The Men Who Stare at Goats

by |January 5, 2010

I have been in the company of mad men.

Men who proclaim themselves Jedi Warriors in all seriousness.

Men who actually thought spraying sticky foam in front of Iraqi tanks would somehow help the American cause.

Men who in 1989 tried to divine the precise whereabouts in Nicaragua of rogue warlord Manual Noriega by applying their combined psychic energies concluding that Chrisitie McNicholl (an actress from Love Boat 2 and Starsky and Hutch) would know where to find him. I kid you not.

Men who nearly two decades earlier had tried to assassinate President Lamumba of the Congo by smearing toxins on his toothbrush.

Men who wanted to reshape the American armed forces into an elite army of psychic warrior monks trained in new age techniques,  an army called the First Earth Battalion.

Men who tried to drive Iraqi prisoners mad by subjecting them to death metal music interspersed with the theme song from Barney the Dinosaur (which then prompted the composers of the jingle to consider hitting the army for performance royalties).

Men who moved from the military into careers in the  corporate sector as trainers, the personal growth circuit as life coaches and the entertainment industry as developers of films and video games.

Men who invited a certain Dr Smirnoff from Moscow (true fact) to play subliminal messages embedded as “the voice of God” as a backtrack to to the phone negotiations between FBI agents and David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, during the disastrous seige in Waco, Texas.

Men who stare at goats.

Jon Ronson wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats a few years ago. It is not fiction. There are several versions around. I have been listening to it on audio and there is also a film tie-in version.  Yes, it has been made into a film, with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. I don’t know about the film. The trailer has it looking like a farce, a kind of boys-own-adventure desert rat meets Doctor Who.

Jon Ronson is an English journalist, writer and  documentary film maker. The Men Who Stare at Goats is the tale of his investigations into the most secret operations of the US military establishment, from the 1970s when the crack pot ideas of a depressed ex Vietnam officer with post traumatic stress disorder got taken up by some pretty powerful people. In one form or another, his ideas got played out both in the US and in hotspots, all the way to Guantanamo Bay.

The saga is full of delicious ironies. For example, the unknowingly training of not one but two of the September 11 bombers in a gym run by a man who believed he was considered the greatest practitioner of Walking the Invisible Path. Then there is the death of one of  the early proponents of PSYOPS (psychological operations) when his demonstration of his powers went badly wrong – he was supposed to survive being run over by a Jeep because he thought he could prevent fatal internal injuries by using mind power. He couldn’t.

And then there are the  tragedies. Putting aside the absurd, surreal and inhumane torture carried out by American in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grhaib prisons (using techniques developed by covert PSYOPS officers), there is also the case of the 39 followers of Heaven’s Gate who committed mass suicide in America in 1997 , believing they were about to return to a high alien life form via a spaceship that was coming to pick them up when the Hale-Bopp comet passed by. (Who would have thought that the existence of the space ship was in fact an elaborate hoax? It was perpetrated by one of these ex-military charmers who had subsequently found his way into the welcoming arms of a talk show host).

What starts in surrealism and moves into satire, soon settles into barely suppressed incredulity. Ronson lays out the facts without any personal comment, piling absurdity on absurdity. The result for this reader? Fury and bemusement.

Mind control as a replacement for imprisonment as a way of dealing with the vanquished in the twenty first century? Non-lethal technologies in war? Bursting the hearts of animals as a technique to take over a country? Making the battlefield a less dangerous place by using multi-media techniques?

This is where dark intelligence secrets collide with familiar popular culture. The Men Who Stare at Goats tracks it all. We are, it seems, in the company of mad men.

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