The Men Who Stare at Goats

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This is a book detailing a few of the far-out programs that the US military undertook to harness the paranormal for use in intelligence-gathering and psychological warfare.

The premise seems like something out of the Onion. It’s difficult to believe that so many highly placed and influential military minds could think that their soldiers could be trained to walk through walls, predict the future, or kill goats by staring at them. Like Jim Channon’s proposed First Earth Battalion, which would use New Age tenets to create a class of warrior monks, wielding weapons to spread peace to their enemies. One such weapon in their arsenal was the use of loudspeakers emitting “indigenous music and words of peace” at the enemy.

It’s perfect satirical material. The idea of psychic warfare brigades and First Earth Battalions, using hippie platitudes to wage war, is brilliantly oxymoronic. So is the idea of a conservative establishment – myth makers and intelligence analysts, turning to the occult to aid them in their prognostications, is risible. It is buffoonish and twee. It invites disbelieving derision.

Ronson hams this up with his signature gonzo reporting style. He has an impeccable sense of the comical. His writing reflects that. His subjects, the retired military officers and psychic soldiers, come across as well-meaning but slightly weird, harmlessly bumbling in their attempts to harness their psychic powers. Ronson leads them on, putting himelf in the story and acting as a foil for his subjects themselves to reveal their ridiculousness. We laugh at how ridiculous people in power can get sometimes. How authority enables, and yet accentuates, their idiosyncrasies and neuroticisms.

But it does get darker. The antics of goat-starers may be harmless, but not so much the tactics of other branches of the US military-intelligence complex. The dark side of the peacenik-warrior First Earth Battalion are things like Project Artichoke’s use of psychoactive drugs for interrogation and the psychological torture methods used to extract intelligence from prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Projects so black ops that scientists associated with the projects may have been murdered in order to keep them quiet, like in the case of Dr Frank Olson, which Ronson also investigates.

To be frank, I found the eponymous goat-starers a little boring, but Ronson’s chapters on Olson’s death and the Guantanamo and Ghraib abuses are riveting and chilling.

The book also strikes me as one that could only have been written about America. America, the vast expanse, ruled by a system of governance that tolerates, even cultivates, the crazy, but on the other hand, will do whatever it can, tapping onto its vast resources as the world hegemon, to maintain its position at the apex of the international pecking order however it can.

This self-contradictory aspect of America is the dynamo that drives the beating heart of this variegated, schizophrenic nation, one where a New Age-peddling ex-military billionaire is just as apple-pie American as the UFO conspiracy nut broadcasting daily from some dusty Nevada desert town. It is a conceit that Ronson, who is British, draws upon.

The book as a whole is a lesson on the consequences of giving people the carte blanche discretion to do whatever they want, sanctioned by the state, in the name of some ‘higher good’. On the one hand, the inanity of new age psychic brigades and charlatans (or delusional nutjobs) that predict doomsday scenarios on talk-show radio. On the other hand, it provides an excuse for those people to allow or commit excesses of the worst kind.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 de-bleated goats

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