An Excellent Island Adventure: The U.S.A. Date-Rapes Haiti

The Immaculate Invasion , by Bob Shacochis. Viking, 408 pages, $27.95.

Until the early 1990′s, you could always turn to Haiti to prove that the United States was just another colonial power, and a particularly negligent and inept one at that. For generation after generation, the America Haitians knew was not the same U.S.A. beloved of dissidents from Prague to Moscow; it was the United Fruit Company’s America, not Vaclav Havel’s.

And from the perspective of the United Fruit Company’s America, as Bob Shacochis points out early in his remarkable account of the most recent U.S. military occupation, no despot could go far wrong “crying wolf about communists.” As long as François (Papa Doc) Duvalier could be depended on to do things like cast the deciding vote to keep Fidel Castro’s Cuba out of the Organization of American States, he could depend on a continuing flow of U.S. aid and arms for his soldiers and tonton macoutes . And Washington, meanwhile, could turn a blind eye to the fact that all the aid–except for the guns–was being looted.

But times change, both in Port-au-Prince and in Washington. The United States, Mr. Shacochis writes, had always been in Haiti in one role or another, “as wardens, patrons, carpetbaggers, saints, and thieves … [providing] an ominous background hum to the island’s tribulations.”

The tribulations of the late 1980′s were called dictatorship and the end of dictatorship. Papa Doc was long dead and his son, Baby Doc, was in increasingly impecunious exile in the south of France. The Haitian elite had tried to finesse the transition. In 1990, it failed. A radical young priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide, much given to anti-American rhetoric and old-fashioned Haitian revolutionary enthusiasm, was swept into power. Seven months later, he was swept out of power, in a coup that had at least the tacit backing of some American officials.

Mr. Shacochis, who won a National Book Award for fiction in 1985, is a master at describing American ambivalence toward Haitian democracy. Policy makers in the Bush Administration, he writes, were split “between statesmen who at least professed to support democracy (and its noisy consequences) … and the spies and diplomats, the holy rollers at State and Defense with no vision beyond the institutional culture of the American Government–still hard-wired for the cold war–who refused to assign any legitimate meaning to the will of the Haitian masses or to accept the fact … [that Jean-Bertrand Aristide was] the only Haitian chief of state who ever seemed to display an ideology beyond self.”

Credit the Congressional Black Caucus, credit the end of the cold war or, hard as it may be to do in this, Year 2 of Monicagate, credit Bill Clinton himself, but after the 1992 elections, supporting democracy won out over continuing to green-light the C.I.A.’s old clients in the Haitian military and among the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or Fraph, the paramilitary organization used by the putschists to impose their will in the streets. Ineptly, to be sure, but in the end decisively and overwhelmingly, the Clinton Administration decided to occupy Haiti one more time and put Mr. Aristide back in power.

Mr. Shacochis went to Haiti to cover what the U.S. military called “Operation Uphold Democracy,” and what he dubs “the immaculate invasion.” Had the Fraph not been murdering people all over the country, the farcical aspects of the operation would have taken over completely. Not for nothing does Mr. Shacochis begin one of his chapters, “Maintain gravitas, please.” A U.S. naval troop carrier, the Harlan County , steamed into Port-au-Prince only to be withdrawn when a group of Fraph thugs appeared at dockside. And in September 1994, when the go-ahead had been given for an invasion to crush the junta that had overthrown Mr. Aristide, Jimmy Carter, the great ambulance chaser of international politics, flew into Port-au-Prince to broker a deal that would allow the coup leaders to escape. As Mr. Shacochis puts it, junta leaders who had been thugs the week before were, after the Carter accord, “gentlemen deserving of ‘military honor.’”

The subsequent invasion, which military planners had imagined would at least involve subduing some resistance from the Haitian army and the Fraph–the view was that the mission would rank somewhere between Panama and Grenada in terms of combat–turned out to be a walkover. “Gone,” Mr. Shacochis writes, “was the forced entry, the hard entry. In its place, the ‘permissive’ entry, the ‘soft’ entry. Warfare’s version of date rape.” And yet, as Mr. Shacochis wisely notes, “men could die from friendly fire; governments could be undone by ‘friendly’ occupation.”

For American troops on the ground, above all for the Special Forces units that were supposed to spearhead the operation, coming to terms with the new mission proved immensely difficult. Was it to conquer Haiti, pacify it, or play social worker? The soldiers weren’t sure. Whatever else it was, as Sgt. William Miatke, Alpha Company, First Battalion of the Third Special Forces Group, told Mr. Shacochis, it was certainly “a letdown from hell.” Sergeant Miatke would confide to Mr. Shacochis that he could feel his unit’s warrior’s edge “turn brittle and begin to flake off.”

Most of The Immaculate Invasion is a chronicle of these soldiers’ experience. Mr. Shacochis shows, with great subtlety and sympathy, how men trained to kill and die, men proud to the point of vanity about their martial skills and group cohesion, were forced to operate in a situation whose complexity they were never able fully to grasp, let alone master. This wasn’t Vietnam; it wasn’t even Bosnia. The politicians in Washington, as Mr. Shacochis demonstrates, didn’t know what they wanted out of Operation Uphold Democracy. What then could you expect from the grunts in the field? It was way above their pay grade.

As for the Haitians, they, too, were unsure of what to make of this generation of American occupiers. They disposed of overwhelming force, and intermittently they demonstrated a willingness to use it, and yet what they wanted to accomplish was never clear. Washington wanted a policy success. The only problem was, as has happened so often during the Clinton Administration, when the good intentions were shoveled to one side, little of substance was left.

One of the many admirable things about Mr. Shacochis’ book is the way he is able to move, effortlessly it seems, from the human and operational details of the 18 months he spent with the Special Forces in the country to the larger considerations of U.S. policy and of the nature of the new role that politicians have been increasingly assigning the military. For readers with little interest in Haiti’s tribulations, the latter may actually be the most interesting part of the book. Mr Shacochis has anatomized with great subtlety the U.S. military’s confrontation with what is called in armed forces jargon O.T.W.–operations other than war. It is, Mr. Shacochis writes, “an empty space in an army’s traditional reality, where there are no friends and no enemies, no front or rear, no victories and, likewise, no defeats, and no true endings.”

Which is a perfect description of the 1994 U.S. occupation of Haiti. Eventually, the troops withdrew. The Special Forces A-Team with whom Mr. Shacochis spent much of his time rotated back to Fort Bragg. And as time wore on, their accomplishments receded. For, as Mr. Shacochis notes, getting rid of the junta, which would have been impossible without the Americans (though, of course, the junta itself had been in some sense an American creation), was not enough. Haiti remained mired in its desperate poverty. The country, Mr. Shacochis writes, “had no jobs to give its sons and daughters.” Only this time, “nobody could plead, Where are the Americans? because the Americans were already there.”

And that’s the great problem with “benign occupations” by great powers of poor prostrate countries like Haiti, or for that matter Somalia or Kosovo. Almost invariably, the great power is committed to quieting things down and getting the atrocities off the front pages. Remaining long enough to actually make a lasting difference is a whole other issue. That’s the lesson Bob Shacochis carried away with him from Haiti. With a U.S. force poised to help occupy another chunk of the South Balkans, it is a pressing lesson.