Stan Goff, Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2004
Whenever I hear the term entropy I think of George Carlin delivering one of his many hilarious comedy routines. Entropy, the process whereby the entire universe is slowly breaking down in every sphere, was what Carlin wanted to devote his life to helping along. The idea that everything would collapse intrigued the comedian and motivated him to joke that he wanted to pursue it as a cause. Ensue laughter. However, outside of the realm of comedy, entropy is not a laughing matter.
Stan Goff, US Army Special Forces (retired) and now a leading theoretician, is seriously trying to resist environmental and social entropy in writing Full Spectrum Disorder. In his observations on the trajectory of energy consumption patterns in late imperialism and capitalism itself, or on global military patterns relating to this same energy consumption, Goff’s central focus is the entropic dimensions of the current order and the military implications of challenging the coming collapse, a collapse which he argues has already taken place for 80% of humanity. For where entropy has not yet reached, Goff warns, it is around the corner.
People have been drawn to read Goff because of his incredibly candid and lucid portrayals of military life and military affairs and his humanization of the uniformed workers of all racial backgrounds who are sent to kill for the sake of Empire. But this book, despite some direct military experiences spoken in a soldier-to-soldier tone, is really asking the North American left to get over some of our most cherished talismans. Goff hints at this right in the first paragraphs of his introduction:
Even scientists and academics are frequent prey to the delusion that reality is reducible. Fear, deep and wide, is the secret motive force of much human behavior, and I think reduction is often rooted in fear. Passing over fear, I think, is the beginning of every liberatory project.
Fear could very easily make one not want to understand either the current state of the global economy or the state of global energy reserves and their political implications. If there were to be one great complaint I made about the book, it would be the order in which ideas and issues are raised. The book’ s most important contribution to our collective movements is in the theoretical discussion found in the later chapters ‘Full Spectrum Entropy: Our Period of Disorder’ and ‘Over-reach.’ One certainly does not need to read Goff to discover that US imperialism is motivated by oil in its invasion of Iraq, but what this means is still not generally understood. For example, it is not difficult to find people on the left who will discuss openly the implications for imperialism, particularly US imperialism and US dollar hegemony, of being past the peak in global oil production (in terms of both profitability and actual crude). However, Goff goes beyond this point to an explanation of energy itself, and also ties into this that the global economy is bound by the logic of imperialism itself meshed into this entropic form of accumulation, ‘growth’ and energy consumption.
Goff gives a first-time reader the ability to see things that to this day many of us on the left do not:
**Mere economic reform cannot deal with the impending ecological disaster.
**The very same entropic accumulation process guided state socialist experiments in the 20th century, due to their being forced to ‘compete’ with imperialism in terms of ‘growth’; yet these states did not have a periphery to exploit (in terms of labour and energy).
**The current US administration is taking the oilfields directly because there is no way out of the impending collapse as energy demands go up and energy sources disappear. China cannot continue to increase energy demands without having a periphery to superexploit in terms of both labour and energy.
**The impulse to maintain domination of world markets by the US dollar is what drives the US to conquer and redraw the oilfields of the Middle East. The American dollar is only strong because of the military. Treasury bonds are ‘IOUs’ without an effective mechanism for the rest of the world to ever collect. This all takes place as more of the world, including for a time, Saddam Hussein, are opting to trade in Euros.
**The US is relying on getting through this entropic conjuncture militarily because its other means to do so are no longer viable. Holding a permanent gun to the head of the world, despite what progressives and pundits (especially outside the US) may think, is not only rational, it is perhaps the most rational course left to the US.
**Social entropy is part of this process. To quote: ‘With an entropic material foundation, society itself is now organized in a way that can only increase disorder.[…] Social entropy is here now, and the epitome of social entropy is war.’
**Women not only continue to contribute the most hidden labour in the planet; either they will have a major role in the coming revolution or it will fail:
If you want to see the economy within the economy, and what will be left to build upon when we inherit the toxic scrap heap that capitalism is bequeathing us, go to those places where the environment has been stripped bare and the people reduced to squalor, like Haiti, and you will see our deepest current foundations and our firmest hope for post-capitalist renewal being carried about on the heads of calloused women.
All of this, it would seem, means that Goff is preaching defeatism, but exactly the opposite is true. This is a clarion call to realize that there is no choice but to completely get ‘reform,’ ‘sustainable development,’ and ‘growth’ out of our lexicons. They are grape kool-aid offerings. We need to grasp that only revolution will help us break this cycle, because these destructive processes are not an outcome of the human genome. They are an outgrowth of a system that has finally led us to Rosa Luxemburg’s choice: socialism or barbarism. But the surprise is, the barbarism that was left behind by development is waiting for us more horribly at the end of development’s road. This barbarism will happen not in a world of yet unexploited habitats, with human niches left yet to be filled, but on a shattered, toxic heap of rusting detritus.
The reader will get many pages of detail as to what kind of entropy is seizing the minds of the US military. Goff shows us how the civilians who have hijacked the Pentagon do not know what they think they do. In the chapter ‘Iraq: Wolves and Sheep,’ the fallacy of total reliance on techno-video-game warfare (the choice of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz) is detailed with a kind of insider’ s view that leaves us aware of the contradiction between technology and real-time combat—with the new Pentagon relying, recklessly, on computers and robots. Goff gives us a description of this division that makes it seem as if a non-football player has taken over coaching duties on the best professional team—right before the Superbowl. Case in point: Somalia. The ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, which Goff reviews in detail, is really the same story as before in Vietnam: a people who catch the enemy unprepared can inflict political, economic, and even military damage with non-conventional guerrilla tactics and ambush. Since the publication of this book, Najaf and Fallujah in Iraq have both shown textbook cases of these insider’ s predictions.
The US military is also stretched out like never before and people are resisting US imperialism everywhere, in particular in ‘America’s backyard,’ Latin America. Goff explains that ‘thinking outside the box’ is the main weapon that the people of the world have in resisting. That might end up taking forms that don’t go over so well at the dinner table. But as Goff places things squarely: ‘We cannot put an abstract morality above the people.’ To make his arguments about the oft-cited ‘iron logic of war,’ Goff gives a short but thorough analysis/comparison of the Zapatistas in Mexico and the FARC-EP Colombian guerrillas. By surrendering the central role of military affairs in the struggle, the EZLN have surrendered all the initiative in the conflict between the people and the state to the Mexican army. The FARC, Goff contrasts, are able to continue to set the terms of certain aspects of the struggle, and to defend themselves from attacks like the one peasants suffered in Chiapas’s Acteal massacre.
Finally, the last chapter begins with a quote from the late Mark Jones, a man who has had a firm influence on Goff (and myself). It is a comment about the military, and how the military mind reflects facts in an especially direct way. It is also a call for us to understand and work with soldiers as a group to be organized and, more importantly, understood. Goff helps us do that by telling us of his son Jessie, who is now in Iraq. Unfortunately, however, neither Goff nor anyone else has been able or willing at this juncture to detail a strategy we can use to overcome the problems he has so brilliantly highlighted. The necessary forms of struggle are only hinted at, and carefully left at the very abstract level that the book escapes on so many other key issues. We are still looking for new ways to remove the legitimacy of the current system, and for the means we will use to resist it. Platitudes about ‘whatever is necessary’ are not a solution. By introducing us to organizing the military rank and file as our allies, Goff contributes to solving this impasse, but so much is still unwritten it leaves one wanting.
Goff does indeed tackle one debate that has remained unresolved over the last few years among left forces in imperialist countries: What is the role of our own radical organizational structures? While not opposed to Vanguards, Goff critiques modern ideas of what constitutes Democratic Centralism and, more importantly, the disastrous impact it had on the international Communist movement. Zinoviev’s Comintern was turned into a reductionist hallway where formula and program were passed down from Moscow onto localized struggles, creating a set of principles Goff states were a ‘metaphysical fallacy.’ This was repeated by all Leninist grouplets, including the Trotskyists. The end result of this process, adopted by most ‘Vanguards’ in the Global North, has been to create little sects that indoctrinate cadre and simply set them about selling newspapers on campus, and never doing the investigative research so badly needed.
Stan Goff has contributed much that is worth deeply pondering. His writing speaks to people at every level of society: military, high school teacher, Colombian peasant and Oxford intellectual. His lessons from the military make sense in the political realm and vice versa, in a powerful call for rational investigation. It seems fitting that a military observation he makes should encapsulate some of the thinking I find necessary in terms of building our revolution, here in North America: ‘Sometimes the best thing to do is just stir things up and see what happens. Then take advantage. As long as you are doing the stirring, you have the initiative.’
From whatever direction you come, if your concerns are either human liberation or environmental survival, this book should make it into your ‘must read’ list. Full Spectrum Disorder is timed perfectly to help us continue the struggle for a world order without social entropy at its foundation.
Reviewed by Macdonald Stainsby
International Solidarity Movement, Montreal