The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare at Goats is an entertaining and disturbing book. It covers the investigations into New Age/occult/psychic ideas by the US Army with the intention of creating super soldiers. These investigations take some members of the Army in very strange directions that have repercussions in the current war on terror. Jon Ronson starts with a rumor that there was a site at Fort Bragg where people attempted (and in some versions of the rumor succeeded) to kill a goat by looking at it. Whether this really happened or not depends on who is asked, but it does seem that some people took this idea very seriously.

While investigating this rumor, the author learns about the “First Earth Battalion” (see the manual here), an apparently serious attempt to apply the ideas of 1970′s human potential movement to the military. As unlikely as it seems, this was taken seriously and the Army started to experiment with teaching soldiers yoga and meditation. Somehow these ideas were extended to psychic abilities and there was hope that soldiers could, if their minds were trained correctly, walk through walls, become invisible (convince the viewer that you weren’t there, not let light pass through you) and kill without touching. These abilities would make the soldiers like jedi knights (this was in 1979, so this was a natural analogy). The author doesn’t mention it, but I thought of the book In Search of the Warrior Spirit by Richard Strozzi Heckler where the author describes his experience teaching Aikido to Green Berets. This is a relatively benign expression of the ideas that were floating around.

Jon Ronson suggests that there is a straight line between the First Earth Battalion and some of the more disturbing aspects on the war on terror: blaring loud music and sexual humiliation to break terror suspects. He also tells the story of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy that he claims has links to the secret psychic training programs in the Army. I found these connections tenuous, there are always crazies in and out of military and these ideas could have come from the general culture event without the First Earth Battalion Field Manual. George Clooney is turning this book into a movie that, based on the trailer, treats the whole story as a comedy. The trailer includes many episodes that I don’t remember from the book and I don’t see how they can get away with calling it a true story.

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