Books — Staring at Goats

Staring at Goats

By Michelle Saturley

Ronson books takes look at U.S. psychic ops

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson, Simon & Schuster 2005, 272 pages.

What if a former Vietnam veteran-turned idealistic hippie got into all things metaphysical and new age and then approached the U.S. military with a plan to form a new kind of soldier and thus a new kind of war? He’d get laughed off the base and labeled a kook, right?


At least, that’s the theory of Jon Ronson, a British journalist who became enthralled with a man named Jim Channon, who in the late 1970s wrote The First Earth Battalion, a rambling manifesto. Channon, disenchanted after witnessing atrocities during his tour in Vietnam, returned to the States with a new vision for the American military. Under Channon’s plan, ordinary soldiers would be transformed into “Warrior Monks” who defeat their enemies by changing their state of mind using supernatural powers, non-lethal weapons and subliminal messaging tactics.

About 80 percent of Channon’s manual appears to be drug-induced. But that didn’t stop his superiors from immediately appointing him commander of the First Earth Battalion. Based on Ronson’s tireless interviews and exhaustive investigation, it looks like Channon’s missive came at the military’s most vulnerable hour. Many of Channon’s techniques were incorporated into the military, in super-secret experiments and even more classified military operations that the Army doesn’t want us to know about.

As usual, though, the U.S. military didn’t take Channon’s techniques on their pure ideals; instead, the powers-that-be behind the scenes, from the Ford administration to the present day, have selected certain aspects of The First Earth Battalion and twisted these techniques for some very un-hippie-like maneuvers. One of the more classified experiments is the centerpiece of this book, a Fort Bragg secret called “Goat Lab,” where soldiers received instruction on how to stop the beating heart of a goat simply by staring at it. Supposedly, Goat Lab started in the early ’80s and only recently closed up shop, when its whereabouts became known outside the military.

Based on conversations and anonymous phone calls and e-mails, Ronson can show how the principles of First Earth Battalion have been twisted and used in such incidents as the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicides and the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

“Impossible,” you might say. “He must be putting us on.”

That’s what I thought, too. I was sure, at first, this book was nothing more than a fantasy novel written by a wannabe journalist with an active imagination and a prejudice against the American military.

But then I started doing Google searches on all the people and events mentioned in Ronson’s frenetic, documentary-style book. And you know what? In some bizarre, hysterical laughter fashion, it all makes sense. Which frightens me to no end.

The thought that there were, in very recent history, three-star generals who believed that psychics (er, I mean, “remote viewers”) were the key to finding Manuel Noriega scares the hell out of me. The thought of a West-Point-educated, highly-decorated soldier attempting to bend spoons, walk through walls and levitate just keeps me awake at night.

Far more sinister and disturbing is the use of “PsyOps” torture techniques on prisoners of war. What’s sinister about it? The fact that it seems so silly and arbitrary — for example, playing the “I Love You” song from the Barney television show might seem harmless. But, played at top volume for 21 hours straight, it just seems cruel and unnecessary. (Take it from a parent of four — that song is pure hell!) And, from the evidence presented by Ronson, these supernatural forms of warfare simply do not work. But I’m sure you already knew that — even without the West Point education.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a highly entertaining — albeit disturbing — read, by a talented reporter who has left no stone unturned in his quest for the truth. Though I can’t be sure he actually found it, Ronson certainly touched a few nerves in the giant that is the U.S. military. It’ll be interesting to see how this exposé changes the way our country goes to war from now on.

- Michelle Saturley

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH