Sunday, January 31, 2010

Haiti's Poverty, Jared Diamond, and Rogue Special Forces Operators

(post-earthquake ruins of Port-au-Prince Cathedral)

Why is Haiti so poor?

Having discussed earthquakes and the particularly high levels of death and destruction they bring to developing nations, it seems prudent to turn some attention to the latest, tragic case study in the genre: Haiti.

We know why, geologically speaking, Haiti was hit by an earthquake, and we also know that there is essentially nothing that mankind could have done to prevent that seismic event from occurring. However, the death toll would almost certainly not have been as high if Haiti had been a rich country with better building construction, emergency services, and public health systems. A very appropriate series of questions, then, is why Haiti is a developing country, how we can best make the disaster relief mission part of an ongoing policy that could help the country to recover, and, in the future, how Haiti might actually enjoy a sustained period of strong economic growth.

Jared Diamond, Haiti, and the Collapse of Complex Societies

(satellite imagery revealing massive deforestation in Haiti: Haiti is on the left side of the picture, the Dominican Republic is on the right, the border cuts through the center in a slash)

The author and academic Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs, and Steel certainly ranks among the best of the emerging "Big History" genre (David Christian's book is another excellent one, as is McNeil's The Human Web), turned his attention to the question of how some societies have managed to outstrip their resource bases and go into periods of (often surprisingly rapid) decline. One section of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed deals with the question of how Haiti and the Dominican Republic, neighboring countries on the same island, have diverged in terms of relative economic growth paths and natural resource stewardship.

When the island of Hispaniola was first discovered by Columbus, it was populated by about 500,000 Arawak Indians. Within twenty years of the Spanish arrival and control of the island, that number would be cut down to less than 5,000. French swashbucklers would later settle on the western half of the island (the Spanish were more concentrated on the eastern half) and use it to conduct buccaneering operations against Spanish and English ships. As Spanish geopolitical power declined, the French presence would continue to expand, until ultimately a weary and cynical Spain granted France the western third of Hispaniola.

Interested in maintaining labor-intensive sugar cane farms and coffee plantations, the French brought in African slaves to work the fields in sufficiently large numbers that the area we now know as Haiti---then called Saint Domingue---was eventually responsible for nearly 25% of France's GDP.

*(if you want to read a very controversial book about the economics of the slave trade in the American Confederate South, pick up Robert Fogel's Time on The Cross).

Diamond notes that less than 1% of Haiti is still forested, compared with about 28% of the Dominican Republic. Many of Haiti's trees were cut down as lumber while the country was a French colony. The country's overpopulation problem---Haiti has 1/3 of the land mass of Hispaniola but 2/3 of the island's population----is also due to the colonial French and their need for large amounts of slave labor for sugar cane plantations.

The slaves, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe, ultimately managed to rebel and take back their freedom, defeating the French military forces using typical irregular warfare tactics. Defeat in Haiti may have led Napoleon to make the Louisiana Purchase deal with the United States.

Much as we saw in post-apartheid South Africa, a period of violence ensued, with whites killed and plantations destroyed. Unfortunately, there was no system of private property created in its wake; land tended go to "the Commons" or to small farms that were so far beneath scale as to be diseconomic, and we already know where these sorts of decisions can lead. The problem of deforestation also came into play, as it increased soil erosion and decreased the productivity of agriculture. Concerned with becoming another economically-enslaved colonial outpost, the Haitians made FDI (foreign direct investment) illegal, which in turn made it impossible for the country to accumulate capital for entrepreneurial deployment.

From 1843 to 1915, Haiti had 22 presidents. 21 of them were assassinated or forced from office by "extra-political means". The most stable political periods that Haiti has had have come with two of the most outrageously evil dictatorial regimes in recent history, those of "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Haiti has never recovered from the "brain drain" that occurred when educated Haitians fled the country during the the Duvalier regimes.

Today, the vast majority of members of the population still try to survive on small-scale subsistence farming. Electricity, potable water, and sanitation were unavailable to the majority even before the recent earthquake, and most buildings were constructed of the kind of unreinforced, brittle masonry that becomes a deathtrap when hit by seismic surface waves.


In my opinion, the best entry point for someone interested in learning more about both macroeconomics and microeconomics is the development economics literature, because the books tend to be very applied and accessible due to the practical demands of the discipline. The non-specialist and/or multi-disciplinary reader will find more in the ways of clear policy stances and supporting arguments, conceptual models, and qualitative analytical frameworks there, and generally less of the highly technical mathematics (although regression analysis is heavily used and should be understood). I also believe that development economics, "Big History" (world history and anthropology filtered specifically to look for patterns and catalysts), evolutionary psychology, and applied game theory are the four academic disciplines that would most benefit a military or paramilitary operator tasked with counter-insurgency missions overseas.

There are three major macroeconomic growth models typically taught in university graduate programs for economics: Solow, Romer, and Lucas. Each won a Nobel Prize for its developer. The Solow model predicts a convergence between poor and rich countries because of the existence of a diminishing return to capital. In the beginning, capital does a great deal of good and growth is turbocharged; as an economy matures, capital accumulation does not have the same contribution and growth slows. Thus, development economics follows a kind of stylized S-curve, revealing that capital accumulation (limited by the savings rate, since savings fuels investment) benefits poor countries in dramatic ways, allowing them steep growth rates, but not doing as much for wealthy countries with mature economies. The problem with the Solow model is this: empirical reality in the post-colonial era has been that there is strong evidence of an accumulation quality to advantage, wherein wealthy countries enjoy an initial advantage and then proceed to get wealthier---poor countries do not seem to be catching up.

The Romer and Lucas models deal with the problems of the Solow model by adding more important roles for technological innovation on productivity growth, as well as human capital (skills gained from experience, education, and training). The most important single domestic policy aspect seems to be the formation of reliable institutions which can enforce private property rights at home. Internationally, the most important aspect is a commitment to free trade.

Schools of Development Economics

I believe that there are really three major schools of development economics, and each would probably prescribe a different solution for Haiti. For brevity, I would list the schools as:

1. The Sachs/Stiglitz
2. The Easterly/De Soto/Bueno de Mesquita (EDB)
3. The Collier

Going into significant detail on each of these schools and the personalities that have formed them would be a good topic for a future entry, but for now I would say that:

1. Sachs/Stiglitz has the most faith in top-down solutions brought forward by governments and NGOs (i.e., scenarios in which rich countries spend money on programs designed to help poorer countries), and this school has attained the greatest popularity among activist groups and celebrity advocates (Bono, Angelina Jolie, etc.). Of considerable importance to the Sachs/Stiglitz school is the concept of a "debt trap", in which the requirement to make crushing debt repayment installments makes it impossible for poor countries to apply their budgets towards activities and investments that would lead to economic growth in the future. Thus, Sachs/Stiglitz disciples frequently make debt forgiveness a core policy goal.

2. Easterly/De Soto/Bueno de Mesquita has the least amount of faith in top-down solutions (indeed, many programs are found to have negative effects), and a strong conviction that many development economic problems are ultimately caused by a combination of rapaciously bad governments and the trade protectionist policies of developed economies. This school is the most popular with free market libertarian types. It generally does not share the Sachs/Stiglitz optimism regarding debt relief, citing evidence that, in developing nations, budgets suddenly freed from disciplinary constraints frequently attract despotic thugs who wish to apply the new-found surplus to their own discretionary spending agendas (Lamborghinis, yachts, shoe collections, art, elaborate torture chambers, etc.).

3 The Collier school is somewhere in the middle of this continuum, choosing to concentrate on identifying a handful of individual "development traps" that, Professor Collier argues, make it very difficult for poor nations to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (the traps themselves are basically a mixture of what the Sachs/Stiglitz and EDB schools feel are important: the "conflict trap", the "natural resource trap", the "landlocked with bad neighbors" trap, and the "bad governance in a small country" trap).

On the topic of Haiti, my supposition would be that two of the schools---Collier and the EDB---would agree that the central problem is one of bad governance (for a variety of reasons, the Sachs/Stiglitz school tends not to want to prioritize bad governance as a major factor). Between the Spanish, the French, and remarkably evil home-grown politicans, Haiti has suffered under one bad regime after another.

We can tick off Collier's other traps fairly quickly. Haiti may have a relatively high violent crime rate, but the country is not at war. It is certainly not landlocked. While we might count its role as a trans-shipment location for cocaine being exported from South America by aircraft and loaded onto ships for transport into the United States as a kind of resource (strategic location as a natural resource), Haiti does not have a so-called natural resource curse; if anything, deforestation has left the country with a lack of such gifts. However, Haiti does have an unnatural resource curse, and that curse is aid money that can be intercepted by corrupt leaders and used for their discretionary budgets.

The Natural Resource Curse: Further Explanation

Collier's other development traps are pretty much self-explanatory, but the natural resource curse is counter-intuitive and warrants a better explanation. It has long been known that countries that are blessed with abundant natural resources, such as oil, diamonds, and strategic metals, often do not develop broad, diversified, robust economies (the phenomenon is sometimes called "Dutch disease"). Instead, a competition for "rent-seeking" activities takes place, with various factions looking to gain access to the export cash. Governments frequently turn into kleptocracies that make deals with a foreign resource-extraction company and then reward themselves with the lion's share of the, say, oil revenues that the country receives. The government does not need to care about the rest of the economy because it does not require economic growth, innovation, or successful entrepreneurialism to provide its tax base; it just sells the country's natural resources, usually through a licensing arrangement with a foreign company, and then grows obscenely rich while the citizens of the country are left in bad shape.

Why don't the foreign resource-extraction companies insist that revenues paid to these governments go into institutions and programs that could help the local communities, rather than into the offshore bank accounts of kleptocrats? The main reason is that the resource-extraction companies are not equipped to conduct foreign policy: if a government has been recognized as legitimate by the United Nations, the corporation is going to deal with it on business terms*. In fact, an attempt to impose additional conditions in a competitive bidding scenario may lead to the "moral" company simply losing out to one that does not have such scruples. This has been precisely the case with many Chinese resource-extraction deals in Africa (the Chinese negotiators tend to have an attractive "no questions asked" policy, as well as deep pocketbooks).

One of the major contributions that Bill Easterly and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita have made to the study of development economics is in examining how foreign aid money can create an artificial resource curse. Rather than relying on oil or strategic metal exports and self-serving deals with resource-extraction companies, kleptocrats seek to gain access to foreign aid money through donor projects that naively try to "work through host governments". Once again, we find that concentrated power and top-down, centralized economic planning are the friends of both the social engineer/optimist and the tyrant.

*(As an aside, I can lend an anecdote to punctuate this story of how resource-extraction projects may not be the source of local jobs that one might expect them to be. Back in 2002, my business partner and I, along with Oxford colleagues Jim Sosnicky and Alisher Djumanov, spent a couple of months putting together a study for Lazard Freres. The study focused on the Caspian region of Central Asia and possibilities for a private-equity fund that could profit from growth in Caspian basin oil extraction, more specifically by investing in local oil service support-oriented businesses located in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Our investment thesis was that the oil industry would create spillover effects that benefited local businesses, and an investment vehicle could identify the most promising of these businesses and take equity positions in them.

(What we found, among other things, was that the resource-extraction companies often do have a certain amount of "local content" labor and business support that they are meant to hire and use as part of their deals with these governments, but the oil and oil services firms are so self-sufficient and their operations so systematized that the companies frequently end up complaining that the local-content requirements are basically just a tax and nuisance. It would be more efficient for the companies to just come in, set up shop using only their own personnel, and go to work (it obviously does not help that the "local content" businesses that the oil companies are forced to hire are frequently overseen by relatives and close friends of host government officials, who are simply interested in earning passive economic rents).

(We surmised that a private equity manager with expertise in both resource-extraction industry needs and the local business environment---and a very high level of competence navigating the treacherous waters of political risk and emerging market company valuation techniques---could probably generate a significant profit stream by intermediating himself or herself in the situation, allowing the resource-extraction companies to simply pay into a development fund--we termed it "the Caspian Trust"--- and then return to their core projects ((where they could now presumably work unmolested, having met their legal local-content hiring requirements)). An alternative for a manager with considerable moral flexibility would be to invest in Western-style restaurants, hotels, bars, and possibly other, darker "hospitality" businesses adjacent to the oil projects, and to generate profits from the oil rig workers' appetites for discretionary spending on evening and weekend entertainment).

Developing Haiti

Turning our attention back to Haiti, the Sachs/Stiglitz advocates would probably push for increased funding of medical, education, and technical assistance programs as a way to help the Haitians. The EDB school (and probably the Collier), on the other hand, would primarily focus on how the Haitian government's corruption has discouraged foreign direct investment (FDI) and capital formation.

Continuing that exploration, the "Lucas Paradox", which examines why capital does not flow efficiently from rich to poor countries (as would normally be expected given the higher growth rates and investment returns---the favorable position on that "S" curve of diminishing returns to capital that we discussed earlier---that the models anticipate being achieved in emerging markets), would come into play. Lucas considered how political risks---corruption, nationalization, populist uprisings, military coups, and so on---could create so much uncertainty in investment decisions that the required discount rates for valuing poor country projects become so high that the whole investment climate is categorized as prohibitively risky.

EDB would also look at scaling up coffee and sugar export capacity, and would view sugar subsidy programs in the U.S.---which have the effect of creating a steep tariff on sugar imported from a place like Haiti---as an obvious place to start.

Several international aid groups have come to agree with the EDB assessment, and to disagree with a generalized Sachs/Stiglitz-type of donor-centric prescription for Haiti's woes: Haiti has been participating in International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan arrangements for 36 of the past 50 years, with virtually no discernible gain. In fact, foreign aid may have had a net negative effect because it may have, as Bueno de Mesquita and Easterly frequently argue, made bad governance more profitable.

In their book Fixing Failed States, authors Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart note that "In Haiti, the aid system has been forced to acknowledge its adverse impact on the state...a paper by the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration aptly named 'Why Foreign Aid to Haiti Failed' seeks to explain 'why, after consuming billions in foreign aid over more than three decades, and hundreds of millions specifically for governance and democratization programs, not to mention billions for other programs, Haiti remains politically dysfunctional and improverished.' While laying the blame squarely at the door of poor governance in the country, it describes how aid has made either little impact or has had an adverse impact on governance."

The NAPA paper runs about 50 pages or so of quite interesting comments and analysis, and can be downloaded/printed from this link:

My faithful guide from The Economist states that the Haitian economy consists of 40% services (mostly tourism), 27% agricultural products (coffee, mangoes, sugar cane), 8% industry, and 25% "other". There may be a way to monetize sympathy for the Haitians through marketing gimmicks like, say, a "Fair Trade Coffee for Haiti Relief" initiative that obtains a price premium, but such an effort will A) likely not be sustained, and B)not produce great benefits to the Haitians for some microeconomic reasons that I will explore in a future post on the serious problems with "Fair Trade" coffee and similar products.

As I fall squarely in the EDB camp, my own feeling is that the best things that the U.S. government can do for Haiti in regards to ongoing, post-disaster policy would be to give the country the most favorable trade terms that we can, and---possibly---to look at fresh and innovative ways to support foreign direct investment in terms of coffee, sugar cane, and tourism projects. A more ambitious goal would be to somehow create functional socioeconomic and political institutions in the country, but experience has proven that this generally must be a bottom-up, emergent process rather than the result of a top-down policy plan.

(tourists bask in the sun on Haitian beach)

Killing Tyrants: The problem of removing bad leaders

Unfortunately, any aid or trade support efforts will be futile if Haiti ends up being run by another feral dictator. The question of what to do about bad governance is a very difficult one for development economists, because ultimately one runs into the issue of regime change, of a policy regarding the removal of a corrupt leader by force. In Haiti and in other countries, the "you-break-it/you-own-it" nature of regime change intervention always runs the risk of creating long-term dependency, even of making the target country become the de facto 51st State.

Knowing that a nation's core problem is a bad governance structure thus makes for frustration and extreme sensitivity to the current political climate for risk appetite, because the only prescriptions that have even a moderately good chance of working are invasive (literally) and very dangerous. Regime-change and stabilization missions in Haiti have been attempted by the U.S. military a few times in the past, and this leads us to a tangential discussion of an interesting man named Stan Goff.

Stan Goff's Hideous Dream

(anti-war activist and author Stan Goff, pictured on the left, served with the most elite units of the Army's special operations community---including the one popularly known by a name that starts with the letter 'D')

From the U.S. State Department: In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won 67% of the vote in a presidential election that international observers deemed largely free and fair. Aristide took office on February 7, 1991, but was overthrown that September in a violent coup led by army elements and supported by many of the country's economic elite. The coup contributed to a large-scale exodus of Haitians by boat. From October 1991 to September 1994 a de facto military regime governed Haiti. Several thousand Haitians may have been killed during the de facto military rule. Various OAS and UN initiatives to end the political crisis through the peaceful restoration of the constitutionally elected government failed. On July 31, 1994, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 940, which authorized member states to use all necessary means to facilitate the departure of Haiti's military leadership and to restore Haiti's constitutionally elected government to power.

The United States took the lead in forming a multinational force (MNF) to carry out the UN's mandate by means of a military intervention. In mid-September, with U.S. troops prepared to enter Haiti by force, Gen. Raoul Cedras and other top leaders agreed to accept the intervention of the MNF. On September 19, 1994, the first contingents of what became a 21,000-member international force touched down in Haiti to oversee the end of military rule and the restoration of the constitutional government. President Aristide and other elected officials in exile returned on October 15.


For me, one of the most fun aspects of having a blog is the opportunity to introduce colorful, interesting characters into a larger narrative. While pursuing this will involve rambling away from the development economics theme, I don't think a discussion of U.S. relief efforts in Haiti would be complete without mentioning a memoir critical of a previous U.S. intervention in the country, Hideous Dream, that was written by the enigmatic Stan Goff, a former professional soldier in the most elite units of the U.S. Army.

Goff deployed to Haiti in 1994 (the same year that I went through BUD/S) as the team sergeant for a Special Forces MFF (Military Freefall-parachuting-designated) operational detachment. At that point, he already had a military career behind him that read like something from a Sergeant Rock comic: previous deployments to Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Venezuela, Honduras, South Korea, Colombia, Peru, and Somalia; squad leader in the 82nd Airborne and the Ranger Regiment, patrolling instructor at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama, assaulter-then-sniper during four years with the Army's most prestigious and secretive combat unit (which I will refer to simply as "D"), Military Science instructor at West Point, break-in service to train Department of Energy SWAT-type units (the same organizations that produced multi-time 3-Gun competition champion Bennie Cooley, one of the best shooting instructors I have ever had), Ranger Regiment platoon sergeant, Special Forces 18-Delta (medical sergeant) on a team from 7th Special Forces Group, Regimental Special Forces Medic at the Ranger Regiment.

Since retiring from the Army, Goff has become a neo-Marxist, or at least a hardcore statist-collectivist, and a well-known anti-war activist. An articulate writer with an adroit turn-of-phrase and command of a variety of post-modernist social critiques ("gender is just a social construction" type stuff), Goff seems to have been building an explanatory historical narrative of class warfare and institutionalized racism even before the Haiti deployment, and his experiences there certainly pushed him further to the political left.

I don't find Goff to be particularly unpatriotic, although I am sure that this is the standard trope brought out to criticize him (I am naturally suspicious of arguments that use this rhetorical gimmick, anyway). In some ways, Goff simply follows the dissenting tradition of a legendary figure named Smedley Butler, the Marine Corps senior officer who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor (!) before retiring to write War is a Racket, a scathing critique of U.S. military intervention overseas.

Interestingly, Butler had also been involved in operations in Haiti (in 1915---he was recommended for his second Medal of Honor after leading a combat mission in which 200 Caco rebels were killed at the cost of a single Marine being hit in the mouth with a rock and losing some teeth). He was later court-martialed for having made disparaging public remarks about Benito Mussolini (in the early 1930s, when such remarks were not politically acceptable), and his life inspired several fictional characters, including the fire-breathing Marine general-turned-mutineer portrayed by Ed Harris in the movie The Rock.

Major General Smedley Butler, USMC
"The flag follows the dollar...and the troops follow the flag."

After he retired, Butler became quite outspoken, as evidenced by the following (perhaps his best-known and most provocative quote): "I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents."

I think that one has to respect the military achievements of men like Butler and Goff, and has to take seriously the factors that could lead to such individuals becoming so utterly disillusioned (my speculation is that they have to somehow reduce cognitive dissonance). Clearly many of us ultimately want the very same things---freedom from tyranny (defined in different ways), dignity for the individual, the right to self-expression and the pursuit of personal dreams. I myself have a number of conciliatory thoughts when I read Goff's books. And yet, at the same time, I am baffled by Goff's politics and economics. I do not believe the central Marxist notions of collectivist central planning and its attendant "pure labor" theory of value are serviceable, and I think that attempting to make such a system work ends up creating just the kind of militant, jingoistic totalitarian monster that Goff rails against (a monster that will be biased towards imperialism abroad because it will face endogenous economic growth problems at home, largely due to the Marxist model's lack of a decentralized, dynamic market clearing price-discovery mechanism).

Furthermore, military adventurism in support of corporate profits, if existing in the virulent form claimed by Goff and Butler, would be a case of something that Public Choice theorists and Austrian economists term "regulatory capture" (this important issue will be the subject of an upcoming blog entry). Regulatory capture makes an argument in favor of a more limited, specifically-outlined role for government, rather than an expanded, more invasive one.

These comments aside, Goff's book contains some observations and anecdotes about life in the military that are well worth reading, regardless of one's economic preferences. The reader can develop an appreciation for the demands of the warrior life. For example, Goff describes the team's rigorous pre-Haiti deployment training---the team is originally tasked with a freefall parachute insertion into Haiti, followed by the execution of a special reconnaissance (SR) mission---in some detail: "We ran for maximum intensity, four to six miles four days a week, some of us kicking out six-minute miles. We carried 85 pounds of weight for our training marches, five miles in one hour and fifteen minutes over sandy logging roads every Monday morning. We lifted weights before lunch. We quit wearing jumpsuits and skydiving, electing instead to jump in battle fatigues and combat equipment, mostly at night, a significant increase in discomfort, risk, and training value. We re-trained virtually every battle drill, using nothing but tried and true, simple and rugged, light infantry tactics. We trained in stalking skills, photography, marksmanship. We established SOPs for uniform, equipment, and deployment procedures. We conducted field layouts, almost unheard of at the team level in a Special Forces Group. Our training tempo was the highest we saw anywhere in the Group, and the focus of that training was Back-to-Basics through repetition."

I particularly liked his insights regarding how the detachment commander and team sergeant of an ODA can lose control of the team if a critical mass of anti-authority personality types is able to build, which is an interesting observation because Goff clearly harbors maverick, anti-authoritarian beliefs of his own.

One of the things I found striking in his account was his creation of an atmosphere in which the questioning of superiors is an appropriate preoccupation, at least for a warrior-scholar like Goff, but his being questioned by subordinates could represent an affront, a disciplinary problem. I think this asymmetry stems from a kind of intellectual elitism and is is probably a natural tendency that can arise whenever a highly qualified, well-read analyst like Goff is put in a middle-management position. The selection and training programs that Goff survived, multiple times, are among the most difficult in the world and are designed to create a supremely confident and disciplined individual. The ability to focus can easily be self-directed towards autodidactic pursuits that the military may or may not prefer.

I also believe that senior enlisted men who serve as operators in the classified world of the national Special Mission Units (SMUs---the Army's D and the Navy's equivalent), but then rotate back to serve in "vanilla" elite units (normally Special Forces or regular SEAL Teams), can occasionally make life quite difficult for their officers. Goff and others of his species become accustomed to the high levels of autonomy, tolerance for individual eccentricities, informality, and meritocratic, borderline anarchist decision-making processes that the SMUs enjoy, and may bring this back with them to situations that do not feature the same cultural dynamics. Junior officers are appropriately impressed, probably even intimidated, and may end up deferring to the ex-SMU NCOs---perhaps to such an extent that it ends up compromising the officers' own authority. Men like Goff can make or break officers, and they usually have to make a conscious decision to support the officers by enforcing standards of "conventional" military professionalism.

(members of the Army's secretive and prestigious Special Mission Unit on deployment in Afghanistan)

Any junior officer, particularly one serving in a special warfare organization, could probably benefit from reading a few sections of Hideous Dream, as they present some prototypical issues that will invariably come up: "Kyle epitomized many of the criticisms I had of Special Forces. He was ignorant of doctrine and pretended he was superior to it, a case of buying into the SF mystique. He was more concerned with how he looked than how he performed. He assumed because he understood the engineering part of his job that he was exempt from other 'soldier' skills and tasks. He felt he was entitled to higher levels of comfort than conventionals and Rangers---that the austerity they endured was for the simple-minded and not for the 'special' people like Green Berets. From my first days on the job, he had resented my opposition to that sense of entitlement, and my insistence on mastery of basic military doctrine as the foundation for conducting 'special' operations. I hated the mystique. So our antagonism, while never loud and open, was early and consistent." I believe the problems that Goff raises here are fairly commonplace in elite units, but found in their most pure forms within the private military contractor (PMC) community.

Goff also adds local color by giving a brief discussion of his association with a man named Marshall Brown while both men were members of "D", the Army's SMU. A highly respected member of that elite group, Brown apparently went through a period of extreme Christian fundamentalism---there was a Born Again movement within the unit at one time, highlighted by William Boykin (Boykin came into the media spotlight recently when he, as a 3-star, allegedly made public comments casting the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in Biblical terms)---before later becoming an infamous serial rapist. This is an insane story in itself; for a more detailed account of Brown's military background and a related psychological study, heavy on the post-modernist/anti-patriarchal society literature references, here is Goff's essay on the topic at "Freedom Road" (apparently some kind of socialist enthusiasm site): ).

The central theme of Hideous Dream is that an existing culture of racism, largely kept from the public eye, infested the special operations community and made it very difficult for deployed units to develop the pathos, the empathic rapport, with the black population in Haiti. This rapport was necessary for effective humanitarian efforts and "nation-building" to take place. Goff gives many anecdotes in support of this claim, but here is just one, from early in the book before the team deploys to Haiti: "The man making the (racist) comment was Sergeant First Class Frank Kelly, the team sergeant for the detachment across the hall. On his team wall, he posted the 'Murc Map', after the local diminutive for Murchison Road, where a high concentration of the black citizens of Fayetteville lived. Frank scanned the paper for crime stories, and when he found crimes committed in the black neighborhoods, he pushed a colored map pin into the site. This was Frank's way, with the help of his team, of demonstrating his stated belief that blacks are innately criminal..."

In other instance, a member of Goff's ODA who had worked among the Haitian population for some time was advised that thousands of Haitian children would die of HIV/AIDS. His response: "Good."

Goff finds that racism is used to create a form of "in-group vs. out-group" camaraderie in some units, with jokes and stereotypes employed, even by relatively educated individuals, to build rapport among team members according to a kind of lowest-common denominator principle (i.e., as a kind of populist appeal that works because of the socio-economic demographic of the target audience). At times, argues Goff, this goes beyond ethical malfeasance and leads to tactical generalizations on the ground in Haiti that risk alienating the local population and increasing the risk of mission failure. Many of the men come to abhor aspects of the Haiti mission, which certainly does involve physical privation, ambiguity, and stress, and to also begin to abhor the Haitians themselves.

Although I cannot imagine him being against the U.S. military humanitarian aid/disaster relief mission in the wake of the earthquake tragedy in Haiti, I believe that Goff would predict that some very real problems between operational units and local communities will begin to reveal themselves if the disaster creates true political displacements, causing U.S. troops stay for extended "nation-building" operations. Haiti is, in many ways, a failed state, and comparisons with the Somalia debacle are probably going to be inevitable.


As I was writing this and thought of Stan Goff, Smedley Butler, and the events that seem to continually besiege poor Haiti, a particularly appropriate song happened to be playing on my iPod and I found it unexpectedly quite moving. For some utterly emotional reason, the live video clip of it, sung by a master, seemed like a good way to close today's entry.


  1. Fascinating post, Seb. What (accessible) books on development econ do you recommend? Economics and finance is my self-improvement project for the year, but I'm starting from a raw beginner level.

  2. Thanks! I know it was really long---started out with a plan for a concise post, but the Stan Goff stuff was so interesting to me that I couldn't stop.

    The next blog entries will be a lot more focused.

    Re: dev econ. I think Collier's "The Bottom Billion" and Easterly's "The White Man's Burden" and "The Elusive Quest for Growth" are canonical. If you want to get really cynical, Bueno de Mesquita has a game theory-centric one called "The Logic of Political Survival" that I found to be really compelling.

    I'm very interested in getting your thoughts on any or all of these.

  3. Thanks Seb! Surprisingly, the first two books are in the public library here, so I'll be starting on them soon. One additional thing to think about with respect to Haiti's development were the French war reparations, which Haiti paid until around 1940, I think. Sort of like reverse FDI!

  4. Jay, I didn't know about the war reparations issue. That's remarkable.

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