreign policy begin to change? Was there one “breakthrough” moment or was it an accumulation of experiences?
STAN GOFF: I didn’t suddenly go blind on the road to Damascus, if that ‘s what you’re asking. It would make a better story, I suppose, but it was more of a cumulative epiphany that played out over decades.
In Vietnam, I found out how easy it was to become a racist, for example. On the ground, that was a race war. Grunts learned to hate all Vietnamese, because those are the people we simultaneously had to control and fear. That happens during every invasion. Koreans or Vietnamese become gooks. Arabs become hajjis, ragheads, et cetera. I saw that, and I became very sensitive to racism, at least personal race hatred, but I wanted to preserve what I could of my former outlook.
Then, when I was in Special Operations, I did some missions through the State Department, and alongside CIA folks. In Latin America, in particular, during the Reagan years, drunken agents would tell me how we actually did work with death squads, and the Ambassador’s most frequent contact was with the host nation Chamber of Commerce. So a new light went on, like, okay, this is about money, and we will help rich people overseas to kill poor people they don’t like. At that point, I had to give more credence to what people on the left were saying, because I’d discovered that most of what they were saying about Latin America and US foreign policy was quite true.
I still wanted this to be an aberration, though, because I still needed to believe that there was something essentially good about my country that was merely being corrupted around the edges. I was wearing the uniform, carrying a gun for my country, and I wanted to believe it was for more than defending rich, powerful people’s interests.
The real break with that commitment finally came in Haiti, during the 1994 occupation, when I watched my own government subvert the democratically elected President there even as they were ostensibly re-installing him. Of course, the US rather unapologetically removed him again in a coup d’etat in 2004. At some point during the occupation of Haiti, I finally had to admit that my country’s foreign policy was consistent, and that it was in many respects just an ongoing war against poor people. I also came to terms with racism as a structural phenomenon, characterized by power and a kind of internal colonization, and not just “prejudice,” as we liked to call it once.
By the time I retired, I had become completely disillusioned about our foreign policy, as well as our domestic policies, and I became involved fairly quickly with various politics of resistance to these policies.
MG: Your intellectual journey included a brief period as a Marxist, but in 2008 you became a Christian and was baptized in the Methodist faith. Then in 2011 you entered the Catholic Church. What compelled you to seek reconciliation with the Church, and how has being a Catholic informed your views on the US military and its role as the projection of American power?
SG: I had broken with Marxism before I converted to Christianity. It would be easier for me to trace this evolution through philosophy than politics, even though I was deeply involved with politics for a few years after I retired from the Army in February 1996. To do that, I have to go back again to that transitional period when I was on active duty.
By 1973, I had already been exposed to feminism, and as a kind of principled libertarian, I was very committed to the notion of legal equality between men and women. That made me a minority in the Army, especially among the uber-conservatives in Special Operations. And my sister was very involved in feminist politics in the 80s, which also influenced me that way, even after I had abandoned the libertarian point of view as simplistic and utopian. My wife has also been a powerful influence, because she held my feet to the fire when I was talking a good game, but only talking. So that bias I had toward feminism acted as a kind of strange attractor, if I can steal a concept from chaos theory, throughout my subsequent philosophical development.
During my first break in service, I had studied literature, and I was very interested in existentialist writers, because many of them had experience of war and they articulated the kind of alienation that I’d felt ever since Vietnam. So I already had a passing familiarity with Sartre and Camus, of course, but also with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others. When I got out of the Army for good, I picked up that interest in big ideas again, and that is when I discovered not just Marx, but several of the thinkers who have been influenced by Marx. Gramsci, Luxemburg, and some more contemporary thinkers, like geographer David Harvey, historian Robin D.G. Kelley, and anthropologist Alf Hornborg, as well as post-Marxist feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Nancy Hartsock, and black feminists like Patricia Williams and bell hooks.
But again, my break – if you can call it that – with Marxism as a political movement in the US, happened over this gender issue again. Most Marxists talk a good game about sexual equality, but it is like a formal position that doesn’t often translate into practice. Men still predominate in their organizations, even when they put women in as the titular heads . . . they can be very tokenistic . . . and if you visit their websites and chat rooms, they are boys’ clubs where there is often open hostility to feminism, which is dismissed as identity politics, and that same kind of macho bullying attitude that makes virtual spaces feel unsafe and unwelcome to women all over the internet.
That wasn’t the sole source of my break with Marxist activism, though. My engagement with feminism had increased after 2001, when the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was being wrangled into an excuse for a full scale invasion of Iraq and a long term occupation of Afghanistan. I was working with a lot of antiwar veterans and making speeches and writing articles, and I was railing against militarism. And one thing that my familiarity with feminism had taught me was that militarism has a powerful gender component that reaches right down into the pre-critical psychic lives of men.
At the same time, I’d discovered a number of feminists who had powerful critiques not just of male domination, but of liberalism, even modernity itself. These women, like Carolyn Merchant, Maria Mies, Carole Pateman, and Vandana Shiva, also placed great emphasis on how industrialism, not just capitalism, is disorganizing the entire biosphere in very dangerous and unpredictable ways. Both capitalist apologists and Marxists shared, with a few exceptions, the kind of radical technological optimism that has led to this very frightening environmental impasse we face now. Both are committed to large-scale, highly centralized, highly specialized economies. Both regard nature, I would call it Creation now, as somehow inert, a “resource,” something to be controlled and exploited. And this is an idea held in common, because it is historically a male idea that can be traced to Bacon and his period. Historically speaking, both liberalism and Marxism were male philosophical orientations originating in explicitly male dominant post-Enlightenment discourses, discourses that emphasized the domination of an essentially female “nature.”
Maria Mies fleshed this out, saying that modern men in the powerful nations associate masculinity with three kinds of conquest, each of which serves a metaphor for the other: conquest of women, conquest of nature, and the conquest of colonies. These are the three major spheres where men can “prove” masculinity constructed as domination.
The other thing these eco-feminists, for lack of a better term, convinced me of is that we have to question the idea that science functions as an ultimate and totalizing truth claim. Not that science doesn’t yield practical knowledge. It does that so powerfully that it can be dangerous. But it can only answer the question, What can we do? It can never answer the question, Should we do it?
It was when I was sitting with these questions that I had to take notice of something else. A lot of the most courageous and principled people I knew about were Christians. That applies to contemporary figures like Kathy Kelley and the Berrigans and Cornell West and Rachel Corrie, but also to Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Romero, Mother Teresa, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, and so on. And so I took an interest in Christianity and began to learn more about it.
The rest is difficult to explain in text, but once you begin looking into the waters of the Jordan hard enough, you’re apt to fall in. I was baptized as a Methodist, at the age of 56, on Easter 2008. In 2011, I was confirmed as a Roman Catholic in St. Mary of Good Counsel parish in Adrian, Michigan.
Just as I narrate my conversion to Christ through feminism; I can narrate my conversion to Catholicism through a prominent Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. It was he, and through him, Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who introduced me to both virtue ethics and to the mystery, the beauty, and the philosophical depth and diversity of the Catholic sacramental tradition. It turns out I am a smells and bells kind of person.
No Christian confession is perfect, far from it, and the Roman Catholic Church is no different in that respect. But my own philosophical evolution, which is now also a theological evolution, has led me away from liberalism – which Catholic social critic Ivan Illich calls not post-Christian, but a perversion of the Gospels driven by the urge to criminalize sin, that is, by the seductions of power. Reason and revelation can work hand in hand, I believe. I’m not presumptuous enough to call myself a Thomist, given how superficial my knowledge of St. Thomas is, but the relation, not opposition, of revelation to reason, is a firmer anchor for me than anything I have known for answering that question, Should we do this or that? Should I do this or that?
If I were to summarize my own Christian convictions, I would say I believe Jesus is God, incarnated. He is the Word made flesh. You can recount the creed, and between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “He will come again,” I believe some other things. Jesus’ teachings and example were meant for real people, for us, and they were not meant to be foreclosed by pragmatism. Jesus’ ethic of self-giving, neighbor-love, enemy-love, and sacrificial service are not anachronisms that apply only to first century Palestine. Nothing in Jesus’ teachings or example suggests that Christians must take up the “responsibilities” of political power, compromise self-giving, turn neighbor-love into clientelism, set aside enemy-love in defense of nation, or eschew sacrificial service in the name of political pragmatism. Jesus’ teachings and example do have actual social significance, for us, now, and cannot be launched into an extraterrestrial orbit and deferred until we are all conveniently dead. The Gospels provide us with a way of being that transcends time and place understood as “the way of the cross.” Works and faith are inseparable. The world is redeemed in Christ, and not by progress, technology, democracy, political revolution, money, education, or any other idol. That’s a summary of my faith.
The church is participating in the Christian story, and as a church full of people, we are a sinful church. We’ve been tempted by all these idols, and church members in the United States have been tempted by the idol of American patriotism. We are a story-formed community, as Hauerwas and MacIntyre would say, and that story is the story of Christ.
But what happens in a world like ours, when the Christian story is drowned out in this cacophony of propaganda, public relations, advertizing, hucksterism, and a multitude of electronic hallucinations, is that we are bombarded with other stories, especially the story of the American nation-state, with its triumphalism and exceptionalism, and that story competes for dominance against the Christian story. It competes so well that we get what Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh has called the “migration of the holy” from Christ to the state.
We have sacralized the state. In fact, many Roman Catholics went to war in Iraq at the behest of the state, even when the leadership of the church said this was an illegal and immoral war. It isn’t just my Catholicism that leads me to oppose American militarism or the idea that Americans ought to have the ability to project military power anywhere in the world, it is my conviction that war was abolished on the cross. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God, first. That trumps America every time.
And then again, as a truth-teller, which we are also called to be, I have to be honest about that projection of power, of which I was once an instrument, and tell people something that should make sense whether you are a Christian or not. This militarism and this world dominance is not driven by any higher good except maintaining power for those who are in power. Anyone can get that.
For Christians, however, this ought to have special significance, because the first temptations of Jesus were the temptations of power. This was also the temptation that clouded the vision of his disciples, and led them to expect a new David who would open a big can of whoop-ass on the Romans and their collaborators. But in the end, it was the faith of Christ, the pistis Christou, that pointed the way, the nonviolent way, and that way led to the cross. This was the scandal of death on the cross; and the male disciples ran for the hills. It was too hard for them to understand, this vulnerability to death. Only the women understood it at first.
MG: One can be a practitioner of nonviolence without being a dogmatic pacifist. Both Gandhi and King fit that description, for instance. Is that your point of view, or have you embraced a principled pacifism? What do you see as the difference between nonviolence and pacifism?
SG: I’m not sure I see the difference between the two terms, unless I have some sort of context. Gandhi and King both rejected violence as a means to their ends. You can call that nonviolence or pacifism or a rubber ducky. It is what it is. The problem with either term in this case, speaking as a Christian to other Christians, is that this still divides us into different camps. I am not a Christian because I am a pacifist – meaning here that I will not use violence or support the use of violence to make things “come out right.” I am a pacifist, because I am a Christian. I’d like to see the time when this doesn’t have to be a compound sentence. When to be a Christian is assumed to be nonviolent. It’s part of the package. You cannot love the neighbor, or the enemy, and kill him or her at the same time. I’d like to see us practice what we preach.
Our job is not to save the world or make history resolve itself in a certain way. That road – sometimes called Progress – is littered with the dead, and now with a devastated ecology. To be a Christian, as I understand it, is to be very political, but not in the way people think when they give in to the temptation to power. It is to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. We live our lives as a demonstration of our confidence that God will take care of the big picture, if we just embody God’s love with one another. We have that pistis Christou, the faith of Jesus, that radical trust in God that allows us to lose rather than injure and kill. We embody the Kingdom of God for others to see. This is the real evangelization. Right now, not just Roman Catholics, but most Christian confessions, are falling way short on that; and the reason is our attraction to power. This applies to liberal churches every bit as much as it applies to conservative ones. We can’t seem to resist the world’s politics. We lack the radical trust in God to leave it alone, then we rationalize with something called “responsibility,” another idea that has a hell of a damage path.
A Christian is not the same kind of pacifist as some non-Christians, who will argue that violence never works, or that without violence everything would just be okay. We recognize that we live in a fallen world. We even recognize that violence is effective . . . though I would warn anyone who latches onto that statement, violence is also highly unpredictable and self-perpetuating. If we want to know who created ISIS, it was us and the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We know the world will continue to be violent. We know the world will continue to have wars. We know the temptation to power is itself very powerful, and many will answer its call. But as citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are living into a different story, even as we are inevitably residents of this world. That’s what it means to be a witness.
MG: As a young soldier, you no doubt had military heroes and models. As an older man and a Catholic, who are your heroes and models now?
SG: People we seldom notice. People who fix sandwiches and drop them off at homeless camps, and who know the people’s names and talk with them. People who are trying to grow food on abandoned city lots. People who help organize funerals. A guy I heard about on the radio, who bought a meal for a kid who tried to mug him with a knife, then asked for and received the knife afterward. People who care for really difficult old folks. People who raise severely disabled kids and know they are gifts. People who don’t get their backs up as easily as I do . . . that soldier is still in me trying to get out all the time. People with real patience.
MG: You’ve written eloquently (including in a letter to your pastor) about the encroachment of America’s civic religion on Catholic faith and practice. How does this syncretistic creed – which we might call “Americanist Catholicism” – distort both the Gospel and authentic patriotism?
SG: You won’t get me to endorse patriotism of any kind. My nationality is an accident of history and birth. Patriotism is a warlike phenomenon. It is engendered in war. It is sustained by the idea of war, of armed boundaries, of us versus them. Fromm called it incest and idolatry. I can’t disagree. And that is precisely how it runs counter to the Gospels. What Hauerwas said is true: we are Americans first, then Christians. We see no problem in dying, or killing, for the nation-state. But people who would die for their faith are considered insane now.
The Gospels foreclose killing as an option for us, for Christians. But the church’s cooptation by various polities as led us to try and lawyer our way out of this demanding nonviolence. We joined with the empire and went to war. We killed heretics, then went to war. We hunted “witches,” then went to war. We combined with the new nation-states, and Christians went to war against other Christians. By the time of the American Civil War, we had Catholics killing other Catholics in war, and churches joined to both Northern and Southern governments, flying opposing national flags in the sanctuaries.
Again, in modernity, as Cavanaugh said, we have seen the holy migrate from the church – which has been downgraded to a vague hedge against death or a weekly therapeutic pause – to the state, the nation, the idea of America the providential polity. We worship at malls more intensely than we do at church. And we’ve found all sorts of loopholes for “love your neighbor,” “love the enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” and “take up a cross.”
MG: Much of your recent work focuses on the role of gender in the psychology of war, particularly our culturally conditioned associations of masculinity and femininity with domination and submission, respectively. Tell us more about that and how does it factor into your new book?
SG: The book is “Borderline – Reflections on War, Sex, and Church.” It is being published by Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock. It’s about masculinity itself as an idol. It’s kind of a mishmash of autobiography, from my own experiences in the military, intersubjective psychology, cultural criticism, a brief genealogy of liberal philosophy, and an abbreviated history of the church with respect to both gender and war.
Since the advent of gender studies, there has been a good deal of new research and thinking on the topic of masculinity, which was heretofore naturalized. It was seen as a kind of natural phenomenon, and so considered beyond critical intervention. By masculinity, I mean a set of attitudes and behaviors that come to be expected of and associated with biological men. When we look at it across time and space, we find that there are multiple constructions of masculinity that interact with multiple cultural and historical contexts. So we know that these are anything but natural. There is no natural association of men with guns, for example, because guns are a fairly recent invention in the sweep of history and pre-history. Masculinity is a cultural construction, not an expression of some pre-cultural “nature.” And femininity is masculinity’s complement, or opposite. Right needs left to be right, in other words. But I don’t focus overmuch on femininity, except to show how it is consistently constructed as chaos to a masculine “order,” or passivity to male “assertiveness,” “nature” to male “culture,” and so on. Femininity is in male dominant society whatever males want it to be, what masculinity requires as its counterpoint, its subordinate. But my focus is on masculinity constructed as power, as dominance.
When there are disruptions of social orders in history, there are also destabilizations of gender norms, destabilizations of masculinities. Masculinities then have to re-invent themselves. There are two aspects of masculinity that seem to persist across time and place, however, at least since the organization of large-scale societies around cyclic, fixed-location agriculture. One is the structured domination of women by men, and the other is predominantly male participation in war. I’m attempting to show two things: one, that these two phenomena are closely related; and two, that this relation accounts for the two most consistent failures of the church . . . participation in wars and the domination and mistreatment of women.
The thing that connects them, at a deep psychological level, and therefore accounts in many ways for this persistence, is that war constructs masculinity as conquest and domination, and conquest-masculinity then reproduces war. This is a complex argument that takes more than 400 pages to make to my own satisfaction, so I won’t try to make it in detail here.
What did reoccur in making that argument, however, again and again, was the boundary . . . the borderline, in reality, in symbol, and in imagination. The male, authoritarian reaction, shaped by an episteme of war, to any kind of destabilization of the norm, to any threat to his power, to any threat to his worldview – which can produce a kind of psychic vertigo, a sexual terror – is to firm up and militarize these boundaries. This applies to national boundaries, gender boundaries, racial boundaries, class boundaries, and even the boundaries that have been drawn between, say, various confessions of faith.
The message of love in the Gospels has always been under pressure from this authoritarian impulse, from this essentially masculine urge to regiment, to enforce, to enclose, to defend, even to attack. Jesuit writer Michel De Certeau called this a “strategic” mindset, the division of the world into a powerful and isolated inside and a threatening or exploitable outside, upon which the insiders have to impose their will.
I am trying to convince men that we can come out of this strategic redoubt, where we believe we are in control, but in which we have become captives. We are the captives, in effect, of our own fear, against which we perform a desperate, macho bluster. We fear the breakdown of the borderline, because we fear vulnerability. But without vulnerability, as Christ showed us, there is no possibility of love. And this fear, I submit, is at the core of our constructions of masculinity, which accounts for our continued commitments to both war and male supremacy. Covered over in miles of intellectualization, this commitment is, in fact, pre-cognitive, which accounts for its irrational power.
Conquest masculinity is a probative masculinity. We have to prove ourselves again and again, if not in actual war, then with a warlike attitude; if not in sexual conquest, then in proxy conquest by sexual objectification; if not in actual pharaonic projects, then in hunting and other mansports; if not in conquering nature through the symbolism of hunting, then with big trucks and tough talk; if not in overcoming the dark other, the savage, in our imaginations of far-away places, then in assertions of white supremacy and normativity in domestic politics. Cop shows are about the blue line between civilization and barbarity. We, as a society, believe in these boundaries, even when Jesus erases boundaries again and again, and this commitment to boundaries underwrites our commitment to the idea of redemptive violence. Nine out of ten films now are ultimately about redemptive violence, but the church is largely silent about this. We are captive to this pernicious idea, and it is at its core an idea about masculinity.
These are aspects of a world under the sway of power, a fallen world; and there is little evidence right now that this will change. But, Christian men can be different, if we divest ourselves of this influence, if we have the real courage to be vulnerable even as Christ was vulnerable all the way to the cross. If we live into our own story, we can be that light to the world. But first, we have to get an idol out of the sanctuary, and that idol is domination masculinity. This will not be easy. In many ways, this may be one of the most difficult challenges for Christian men. It will take a lot of time, a lot of fearless introspection, a lot of humility, and no small measure of contrition. What Jesus has asked has never been easy. But at the end of the day, at the end of the story, joy wins.