The Men Who Stare at Goats
By Jon Ronson
Picador, 278 pp, 16.99 pounds
Why did U.S. special forces try to kill goats by staring at them? What is Uri Geller doing working for the military, and why did the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations section use music by Barney the purple dinosaur to interrogate Iraqi prisoners? These are just three of the questions Jon Ronson raises in The Men Who Stare at Goats, his latest foray into the dark recesses of government, where conspiracy theories fester and grow.
Unlike his last book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, in which he joined the paranoid to track down the “real” rulers of the world, this time Ronson goes straight to source–the U.S. Army.
It starts, unsurprisingly, with the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Channon, “traumatized by Vietnam, sought solace in the emerging human potential movement of California.” After meeting nearly all the leading lights in the New Age movement, Jim put together a manual for what he called the First Earth Battalion, which would help create a new breed of warrior-monks to fill army ranks. Soldiers would be taught to approach the enemy holding symbolic animals of peace with “sparkly eyes,” give them an “automatic hug” and emanate positive energy. In training and drills, misogynistic and aggressive cadence calling would be replaced with “Om.”
That a lieutenant colonel could take New Age philosophy and practices and turn them into an army manual for Jedi knights might seem farfetched, but that’s exactly what happened.
Except, Ronson says, the army “saw that some of the ideas contained in Jim’s manual could be used to shatter people rather than heal them.”
In interviews with key players in the U.S. military’s attempts to harness the power of the mind to fight, control or destroy its enemies, it soon becomes clear that although a lot of what Ronson describes sounds ridiculous, some of it is bloody dangerous.
One of the most perspicacious points of this book is also one that undermines its whole marketing premise and title–that a humorous approach to these most serious of topics might not be in the best possible taste, and might belittle their importance. One relevant chapter relates the story of a man who believes his father was murdered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, but who is more popularly known as the first victim of a bad LSD trip in U.S. history–the CIA say he jumped from a 10th-story hotel window. The man tells Ronson he is sick of his father’s death being smirked at as a “great historical irony.”
Another area in which readers might be admonished to keep a straight face is when Ronson discusses the infamous Barney the purple dinosaur incident, in which the U.S. forces, much to the amusement of the media, reportedly used endless and deafening repetitions of the “I Love You” song from the children’s TV show to torture captive Iraqis. Spot this in a book that has a goat in camouflage on the cover, and a whiff of double standards might curl across the nostrils.
Overcoming this, there is plenty to recommend The Men Who Stare at Goats. As with Them, the episodic narrative of this investigation can only be described as picaresque–what starts off as an investigation into psychic spying, walking through walls and attempts at levitation by the most secretive of secret military units soon becomes a Through the Looking Glass adventure through the vagaries of military attitudes to mind control.
It is here we are introduced to Barney the purple dinosaur and its place in the interrogation of Iraqis, a section of the book that would have been its most disturbing were it not followed by a chapter on the abuses revealed by the Abu Ghraib prison photographs, the interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and the use of subliminal messages in music.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, like Ronson’s previous books and British television series, focuses on the fringes of accepted beliefs. He is a dispassionate observer of conspiracy theories who does his research. One of the attractions of this immensely readable book is its humanizing of the key players. Ronson isn’t on a soapbox, and he doesn’t demonize anyone he interviews. They aren’t dumb army jocks, and most of the time they aren’t spooks. (The spooks won’t speak to him.)
When Ronson meets Channon–the linchpin of his narrative–on his Hawaiian estate, replete with yurts and New Age artwork, he asks, “Why are you so unlike my mental picture of a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. army?”
The response, “Because you haven’t met many of us,” says plenty about the danger of bringing preconceptions to any of the interactions recorded in the book.
In this straightforward if potted history of the use of psychological warfare by the U.S military and intelligence community, behind the goats there is serious intent. Returning to Waco, Texas, the scene of the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian cult house, Ronson comments, “At Waco, just as at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. government behaved like a grotesque caricature of itself…Waco was the place where the conspiracy theories came true.”
Ronson says the important thing to remember is “crazy people are not always to be found on the outside. Sometimes the crazy people are deeply embedded on the inside.” This is something that hits home, particularly in the context of the ongoing “war on terror.” Writings on that topic have already been responsible for a severe depletion in the world’s forestry resources, but the reappraisal offered by this piece of top-notch journalism is worth a few more trees.
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