The Goats of War
Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare At Goats
Simon & Schuster 2005, 272pp., $24.00
Jon Ronson is funny -- but not only funny. In his last book, Them, Adventures with Extremists, he was an undercover Jew, infiltrating violently antisemitic groups. Sometimes the effects were ridiculous; other times they were almost poignant.
Now, Ronson has produced The Men Who Stare At Goats, a drily witty and exhaustively-researched investigation into a previously little-known lunatic fringe within the American military, a fringe that has official standing and status: psy ops, or psychological operations. Psy Ops is in the news again lately, as bizarre revelations surface from Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, accompanying the gruesome -- but also, so weird -- images from Abu Ghraib. But, as Ronson exhaustively shows, the story goes back much further than that.
Now, a personal note. Those of you without (ahem) intimate knowledge of Army types may still harbor romantic images of warrior princes and highly-trained McGyver-like specialists. Well, as one with such knowledge, I can tell you that many are barely literate. You don't want one of them writing a poem about you, much less applying the lessons of parapsychology and the human potential movement to psychological warfare. Alas, the latter seems to have occurred on a rather large scale in the U.S. army.
The most fanciful of sci-fi authors could not match the reality of what transpires in the shadowy netherworld of military psychic intelligence. Ronson begins his book in a curious place: by researching the claim of famed Israeli huckster and pseudo-psychic Uri Geller that he'd once worked for U.S. military intelligence. From that unpromising starting point, Ronson manages to unearth a demented army subculture of would-be "warrior monks" dating from the early 1970s when fascination with the New Age, paranormal "science," and Eastern Mysticism, was rife even in military circles.
The army, of course, was more concerned with winning wars than attaining higher consciousness. But that didn't stop them from adopting some of the New Age's most lunatic ideas. The title of Ronson's book, for example, refers to an experiment which entailed trying to literally stare goats (or, when no goats are available, hamsters) to death, effectively using psychic powers. As bizarre as this sounds, at least it involved little physical pain, unlike another apparently true episode in which a high-ranking officer repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to walk through walls.
Given the lack of success in these experiments, it comes as a surprise that one of the first tasks assigned to the elite, secret military psychic think tank was finding Manuel Noriega, the CIA-puppet turned drug entrepreneur who had fled his former paymasters. In response to the task, one psychic in a trance state kept saying "Ask Kristy McNichol! Ask Kristy McNichol!" Helpful as this may sound, the tomboyish sitcom star didn't lead them to their culprit. Yet this lack of success seems to have not deterred the psychic fringe of Psy Ops. It was that same year that the use of heavy metal music as psychic torture was first introduced -- when Metallica was blasted to get Noriega out of his Panamanian church sanctuary.
Happy Jew Year
The Wooden Synagogues of Lithuania
Joyce Ellen Weinstein
Fetishizing the Trigger
The Goats of War
Our 760 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
Fall 2005 issue out this month