Master Sgt. Stan Goff stood amid a swirling crowd of thousands of Haitians as they danced, chanted and cheered the September 1994 arrival of the U.S. military. The mission was called "Operation Restore Democracy," and Goff hit the landing zone thinking he would get the chance to do just that, by returning Haiti's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to office.
The Haitian armed forces, known by its French acronym FAd'H (Armed Forces of Haiti), had come to power in a 1991 coup, and had ruled along with the police and a paramilitary death squad called the FRAPH (Front for Haitian Advancement and Progress), made up of former members of the notorious Tonton Macoutes. An estimated 5,000 pro-Aristide Haitians were killed, according to a government investigation after the coup.
"We had deployed into the face of the most daunting and perplexing scene I had encountered in my career," Goff writes in his new book, Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti. That career had taken Goff to every corner of the globe and into the highest echelons of military special operations. He served as an infantryman, an Airborne Ranger, and as a member of the Special Forces and Delta Force, deploying to Vietnam, South Korea, Colombia, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Venezuela and Somalia.
But Haiti was different. "There was no doctrine for this scenario," Goff notes in his book. "Hundreds of slender, dusty fingers sought my hands and arms, touching, grasping and greeting. The slightest gesture or smile was met by an unbelievable outpouring of relief and joy."
Suddenly, the celebrants turned angry--a FAd'H soldier was strutting into the crowd, wielding a baton like he still owned the place. "I wanted very, very badly to shoot him," Goff remembers. "It was an overwhelming impulse, visceral, lust-like." Instead of killing the soldier, Goff leveled his rifle, made a beeline for the man and with a hearty "Fuck no! It's over!" swiped the baton and tossed it aside.
"The wild chorus of approval from the crowd was deafening, and they flooded toward the now terrified, retreating FAd'H soldier," Goff writes.
And so it went for Goff during most of his three-month Haiti tour. He took more batons, sometimes snapping them in half for dramatic effect. He rounded up death squad leaders, and put military henchmen out of commission by seizing their guns and dressing them down in public. Goff became openly hostile to the Haitian security forces, and continued to try to contain them even after the orders changed and his Special Forces team was directed to build a working relationship with the despised FAd'H. And he broadcast his sympathies with Haiti's popular movements, especially Lavalas, the political party that had carried Aristide to power and was distrusted by the United States.
"I bent my whole team to my purpose," Goff told The Independent during a recent interview in his Raleigh home. "I ended up being responsible for a thousand square kilometers and like half a million people. I was like a military dictator. I used that power--for the time that I had it, which was very brief--to reverse the civil-military relationship on the ground and also to allow the popular organizations to take some measure of control.
"I had made up my mind when I went down to Haiti that I was going to do the right thing this time, come hell or high water," Goff says. He admits that he was often unsure of just what the right thing was. But years of creeping doubts about his role in enforcing U.S. foreign policy, combined with the ugly prospect of abetting repression in Haiti, had at least convinced him of what was wrong.
In Haiti, Goff says, "I had no place to hide from my own conscience."
The U.S. Army wasn't paying Stan Goff to follow his conscience. One day at a meeting with community leaders in his area of responsibility, Goff told the crowd that there were "strong indications that the head of FRAPH was closely connected to the CIA," as he writes in his book, and that U.S. intelligence may have aided the coup against Aristide. When members of his team alerted higher-ups that they had an errant crusader in the field, the jig was up.
Relieved of his team command and sent home to Fort Bragg, Goff agreed with his superiors that his military career was over, and he retired at age 43.
To hear Goff tell it, that's when his life got really interesting, thanks in part to renewed family ties. Twenty years of wandering the world had left him estranged from his sister, an out lesbian active in liberal politics who sits on the board of the Women's Project in Little Rock, Ark. But in the twilight of his military career, that began to change. "We re-established our relationship, and in that process my political consciousness began to come back," Goff says. "It accelerated very rapidly, because I started removing some of my own self-imposed taboos about what I could and couldn't think about, what was forbidden. And I started becoming interested in things like political economy, and one thing led to another."
One of the first tasks he assigned himself after his transformation was to vent his fury over Operation Restore Democracy and document his quixotic mission in Haiti. He pounded out most of Hideous Dream while the fires were still hot. "I wrote it almost out of sheer rage to start with," he says, "and then set it down for like three years before I picked it back up and worked on it again."
The book reflects that rage, but it's more than a political screed from a disgruntled veteran. In a day-by-day account, Goff dissects U.S. policy, criticizes his Army commanders, accuses some fellow troops of being racists and pokes fun at and ponders his own failings. He opens a window into the mind of a soldier following his conscience, even when he felt his orders contradicted that impulse--a former commando who had spent the first half of the 1990s propping up right-wing militaries and the last half of the decade immersed in Marxist literature and organizing for Democracy South in Chapel Hill.
Today Goff seems comfortable in his incarnation as a hard-core lefty, but friends suggest his writing reveals an urge that is something like penance. "It's hard not to conclude that somewhere in there is a need to feel like he's changing some of the systems he helped support when he was in the Special Forces," says Jeff Saviano, a former editor of The Prism newsletter, which published several of Goff's exposés.
That need has taken him back to Haiti nine times since his ill-fated military junket. He says he spends much of his time there consulting the leftist National Popular Party led by Ben Dupuy, who served as Aristide's ambassador-at-large during the coup period.
Goff just concluded a monthlong visit, and last week he witnessed the second inauguration of Aristide. As the priest-turned-president begins his second term in office, he has come under fire even from former supporters for alleged corruption in his party and for failing during his first term to capitalize on his broad popular following to enact policies that will protect the country's dirt-poor masses.
"Aristide could very well be another Perón," Goff warns. "He began as a nationalist and a populist, but under incessant pressure and with more than a little personal ambition, he is being co-opted. He will inevitably shift to the right." At the same time, Goff emphasizes that he still supports Aristide and claims that much of the opposition is orchestrated by Washington. "While I and others are critical of Aristide, we are adamant that he must be defended against attacks from the United States and their front groups."
Looking back on his first visit to Haiti, Goff is just as critical in examining the role he played there. "I can't count the mistakes, they were too numerous," he writes in Hideous Dream. "My best intentions could not have made anything right on this mission, because the mission was simply a clumsy but logical extension of my government's long-standing approach toward Haiti. I was a reluctant tool, then a rebellious one. But I was still a tool, and when I became dull and dangerous, I was removed. This book may finally be the good that I can bring out of the whole operation ... even out of a whole career."