Hideous Dream29 Mar 2004
I’ve been remiss in posting any book reviews lately, not because I haven’t been reading, but just because I succumbed entirely to my very bad habit of reading 10-15 books at once while never finishing any of them. It would be bad form to be reviewing books I hadn’t actually finished, eh?
Well, curiously, one of the books I’ve finished recently is also one I started recently, which is a testament to its enjoyability. I have been a big fan of the occasional essay I have read by Stan Goff in the past. (His two most popular are without a doubt his Bring ‘Em On? reaction to Bush’s “blustering arm-chair machismo” and my favorite, his rant-ish Support Our Troops screed.) I knew that Hideous Dream was about the fiasco of the US involvement in Haiti, and so I expected a dryer historical timeline and sociopolitical criticism of the policy. The book, however, totally defied my expectations – in a good way. Goff tells us straight off what to expect from this book on page 1:
Don’t expect exciting combat tales. Definitely don’t expect any Tom Clancy. Clancy, the darling of closet fascists everywhere, always has been and always will be full of shit. This is just the account of a journey that took a misplaced man to the oxymoronically named town of Fort Liberte, in the most misunderstood nation in the Western Hemisphere.
And we’re off to the races. How can you not love a book that starts like that? What follows is Goff’s narrative of his experience in Haiti. His story is enchanting and written with a fluidity that far exceeds that of many novelists I have read, and his account is entirely non-fiction.
You come away from the book with a real appreciation for Goff’s love for the people Haiti, and his affection for the men of his unit, in spite of their faults and even their eventual betrayal. Although many of the enemies Goff has made will attempt to discredit this book as a work of spite or malice, this attack loses all meaning in the face of Goff’s portrayal of his experience. He displays an unrelenting hatred of racism, both institutional and individual, but never stoops to demonize the offenders, always portraying them in an affectionate, yet wistfully disapproving light, almost like a disappointed father.
Racism is a prevailing theme of this book, as it appears to have been a defining characteristic of Goff’s experiences in the Special Forces. Goff addresses his own encounters with racism, starting with his own naive and superficial definitions of racism, and culminating with his eventual realization of the institutionally racist nature of the interventions in both Vietnam and Haiti. From an interview following his arrest:
He checked his notes and referred to my reported comments from the incident that Special Forces was a racist organization.Had I meant that?
Here we were. We were on the subject of the “dirty little secret.”
I told him that I found a lot of racism in Special Forces, that I had seen racisn in the Q-Course, that racism was openly tolerated on the teams and overlooked by the commanders. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I may have been saving myself.
He wanted to know how I defined racism.
Disparate treatement of people by other people and institutions based on skin color. (It was a half-assed definition, but it sufficed for the moment.)
Do you consider members of your team racist?
Do you know of any racist commanders in Special Forces?
How come you haven’t reported them?
Because being a racist is not against the law in the army. The threshold for proving racism is very high.
Don’t you think, he asked, don’t you think that sometimes you might be a little oversensitive?
More light-hearted, entertaining, and endearing is Goff’s narrative of his own political evolution into a self-proclaimed leftist:
The worst thing that ever happened to me, in terms of my development, worse than the drugs, far worse than religion, infinitely worse than the dysfunctions in my family, was my early exposure to the works of Ayn Rand. No adolescent should ever be permitted to read anything written by her. Her ideas are too superficially logical (justice-mercy, independence-unity, reason-faith, wealth-need, happiness-duty…opposites according to Rand, one having to be sacrificed for the other), too internally consistent (A is A; reality is that which exists), too glib in the embrace of self-centeredness.
The more thoughtful and sensitive the child, the more dangerously seductive the Ayn Rand preposterousness, and the more emotionally damaging the exposure. Her so-called philosophy gives the white, socially retarded, working class intellectual neophyte just enough acumen to make him or her cocksure and brutally narrow-minded.
The book’s title, Hideous Dream, belies its reality – you expect a nightmarish, negative account of a hopeless situation. However, despite his bad experiences, you get the distinct impression from Goff that he retains a true love of humanity and a real sense of optimism, and hopes to present his story as a lesson for the future.