The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

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The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson
(Picador, 2005)

Reviewed by Mike Mosher

I have some friends from high school whom I suspect (and my wife is convinced) are intelligence agents. Very smart university-town faculty brats, witty and cynical, liberal in their politics, who studied computer science in college. Now they work in computer security, avionics, systems programming, other fields about which they remain fairly vague. They never talk about their work, other than how takes them around the country and sometimes the world. Some even refuse to communicate by email, fearing it could compromise the computer used for their work. But I like to think the government has people of this integrity and flexibility on the payroll, quick and thoughtful and likable and balanced, and smart enough to find and provide the right information.

The Men Who Stare at Goats reminds us that not all agents, at least in the military, are so blessed. Ronson, a British journalist who writes for the Guardian newspaper, previously published the "bestselling" Them: Adventures with Extremists, and in this book adventures among the weird and their weirdness in US intelligence agencies. He discusses inconclusive experiments in remote viewing, knowing what is going on in another location without direct or technologically-mediated sensory input. The title comes from an experimental project where soldiers gained the supposed ability to kill a goat by staring at it, though the intensity often caused injury to the initiator of the process.

He mentions The First Earth Batallion, a short-lived military project to create a "New Age" soldier, versed in non-leathal martial arts. News of this made its way to magazines like Psychology Today, Mondo 2000 or Wired, the soldier's eco-friendly attitude couched in liberal spiritual terminology. Before the reader envisions David Carradine's monkish Kane in the '70s TV series "Kung Fu", Ronson informs us there were Soldier of Fortune types (some of whom were flatteringly pictured or profiled in that magazine) in the military who came to define "nonleathal" as defined "killing without firearms or knife".

Ronson then makes the leap of typing this project to psychological operations carried out in Iraq. His argument that the abuses and indignities photographed Abu Ghraib had to be carefully calculated program. This includes the use of music and sounds to disorient suspects under interrogation, a technique that had been used on kidnapped US General Dozier. Yet I would say the hoods and restraints are a war crime, and probably insure the conversion of an innocent bystander into an occupier-killing insurgent.

There is a long digression into the suicide, perhaps intentionally provoked out of the Agency's scientific curiosity, of CIA agent Frank Olson in 1953 when he was surreptitiously dosed with LSD. It is shoehorned into the book as see-the-weird-crap-the-government-does? evidence to support the author's trajectory. For decades there has been a long struggle by his son Eric for the truth behind the strange death, which included exhuming Frank Olson's body. There's a couple of photos of the exhausted family, their ordeal momentarily brightened when President Gerald Ford invited them to the White House to extend an apology for Frank's unfortunate death.

At its best, this book has the voice of longer (than newspaper columns) pieces by the San Francisco journalist Warren Hinckle, exuberant editor of short-lived muckraking magazines Ramparts, Scanlan's and War Times. Yet often Ronson's tone is maddeningly light, that of a Well-Did-You-Evah? entertaining but overly long shaggy dog story, redeemed when peppered with fun details like a General bonking his head when convinced that he can walk through walls.

In the end, the thesis that New Age psycho-soldiering led to the abuses of Abu Graib and Guantanamo doesn't quite tie together. Then again, nothing since 9/11 really does, does it? The logic of the War in Iraq to Keep from Pursuing Osama has been such that it quickly induces the most paranoid of explanations. George Bush may have wanted to discredit the US, shatter its military capacity, hobble its domestic and international economy, on orders of the Binladen family and other Saudi oil oligarchs. Or maybe Bush was in the pay of China. Or, his effective use of Biblical rhetoric reveals he did all that bad to hasten the End Times. See how easy it is to spin the real madness into hyper-madness?

Jon Ronson's book, despite its leisurely pace, tosses on the table some tropes to consider. If this author doesn't provide the most convincing and watertight (waterboarding-tight?) answers, at least he goats, I mean goads us into thinking about some nettlesome questions.

Mike Mosher is Associate Professor of Art/Communication & Digital Media at Saginaw Valley State University.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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