In 1991, the United States Central Intelligence Agency worked behind the scenes with members of a mafia-like organization in Haiti called the FRAPH to organize a coup d’etat against the popularly-elected government of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The President of the United States at the time was George Herbert Walker Bush, père of the recently retired. At that time, I was working as a military adviser to a Peruvian infantry battalion that was attacking Indians and political dissidents around Huaichipa.
In 1994, as the operations chief for a Special Forces A-Detachment of nine men, I went to Haiti as part of a US invasion force, ostensibly to restore President Aristide to his rightful office and to end the bloody regime of Raul Cedras, the U.S. client who had become the de facto head of state after the 1991 coup.
Between the lines of the carefully crafted double-speak of the Department of Defense – a dialect I understood very well after 15 years in Special Operations – we understood that this benevolence was a mask for the very real concern that the Cedras regime’s depredations were about to cause a popular uprising in Haiti that would escape the control of the U.S. State Department. The return of the legitimately-elected Aristide – a key demand being made by popular movements there – was being choreographed to tamp down popular ire, at the same time ensure that Aristide was hemmed in by the United States in such a way that he could not pursue his original agenda of national self-determination for Haiti.
This is, of course, a much longer story, about which I have written volumes over the years, including a memoir of my participation in the 1994 invasion, entitled Hideous Dream – A Soldier’s Memoir of the Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press, 2000).
The title of that memoir comes from Brutus’ line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (2.1.63-69):
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream;
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
This line is the interior monologue of a man about to step past the point of no return in a dangerous political act – the assassination of a head of state, and his former ally. Brutus compares his mental state – the inescapable anxiety of a dangerous act to which one has committed – to the anarchy of a political state suffering an insurrection. The irony, of course, is equally inescapable.
Oddly enough, I found myself in a similar position while in Haiti during the 1994 invasion, ergo the title of the book.
At the end of a military career that started in Vietnam in 1970, I had been exposed to enough of my country’s foreign policy as an insider to know how perfectly cynical it was, and I was in a state of moral turmoil about my own participation in this history. This included fairly extensive experience in the Reagan-Bush-era predations against Latin America.
In the sequence of activity that unfolded during the Haiti invasion, and in the chaos of poor planning by the task force that oversaw the invasion, I found myself for almost three months with an unprecedented degree of autonomy to take decisions on my own. The intersection of this autonomy with my destabilizing personal and moral fault lines created the conditions for a series of actions that I could be fairly sure – on my more rational days there – would lead to a collision with my own chain of command.
I began to intentionally-interpret the intentionally-vague language of our mission statement – to create stability – in a very specific way that I knew very well was inconsistent with the between-the-lines meanings of my government. I bent a Special Forces A-Detachment to my imperfect understanding of the popular will of the Haitian poor.
The outcome is not what I’m getting around on here, but for the record, my efforts were rewarded with summary relief from my position of authority and came within a whisker of landing me in a federal penitentiary.
One of the points I am sneaking up on is a living image, for my fellow first-worlders, of what Haiti was like.
That is, what Haitians were like, are like, as a peasant society, under the debilitating parasitic pressure of co-located urbanization resulting from extra-territorial, imperial domination. That’s a mouthful, but it’s a summary with an analogy that we’ll get to by-and-by.
Let’s start with what’s different in the daily lives of Haitians – different, that is, from what we generally know.
Daily life is daily. What I mean is, the direct struggle for survival for the majority of the population is renewed each morning with an immediate concern for water and food.
Kinship bonds are critical in this day-to-day struggle. Family ties are extended and Byzantine to the unpracticed foreign eye.
There is little of what we call infrastructure – vehicular roads (the overwhelming majority has no gas-powered transport), electricity, potable or even running water, sewage systems, medical facilities, etc.
The main construction method for houses is called the kay-pay (grass house), a method of interlaced bamboo or wood, plastered in with mud, and roofed with long-grass. People are packed into these houses at night, where they sleep on woven reed mats. Bathing is accomplished with a bucket and cup. Food is prepared – with rice and beans as staples – on fires, fueled by deadfall in the countryside, and by more energy-consumptive (and deforesting) charcoal in the city slums. Babies remain at the breast as long as possible.
Chickens, goats, pigs, bony horses, oxen and cows, donkeys and mules, and semi-feral dogs are ubiquitous.
The best land is used for export crops to get dollars to service US-based debts; and though Haiti could easily be self-supporting, they are forced to rely on expensive goods – including food – often produced in the United States.
People are thin, a consequence of strenuous life, little food, and gastrointestinal parasites, the latter responsible for the pot-bellies on most of the otherwise skinny children, many naked until they are 8-10-years old.
People are also very talkative, loud, and sometimes verbally combative.
Gossip is a major pastime, and the means of distributive communication. Perhaps the two most important means of general information sharing are street markets and riversides. Washing clothes at the riversides is a culture of women, who see this activity as far more than utilitarian. As children play in and around the water, this is where women talk with each other, take off their shirts to cool down, and to rage and laugh together about life.
Haitians are largely poor and illiterate, but their knowledge of their environment – physical and cultural – is manifold and deep. During my 21 different visits to Haiti (I returned often after I left the military), my own ineptitude at pretty much everything was always a source of amusement – especially to women and children. They are illiterate for the most part; but they are far from stupid.
Now with this snapshot as a backdrop, I want to describe a couple of incidents during the invasion.
Not long after we arrived, a handful of teams was sent to the port city of Gonaives. When I arrived on the second lift of helicopters, a crowd of easily 10,000 people had pressed in from all sides, and our teams were incapable of traveling the 200-or-so meters to the police caserne where we were to encamp. The crowd was curious and emotional, sometimes breaking into spontaneous political songs with African rhythms that set the place dancing.
Desame lame nou mande nou mande desame lame (Disarm the army, we demand. I can still hear it.)
The crowd had smeared its face with lemon juice from local trees to kill the sting of the teargas that the Haitian police had used on them moments before our arrival, and the helicopter blade wash had blown dust onto the lemoned faces, which stuck, making it appear that everyone had painted their faces pale gray – like a strange scene from a bad imperial film. Our teams were suddenly and fully occupied holding crowds back enough to maintain the circle of space necessary to land our supply helicopters.
Now inside this circle were a dozen or so of the hated Haitian FAdH (Force Armee dHaiti, police), the very ones who had teargassed the crowd, and – as we would learn – who had been beating the population down throughout the last three years of the Cedras regime, including a massacre in the nearby slum of Raboteau. The FAdH carried four-foot wooden batons, thick as the neck on a baseball bat. I had seen the film footage, before we left Port-au-Prince, of FAdH troops wading into civilian assemblies with these batons and mercilessly beating men, women, and children.
On an impulse, while I was part of the perimeter of US troops holding the landing zone, I stepped over to one of the FAdH, snatched the baton out of his hand, and threw it on the ground, precipitating one of the most memorable and startling experiences of my entire life.
With that little action, the collective voice of the crowd exploded with an expression of approval for my action and high-pressure rage against the FAdH, and the crowd spilled past our perimeter, advancing almost instantaneously to within few feet of the now terrified FAdH soldier. Thirty or so men were now pushing back against an agitated mass of ten thousand, and had we not barely contained this, the FAdH soldier’s body would have been distributed amongst that mass in an orgy of longstanding hurt, humiliation, and vengeance.
What was also revealed by this action and reaction was that our puny numbers with our guns were protected more than anything else by psychological barriers a truth that is a source of anxiety to ruling classes everywhere and at all times.
While barely contained in that instance, this incident made me a kind of popular hero among the Haitians, and that friendly disposition followed me to Fort Liberte in the Northeast, near the Dominican Republic, where I would spend the next three months.
I had seen with my own eyes what popular discontent in a peasant society looks like when it is let loose, and gained an idea of how deep the anger and resentment of systematic humiliation goes even when it is not manifest. It seethes under the surface, tamped down by the weapons of the authorities and the dependence on the system and its money, until an opening appears, whereupon the psychological barrier crumbles, and the rage erupts like a volcano.
When we finally got settled and the crowd went to bed that night, a U.S. officer rebuked me, calling my action a stupid stunt. And I sensed that I had jumped off onto a dangerous path in demonstrating this solidarity with the Haitian crowd… a poor crowd, an uneducated crowd, the kind of crowd that all authorities find extremely frightening and dangerous. My own authorities included.
I had a real sense now of that anxiety described by Brutus, of preparing to enter the unknown yet inexorable consequences of that “first motion” in an insurrection. And what would put me in the spotlight – so to speak – was the fact that I was using large assemblies of the unwashed – mobs, to the authorities – to do what I was doing.
I did so again and again over the next few weeks, first in Ouanaminthe, a border town, and finally in Fort Liberte; and I had learned to manage crowds – manipulate them even which gave me little pause, even as they continued to scare the crap out of Haitian policemen and rich people.
I was charged with creating and maintaining stability, and with nine people left by the time we arrived in Fort Liberte, my calculation was that we couldn’t control a million people without the most draconian methods or without re-arming and re-empowering the hated FAdH… unless we simply put the majority on our side. That majority was overwhelmingly the Lavalas movement of Father Aristide.
Not to be disingenuous, I was also already in a state of insurrection, because I was refusing to read between the lines. When the task force commanders dictated that we should re-arm the remaining FAdH and put them back in their casernes and on the street, I gave them their weapons, but refused to give them ammunition and threatened them with dire consequences if they so much as looked cross-eyed at anyone without clearing it through us. The FAdH in Fort Liberte then spent three months playing dominoes under a big shade tree.
I’ll only burden the reader with one other description of an event there, then I will get to the main point – which is a report on my attendance for a bible study last week (January 19-23, 2009) at the Bartimaeus Institute in Oak View, California.
After arriving in Fort Liberte, and summarily arresting the chief Cedras thugs in town, as well as the former ambassador to France under Francois Duvalier (for which I was later reprimanded), I had made contact with the partisans of Aristide – organized loosely as the Comite du Lavalas – and informed them that I would hold a public meeting with them, with the de facto (Cedras) local officials, and with the FAdH commander, at the small public library (not what you might imagine, but a large two-room cinder block facility with a couple dozen books).
In that meeting, we would hear all the grievances from popular representatives against the de facto officials and their bullies, and we would then announce the reinstatement of Aristide-era officials, including the mayor, a woman with whom I would become close friends, named Adele Mondestin.
This announcement was met with trepidation by the de facto officials and their allies, and with skepticism and not a little fear by everyone else – so accustomed had they become to the power of the de facto regime and the well-placed mistrust of any representative of the U.S. government… which I was. On this account, in a town of perhaps 2,000 souls, about 3,000 jammed up against the library on the appointed day to push and shove for a view and a listen through the open-air windows of the cinder-block building.
We had to fight our way through, two of us from the team, Adele and her cohort, the FAdH commander, and several anti-Aristide representatives who were selected by a process that remains opaque to me to this day.
The room, of course, was packed, also using a protocol that I left to Adele and those who understood the social hieroglyphics of Haiti.
The temperature, as it is every day in Fort Liberte, was in the 90s. The mass of bodies pressed in and cut off the ventilation. The air was still and stifling inside. All of us stank, me in particular because I was wearing a full uniform with all my “battle-rattle,” and sweating as only a blan can sweat in the tropics. The chatter of the mass was a kind of constant din, and we had to interrupt the proceedings again and again to temporarily quiet the rowdy onlookers. The FAdH commander, an overfed crook named Pierre Ulrich, had the aspect of a man about to be led to the electric chair as he surveyed the hostile sea of aggrieved faces now looking him smack in the eye.
Picture this, and you begin to appreciate how dangerous anyone can be who can mobilize a crowd of the oppressed.
This had been Aristide’s unforgivable sin, this ability to connect with the Haitian poor, and no policy concession would ever divest him of that sin. That’s why, after he won another fair election, he was again deposed in a coup blatantly organized by the U.S. in 2004, orchestrated for the Haitian independence bicentennial as a special form of humiliation, with Colin Powell presiding over the process. (I was there until the day before the coup, and I can report that every mainstream media outlet in the U.S. was knowingly complicit in this coup… another story.)
Returning to the library meeting, when we concluded the grievance session – a process that ground on for hours, punctuated by raucous affirmation from the entire crowd inside and out – I announced, like a little Caesar from the north, that heretofore the officials of the Aristide government were to resume all duties, and that any interference from the old armed actors, both FAdH and FRAPH (a right-wing death squad network, in the pay of the CIA) as well as a network of thugs called attaches, would be met with ominous consequences from my detachment and implicitly by the entire task force as far as the Haitians there knew.
Of course, that implication was a lie, and I was the liar.
The response to this announcement was riotous and celebratory; and it touched off three consecutive days of demonstrations, street theater, music, dancing, drinking, and satirical provocation against the former oppressors, who cowered in the caserne as my own team guarded them by sittingon the front porch of the caserne to be entertained by the parade of festivities.
For that time, at least, the old order had fallen. And my gut told me that I was further and further out on a limb.
Eventually, my team rebelled against my agenda, the task force got wind of my foolishness, and I was paid a surprise visit by a Humvee one morning that packed me off as a detainee in something called an Article 15-6 investigation, where among other things, it was suggested that I had become “seditious.”
* * *
Back to the present…
For some time over the last year, Steve Taylor, Director of Mission for the North Carolina United Methodist Conference, had been insisting that I attend the Bartimaeus Institute – a biblical study forum under the auspices of Bartimeaus Cooperative Ministries in Oak View, California.
I will say this now, and with emphasis, I recommend this institute for anyone and everyone who can go; and I suggest that every congregation routinely solicit scholarships to fund these trips to bring Bartimaeus’ special insights back into our congregations.
The intellectual parent of Bartimaeus is theologian Ched Myers, who I had seen speak here in Durham less than three years ago at the Hayti Heritage Center – an African American cultural center. I still identified as a secular activist then, and my main efforts were then directed against the bloody occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. armed forces.
Ched did a riff on Luke 7:36-50, the story of Jesus having his feet wept upon and kissed by a woman described as “a sinner,” much to the chagrin of his hosts and even his disciples. In this riff, Ched did what the original authors of the Gospels meant to have done: He narrated the story aloud, with the proper dramatic inflections and gestures to bring the story to life; and he contextualized the story with some socio-economic background history.
I had been earnestly studying feminism in order to write my third book, Sex War, a study of gender and militarism, and I was thoroughly taken aback by the radical feminist content of this Bible story, given the social conditions that prevailed with regard to gender in 1st Century Palestine.
In the crux of the story, which we have generally and mistakenly taken to be simply at attention-getting clause, Jesus asks those around him, “Do you see this woman?”
Do you see this woman?
I had been writing for the last two years about the invisibility of The Inconvenient Other in systems of social domination, and here was that entire theme packed into a single question… 2,000 years ago, by a man who would eventually be executed for his ability to stir up crowds. And I had walked through life, including an activist’s life dedicated to fighting oppression, with Bibles lying all around me unread.
That turned out to be one of the key moments that would lead me to my own baptism on Easter Day 2008. I didn’t know it at the time, but there is a name for this kind of reading of the Scriptures: biblical animation.
So now, at last, let me get to the experience at Bartimaeus and what it has to do with my title, which includes the surname of John Wesley, the founding parent of Methodism. Wesley’s way of living has been condensed in a little booklet by Bishop Reuben Job, called Three Simple Rules – A Wesleyan Way of Living, which is widely circulated among Methodists. Those three rules are: Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.
And ever since I read that little pamphlet, I had found the first two fairly easy to understand, and the last one very difficult. Because God is incomprehensible to me, not simply because I am a personhood formed within skeptical modernism, but because God doesn’t show her face. (In the Aramaic and even in the Muslim appellation Allah, the term that has been rendered as Father for us is actually a non-gendered noun that translates very roughly to the origin, or the “womb” of the universe.) When even a scientist like Stephen Hawking says that the origin of the origin, the precursor to the “singularity” of modern cosmology, is the point at which all theories collapse, and that if we could know that, only then would we “see the mind of God,” then how is an ex-soldier supposed to understand, much less “love,” God?
This is really a testimony to how obtuse I can be; and I’ll explain why.
When we were together, 13 of us, at the Bartimaeus Institute, Ched facilitated an acting class for the translation of the story of Jesus and the man with the withered hand.
For two days, we had poured over the similarities between the ministry of Jesus and the non-violent ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King – not for the apotheosis of King, but as a living and recent example of discipleship. And we had compared the circumstances of the Judeans under Rome with African Americans under legal apartheid in the U.S. South. We had been introduced to maps and pictures and descriptions of the social system into which Jesus was born, in order to contextualize the Gospel of Mark – our subject of study.
As we went along, I came to think of Herod Antipas as Cedras, because even more than the segregated South, the culture of 1st Century Palestine was a peasant culture deformed and oppressed by an imperial project, and overseen by a colonial surrogate ruler. Palestine was a dusty, broken place populated by the same kinds of animals, the same kinds of houses, the same pot-bellied, naked babies, the same kind of people as Haiti – with the same kind of unnamed but explosive discontent gnawing at their guts alongside the parasites.