A U.S. army general attempts to walk through a wall, only to bang his nose on it. A lieutenant colonel writes a manual explaining how soldiers can become “warrior monks” (or Jedi warriors) who can manipulate objects with their minds. A group of psychic spies have to buy their own coffee and can’t get their office door repaired because, according to the military budget office, they don’t exist. And an Iraqi prisoner is placed in a shipping container and forced to listen to Metallica and the Barney theme song. And then there’s Abu Ghraib. All of these events are part of the investigative landscape of Jon Ronson’s 2004 book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. The title, incidentally, refers to military experiments in using the power of the mind to kill goats.
In this book, which I first heard about via Citizen Reader, Ronson examines the U.S. military’s forays into psychological, psychic, and paranormal warfare. Ronson talks with members of the military, scientists, and even a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Some of the interviews are hilariously absurd, as when he talks to Guy Savelli, a purported “goat dropper” who claims to have video evidence that he has killed a hamster with his mind. Much of the book reads like an investigative account by a modern-day figure from Deborah Blum’s marvelous Ghost Hunters. Ronson interviews true believers with an open mind and what appears to be an utterly nonjudgmental attitude.
But then the book turns chilling. A faked UFO photo is shown to lead to the Heaven’s Gate suicides. And the psychological techniques suggested by Lt Col Jim Channon in his First Earth Battalion manual are used not to win hearts and minds, as Channon had hoped, but to torment and control.
I can’t exactly say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it interesting. Some of the stories of goat dropping and the like weren’t quite credible, but Ronson lets people tell their stories, leaving the reader to decide on their veracity. The trouble is that the stories I did believe were the ones I wish weren’t true.