The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 257 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-7432-4192-4

It’s a comforting fiction to think that the world is rational. That people take decisions in their own best interest, that the truth will shine, that rationality ultimately prevails. The last few years have certainly been a shock in this matter, as the American government keeps making one stupid mistake after another (with often-fatal results), as so-called “intelligent design” finds popular favour, as evidence of global warming is casually dismissed by oil profiteers and blind followers.

If that’s not depressing enough, wait until you read Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, a book describing, in its own subtitle, “what happened when a small group of men –highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services- began believing in very strange things.”

It starts early in the “War on Terror” as Uri Geller tells Ronson that he’s been reactivated by elements of the US government. You won’t believe where it ends.

As Ronson starts to unravel the Geller/government link, he begins to hear very strange rumours. A psychic unit deep in the US Army. A “goat lab” where soldiers would stare at goats in the hope of remotely stopping their heartbeat. Plans for a US Army “First Earth Battalion” applying new-age concepts to warfare. A covert war for psychic warriors waged between Al Quaeda and the US government.

Then Ronson starts meeting the people who believe in those things.

Albert Stubblebine, for instance, a general who tried to walk through walls (bruising his nose) and led the US Army’s secret psychic team. (A team so secret it didn’t even have a budget for coffee, and whose lack of success eventually led them to believe they were an expendable front for another even more secret team.) Jim Channon, whose new-age “First Earth Battalion” ideas later led to some curious real-world applications. Guy Savelli, the man who arguably stared a goat to death. Pete Brusso, capable of inflicting extraordinary pain with an ordinary-looking plastic object.

In Ronson’s sweetly disbelieving style, this trail of absurd research is deeply amusing and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. But the laughs taper off as we come to realize the uncritical momentum of a government gone out of control in the drive to wage “war on terror”. “You cannot afford to miss something.” argues Stubblebine while justifying his experiments, and while it’s hard to counter this type of logic, it doesn’t do much to calm down qualms that nuts can be found everywhere, including places of considerable power.

What’s worse is Ronson’s growing suspicion that some of the “crazy” stuff is deliberate misdirection. Every newscaster became a comedian when reporting that American interrogators were blaring the Barney song to Iraqi prisoners in effort to break them down. Barney and torture: a hilarious combination! But the gut-smile effect of the purple dinosaur quickly takes the sting away from, yes, state-sponsored psychological torture techniques. What if, suggests Ronson, the Abu Ghraib pictures were a completely deliberate way to scare the wits out of Arab audiences already convinced of American decadence? What if ridicule obscured the truth, made it inconsequential?

Despite the laughs and the easy writing style (you can read this book in ninety minutes, easy), The Men Who Stare At Goats is deeply disturbing. It paints the picture of a “war on terror” that justifies just about everything, even things that would be considered insane. While hardly a perfect book (The lack of an index betrays the difficulty in using the book as reference), it’s certainly unique and memorable. Despite the obvious difficulties in confirming some of Ronson’s reporting (a number of conversations are of the “I will deny everything” category, and whole sections are mere informed speculation from Ronson’s part), what can be confirmed is unsettling enough.

The world is not rational. But what’s even scarier is that it may be very rational in being irrational.

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