Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jon Ronson, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (2006).

These are surreal times. We've now entered a nebulous world-wide conflict aimed (so our leaders claim) at the ultimate defeat of "terror". Obviously our nation seems drawn toward such ill-defined struggles. Anyone with any sense that lived through the Cold War era knows what I am talking about. It's easy to believe that the ordinary man on the street has no idea what our government and military (which seem increasingly interchangeable) are up to. As the years pass, and military documents are released under the Freedom of Information Act, we glean hints of the shady operations of the past. If you want to enter a maze of convoluted suspicion, simply do some cursory research of the MK-ULTRA project. The idea that the CIA would experiment on unknowing subjects by dosing them with LSD once seemed ludicrous. But there has been ample published documentation that provides evidence that this is exactly what happened, starting in the 1950's.

Perhaps it's ironic that secret governmental subgroups introduced a drug into the American population that made many question the patriarchal authority of our leaders. Yet if the student of military history has the patience to look into it, he/she quickly discovers that much cutting edge technology and ideas originated within the armed forces. It naturally follows that there were incidents of misdirection as well. Why should we be surprised by the outlandish experimentation that the the military engages in? Often innovation requires outside-the-box thinking. It was J.C.R Licklider ( a researcher from MIT) who first envisioned a global mind made up of a network of the world's computers, but it wasn't until he became an employee in the Defense Department that his plan was acted upon. Back in 1960, I'm certain that many folks who heard him out thought he was delusional. Nowadays, I can't imagine how we ever did without the Internet.

For ever fanciful concept that eventually reaches fruition, we can assume that there are a host of others that never quite make it. In The Men Who Stare at Goats, British author and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson digs for some examples of the "ones that got away". The title itself refers to a rumored program at Fort Bragg (NC) in which a group of Green Berets shacked up surreptitiously and tried to stop the heartbeats of goats with psychic concentration. Apparently this clandestine program was inspired by the theoretical work of Jim Channon, a Lieutenant Colonel (now retired) in the US Army. Ronson reports that in the wake of the Vietnam War, Channon was tasked with making connections with the burgeoning New Age movement, in an effort to root out unique perspectives that might help suggest a change in approach for the military. Along the way, Channon met and picked the brains of figures involved with subliminal messages, psychic healing, Reichian rebirthing, and other strange arts. He collated his findings into an operations manual for a theoretical unit he called the First Earth Battalion.

One can only imagine what the hard-line old heads in the upper ranks of the armed forces thought of Channon's document. In many ways, the manual seems to propose an eco-friendly, neo-hippie force capable of "killing the enemy with kindness". Surely the proposition that modern soldiers could learn to use clairvoyance, ginseng tab regulators, primal low frequency lights, and macrobiotics (among other things) to become "warrior monks" capable of winning battles in a uniquely "non-destructive" way was met with ample skepticism. However, Ronson pursued communications with both retired and active officers in the military, and discovered that the influence of Channon's research never completely faded away. On a more sinister note, some of his sources told him that at least a few of the concepts in Channon's work have been used recently for much darker purposes. The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detainee scandals seem to hint at the adoption of unconventional interrogation tactics that may have been adapted from the pages of the First Earth Battalion manual.

If all of this has the reader questioning the sanity of the subjects of "The Men Who Stare at Goats", then perhaps Ronson has done his job well. It must be pointed out that the author strives continuously to avoid passing judgment on the validity of the claims espoused by his interviewees. He does not present his findings in the sacrosanct tones of the garden-variety "conspiracy theorist. Rather he writes with a loose experiential style that's engaging, and not without a healthy dose of humor. The larger issue he conveys is that we, in our position as ordinary citizens, really have no way of discerning the degree of truth in the words of the military and intelligence hierarchies. It truly seems like anything is possible, especially in light of the disclosures we have been privy to over the last 30 (or so) years. Maybe we can trust in the inherent rationality of our generals and policy makers, but would you want to stake your money on that dubious proposition? In fact that is what we are all doing with our tax dollars. All we can do is read/listen with an open mind, and try to ferret out some likely conclusions.

Note: Incidentally, Ronson made an accompanying film for The Men Who Stare at Goats. Youn can watch a clip here.

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