War and Sex

Stan Goff

War and Sex (Lulu Press [www.lulu.com], 2005).

The US military is the embodiment of patriarchy. It is an institution built on exclusively masculine principles and therefore breeds men to be hyper-masculine and women to internalize values of hierarchy, aggression, heterosexuality, and deference to authority. Stan Goff narrates his personal story of joining the Delta Force to trace his own psychological transformation into a he-man. The book is a deconstruction of the military and, in effect, a deconstruction of his own male narrative; thus we are shown not only the weaknesses of this masculine establishment that stands in for the US government, but also the author’s own vulnerabilities which he willingly exhibits.

The book begins with a series of tentative steps toward unmasking its subject, which, as Goff describes in his introduction, is “sexuality and state violence.” To deal with this indomitable topic, where does one begin, he seems to be asking as he shifts from violence on television to killing in Haiti, to Iraqi casualties and the death of an Iraqi detainee in custody, mixing anecdotes with theoretical reflections on the psychology of killing. After the series of early chapters, many of which resemble diary entries, Goff arrives at the actual beginning of his book with his chapter, “Selection,” which is his personal tale of joining the military, a tale that immediately hooks the reader. As we read about the Delta Force, ironically situated in scenic West Virginia mountains where “whitetail deer routinely grazed on the airfield at dusk,” the juxtaposition of nature and the near breaking-point of the Delta Force candidates fills us with anticipation for not just the story but the argument that it will carry.

In this key chapter, we are introduced to the central tenet of the military: “The only standard we had for performance… was to do everything as hard as we could. Save nothing. Do not pace yourself. Give everything and see what happens. Survivor without an audience.” In this most elite unit of the military, where Goff is “exposed to the darkest skills of power projection” even as his body pushes itself to its physical and psychological limit, he seems semi-aware of his own metamorphosis into a military person in whom the body and its feelings are overcome. This denial of Eros, as he argues later, results in the widespread injustices the military participates in, such as rape, pornography and prostitution, all of which involve the subjugation of the female body, since the body and its feelings have been successfully “othered” through military training.

Buttressed with critical comments from a century of feminist theory and western philosophy, Goff lays open the deeply flawed premises on which the US military is built and which, unfortunately, underscore the policies the US is pursuing both domestically and internationally, causing widespread harm to individuals and nations. Capitalism, he finds, is the system that upholds the military and until we are willing to critique this system, the ones that will steadily fall victim to its devouring jaws will be the Other – women, minorities, other nations. This argument has been well developed especially by theorists such as Maria Mies, Catherine McKinnon, and, more recently, Arundhati Roy. So it is surprising when Goff remarks, “The academy is just as hostile to the critique of prostitution and pornography, oddly enough, as it is to critiquing capitalism.” A paragraph later, he explains that prostitution and pornography are “vast, exploitative, patriarchal-capitalist industries, largely violent, very lucrative, controlled by women-hating men.…” Since Goff fails to look at “third world” feminists, much anthologized in current women’s studies text-books, he has missed literature that deals precisely with the correlation between capitalism and sexually exploitative industries. However, his despairing conclusion in the chapter, “Pornography,” is the subject feminists have been contending with in paper after paper in the last few decades: Quoting D.A. Clark’s statement that “feminist power has not changed the fundamentals of social power. Men still control decisive power blocs such as the armed forces, the higher levels of government, big business and media – and the ‘sex industry’ is a service industry for men,” Goff concludes: “Decisively, men control the state.”

As Goff correctly argues, capitalism is not just the partner of sexual slavery but is foundational to racism and colonization. As many postcolonial theorists have argued, from Frantz Fanon to Anthony Appiah, gender and land colonization, and now globalization, which is nothing but economic colonialism, are all “reducible to capitalistic hierarchies,” to use Chandra Mohanty’s phrase, as quoted by Goff.

However, it is to Goff’s credit that he takes on the enormous task of critiquing many of the injustices that emerge from a hyper-masculine principle (rape, homophobia, war, women in the military, pornography, prostitution, prisons, etc.). He brings to bear his erudition in delving into these vast topics, and makes a case for the common thread between war and sex, which are linked in the masculinist interpretation of human relations wherein the “other” may be subjugated by assault and battery.

That he has taken on this challenge of critiquing the military, and therefore, capitalism and fundamental US policies, is commendable. However, the most compelling parts of the book are where he narrates his personal story. If his critique of patriarchy in all-male institutions were to arise from the personal storytelling, this book would be even more remarkable and might get more of the attention it seriously deserves. One chapter where his personal story underscores his point about the underlying patriarchy of the military is “Weapon-taboo,” in which he describes the reaction of the young Rangers after one of their members, Sue, performs as well as the men in a combat operation. Goff sums up their anger: “They could no longer pass her by in the compound with an air of dismissive masculine prerogative that said, I am the Man here; I am the warrior.”

The book has several digressions, which sometimes make us lose the thread of thought. But they often arouse interest. Thus, when we come across a simple phrase like “Bodies matter, and they are matter” (in “Metanarrative”), it is a refreshing spot to meditate on the thesis of the feeling body and the body of the state, both of which are paralyzed by the social system of colonialism and the economic system of capitalism.

Since Goff is an insider-outsider, he is privy to the paradoxes of the military, such as its patriarchal front that hides “feminine” facts, like attention to detail, obeying of authority, cleanliness, and multi-tasking. One of the ironies is that while the military requires everyone to be a team player in the reporting of rape or sexual harassment, women find themselves without support, as we see in a series of sexual assault scandals since the Tailhook scandal of 1991. Goff details many of the sexual assault cases and quotes one particular victim, Captain Jennifer Machmer, “‘I reported the rape within 30 minutes,’ she explained to a silent Congressional committee, ‘then watched my career implode.’” Goff’s attention to key stories and statements of individuals saves the book from becoming too clunky with theory.

One of his best chapters is “Prisons,” which provides shocking statistics (“The US now has 2.03 million behind bars, which translates into 701 people out of every 100,000 in the US, while China is locking folks up at a measly rate of 117 per 100,000”) to underscore his parallels between the US military and the US prison system, both of which operate on the premise of power and subjugation, supported by the state. Imagine when this premise is carried out in wartime, as we have seen in Vietnam and in the current US occupation of Iraq!

What can men and women do to subvert the insidiousness of the exclusively masculine principle that dominates the entire US political/military system? Goff calls for a feminist state, where any socialist revolution would demand that male revolutionaries become feminist, become “gender traitors.” For this to happen, mothering has to be valued, and infants, regardless of their sex, will have to be socialized into both masculine and feminine traits. This revised or, rather, original form of socialization will create a more humane world.
If readers can patiently follow the intricacies of Goff’s argument, replete with some interesting and some meandering digressions, and can accept the lack of a Table of Contents, they will find themselves agreeing with the book’s call for radical change. Finally, we don’t really know what happened to the man who joined Delta Force and who witnessed many of the stories in the military. We are left with questions about his physical and psychological condition and when his feminist transformation took place.

Reviewed by Pramila Venkateswaran
Nassau Community College

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