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Review of Barbados RPCV Bob Shacochis' "The Immaculate Invasion"
Review of Barbados RPCV Bob Shacochis' "The Immaculate Invasion"
The Immaculate Invasion
Oct 1, 2000 - Armed Forces and Society
Bob Shacochis, The Immaculate Invasion. New York: Viking, 1999. Pp. 408. $27.95, hardcover.
A novel can reveal the truth in ways that elude scholarly prose. Poetry sometimes cuts even closer. The Immaculate Invasion is not a novel, but it reads like one and sometimes verges on the poetic. It is light on analysis yet brilliantly illuminates the American intervention in Haiti. Beyond the U.S. Army in general and the Special Forces (SF) in particular, you will find many memorable vignettes that present a picture of the dilemmas faced by post-- modern soldiers and the ways we try to use them.
Shacochis spent about 18 months in Haiti between 1994 and 1996, living for months at a time with American SF detachments in northern Haiti, mainly Limbe. The result is vividly painted stories of life and events as he lived them. The plot moves from the street music scene in Haiti to high policy in Washington, from the quotidian world of SF back to the generals and policymakers who shaped the moral ambiguity with which SF struggled. Amidst the vignettes and stories, three broad themes begin to take shape. What is special about SF? Were SF soldiers really doing the right thing in Haiti? Can anyone do the right thing in a place like that?
Early in the book, you are prodded to ask yourself whether Special Forces engaging in unconventional warfare represent the leading edge of a new army. Or are they, perhaps, a marginal and quirky phenomenon that only big armies can afford? It is hard to hang around SF teams without being impressed by their training, their competence, their self-confidence and versatility. Shacochis seems to have fallen under their spell, praising SF efforts on the front lines, and contrasting them with the pedestrian performance of the regular army, hunkered down in force protection mode. You begin to gain an understanding of how different this is from conventional operations.
"There's a fine line between what we do and revolution," one officer said (p. 269). Part of the difference lies in the intensely personal nature of an SF campaign. Shacochis shows how SF soldiers behave like individuals, warts and all, working with a community. Because these soldiers behave more like individuals, they are harder to control than big groups drilled on parade squares and employed in battalion and company packets. The "fireside chats" and field notes interspersed throughout the book illustrate some of the challenges of commanding and controlling deployed SF units.
Shacochis also illustrates the complex relationship between media and subject. His piece, "Our Two Armies in Haiti," for the New York Times contrasted the blunt instrument of the conventional army's hit/ don't hit mentality with the sophistication and multidimensional skills of SF operators, who were redefining success in the post-Cold War low intensity conflict, even though the controversy over moral ambiguity was just beginning to brew. And this raises the second theme woven through the book, and brought close to resolution at its end.
Why did the U.S. go in hard, round up the FRAHP, treat them as terrorists, then go soft and treat them as representatives of a legitimate political party, a loyal opposition? Where did the moral ambivalence come from such that SF soldiers were prevented from treating bad guys as bad guys, undermining their relationship with the victims of the macoutes? Shacochis could not understand the confusion over who was good and who was bad: "I felt the American military operated a shadow economy of verisimilitude, a black market in lies" (p. 279). This moral dilemma lies at the heart of the book. Is the U.S. intervention going to root out evil, or is the moral field too ambiguous, rendering it too difficult to pick out the evil and attack it? While helping the UNMIH training team at Fort Leavenworth in 1994, I tried to explain that the parties to a conflict have to be treated as potential allies, in the effort to defeat the common enemy-violence. Was this what a State Department official was getting at when he presented a slide at the American embassy in Port au Prince showing Cedras and Aristide as equivalent heads of state, with FRAPH and Lavalas as competing political parties? That would truly represent moral confusion.
Shacochis seems to miss the simple rule that resolves such moral ambiguity: there are no bad people, only bad behaviors. But who should one believe? Shacochis captures admirably the confusion and creeping evil of the mobs and the gangs in upcountry Limb, the vendettas and incomplete information in the villages, the sudden deaths by mob violence, and the impossibility of determining guilt. This is hard on soldiers, but worse for SF: "We're not just a military force, we had moral cause. Who are the oppressed? Who's oppressing them?"(p. 380).
And this brings us to the most difficult issue, which Shacochis hints at, but does not fully illuminate. What is winning? "Americans...cannot prevent themselves from behaving as if they were responsible for the planet...." (p. 381). Even if we can impose order and create the conditions for democracy and development, thanks to the supernatural efforts of extraordinary soldiers, what if benighted people in the wake of imperialism and oppression are unworthy of peace? From its "morally repugnant elites" to its obscene mob violence, Haiti is a seriously screwed-up country. A policeman of the new regime confides in Shacochis, "The people in Limbe have an animal behavior." Three generations of security forces-FAHD, the interim police, and the new Haitian National Police-all hated the people they were there to protect, caught in the same cycle of police brutality and rising mob violence that characterized earlier regimes (p. 368).
I think Shacochis misses the answer to "what is winning?" Security forces alone cannot rebuild social order. You can't put down the mob by "whipping their asses," and an American embassy official quoted as saying, "repression works" is dead wrong. Shacochis' brief foray into civil implementation ("Volunteers and Granola Munchers") fails to reveal the complex dance of the military-civil transition that needs to occur for peacebuilding and social reconstruction to be effective. He clearly does not understand this, and neither do his Green Beret snakeeaters (does anyone?). If only more people had understood, the dying days of the mission, described as mission sag, would have been days of frenetic activity-full of forging alliances, attracting outside resources, building local capacity, and mentoring civilian community leaders.
Under the UN mission, there were lots of individuals trying to do this, and they have continued up to the present, showing a steady evolution in the nature of international assistance to Haiti.
At the end, Shacochis quotes a soldier who says, "there's never really been a graceful withdrawal from anywhere.. so what do we do? We come back, we get to know our families again, what's left of them, and then get on with some training and wait for the next thing to come up" (p. 373). When Shacochis describes the bitterness of the departure and the sadness of the aftermath given all the expended effort, he misses the opportunity to say that the Green Berets really did help to lay the foundation of the future. I know they did. Nevertheless, perhaps this is where SF doctrine is weakest. Grinding poverty, ignorance, disease, and inequity are more often the oppressors than despots and ideologues.
When the shooting has been stopped, another skill set is needed that is not taught at Fort Bragg. Knowing when to pass the torch and who to pass it to would make the life of a Green Beret a happier one. For Shacochis' next book, I hope he spends more time with the granola munchers.
Major David Last
Royal Military College of Canada
Copyright Transaction Publishers Fall 2000