Book review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

TheGuysWhoGazeAtUngulatesThere were two things that prompted me to read this book: an interest in the curious history of psychic research within the US military, and the reputation that the author seems to have in skeptical circles. I’ll skip the dramatic buildup by saying that the book failed to address either of these.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson, is an account of Ronson’s investigation into various rumors about military research including, as hinted by the title, the attempts to stop the heart of a goat solely by concentrating on the task. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s better to simply disregard it; it bears as much resemblance to the book as Blade Runner bears to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The book goes into much deeper and more ominous territory, probing the potential connections between the new age spiritual kind of stuff (seen in the movie) and the actions of the armed forces in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

However, the book might better have been titled The Men Who Claimed They Stared at Goats, because the research Ronson exhibits within is superficial in the extreme, and almost entirely based on hearsay and personal interviews. The few examples where anyone could actually find documentation (for instance, Heaven’s Gate and the MK-ULTRA investigations) appear at first to lend some weight to the whole edifice, but only if one assumes that Ronson has made supportable connections.

Let’s start from the beginning. Early on he examines the efforts of several figures, primarily Jim Channon, in establishing a new approach to military thinking in the wake of the Vietnam war. This approach centered around peaceful and harmonious attitudes, avoiding conflict and preventing unnecessary violence; you can be excused if you boggle at the idea of anyone trying to sell this idea to the military. Channon’s ouevre is the First Earth Battalion’s Operations Manual, apparently just brimming with the kind of ideas normally espoused by women named “Starbreeze” who wear burlap dresses and have never encountered a hairbrush. It’s not the existence of the manual that deserves attention, however; it’s the claim that not only did the Army pay Channon to produce it, they apparently adopted several ideas from it into various policies and practices.

Ronson interviews numerous people, virtually always on the recommendations of a previous one, and it is here where his reputation appears to be most undeserved. Not one of his subjects demonstrates even a passing ability to perform their claimed specialty, but nearly all of them produce someone else who will have a more convincing story or ability, to which Ronson scampers off. Their failures are observed only in passing, which could potentially be explained as a dispassionate objectivity if one ignores two things: first, that he is fulfilling the role of an investigative journalist while not even asking the questions the average person would ask, such as, “Well, can I see the videotape where you did kill the hamster with your mind?” And the second, more damning point, is that he wrote an entire book trying to establish a connection. The whole premise is the huge question he raises about the practices of the US Army while never asking the little, obvious questions that would have damaged this connection. This isn’t remotely related to critical thinking, only to sensationalism.

To be fair, Ronson does list many of the failures of his interview subjects, and even displays how some of these failures lead to serious ethical considerations and repercussions. Yet this point is easy to lose in his quest for a bigger story, leaving behind those who didn’t qualify in pursuit of the finalists. We get the impression, almost breathlessly recounted, that these disappointments are masking (or even highlighting) the Really Astounding Truth. This is a theme, and attitude, that is prevalent in books devoted to UFOs, yetis, and government conspiracies, and it is visible in this one right from the first chapter – not an auspicious start, especially when Ronson glosses over the weakness of the personal accounts and fails to substantiate any claim made. He hopes to imply that, while leading nowhere, nevertheless these accounts lead towards his implied findings.

The big reveal is the consideration of the ridiculous practices of Abu Ghraib et al and their potential relation to the First Earth Battalion ideas – except, Abu Ghraib didn’t have much to do with peaceful and harmonic practices, did it? To explain this, Ronson has established a line of progression, from happy thoughts to influencing others subconsciously to the use of subliminal messages (no, seriously) to the psychological abuse of Iraqi detainees. The problem is, most of this progression is supported solely by the same subjects that failed to prove their abilities and barely established any connection whatsoever with the armed forces. The trail dies out entirely before Ronson brings up Abu Ghraib out of the blue, implying that here sits the culmination of this peculiar research into paranormal ability.

This has a bare potential to be correct, especially if you follow only Ronson’s reasoning. If anyone considers that psychological warfare is hardly a new idea, and sleep deprivation and discordant noises have been used for centuries, and that every last avenue examined along the First Earth Battalion line of investigation failed entirely, the connection becomes highly implausible. The entire book starts to resemble a classic conspiracy theory, with substantial scaffolding erected to support the curious idea that the US Army continues to believe in paranormal abilities.

Worse are all the inconsistencies that can be found if anyone pays attention. In their first meeting, Guy Savelli (the man who killed a hamster with his mind,) is cagey with Ronson, later admitting that his military contacts warned him to be careful with this reporter. By the end of the book, when Savelli is being re-recruited for more research, he seems to believe that his military contacts will not be bothered by the perpetual blathering of details to the same reporter. Ronson spends a lot of time establishing that Frank Olson was purposefully assassinated when it seemed he was going to leak information about the CIA’s use of LSD for interrogation, yet a laundry list of people throughout the book not only speak freely to Ronson, some of them demonstrate both healthy military pensions and claims of being brought back in for further research. [This trait is frequently demonstrated in UFO circles, which need witnesses with security clearances who know all the big secrets and could be silenced at any time, yet routinely appear at conventions and radio interviews.] Ronson repeatedly talks about how embarrassing Ed Dames’ flapping mouth is for the military, though the only person who seems to be embarrassed is the retired general who tried to walk through walls (ponder that one for a bit.) Norman Cournoyer refuses to confirm his big secrets to a reporter “over the phone,” yet appears in this book, apparently believing that government hit squads can tap a phone line easier than obtaining a library card. Ronson contemplates that the damaging photos of Abu Ghraib abuses were intentionally leaked in an attempt to psychologically weaken Iraqi resistance, while a few chapters later pointing out that the same photos likely contributed to the 80% distrust of Iraqis to the US presence (providing evidence, of course, for neither.) The argument could be made that the military really does do everything he implies, and is simply clueless, yet it strains credulity to think that no one within can see the flaws obvious to the audience Ronson is targeting.

Does the military engage in psychological warfare? Yes – this is documented repeatedly, and has been in use for decades at least. Were practices at Abu Ghraib an attempt to mentally weaken prisoners and get them to reveal secrets? Quite possibly – it’s been done countless times before. Do inaudible sounds, discordant music, sleep deprivation, and similar practices actually work? Yes, to varying extents, yet often far less dependably than rumor has it – these studies are freely available. Has there been research into psychic abilities and paranormal powers, even funded by the military? Yes to the first part, and quite likely to the second, but this isn’t particularly damning – in order to differentiate between rumors, claims, and solid ability, one must run controlled experiments. Experiments do not, contrary to the assumptions of many, infer any confidence in a phenomenon; the confidence in a phenomenon without experiments of any kind is the thing to be afraid of.

Does any of this have anything to do with Channon’s First Earth Battalion? Ronson fails to make any case for this except for blind inference, while showing that all of Channon’s ideas were flimsy at best. The entire hook of the story is how such silly beliefs nevertheless came to be adopted into military practices, something that Ronson only supposes, and weakly at that – no evidence is ever presented. This is not critical investigation in the slightest, but the typical practice of picking a story to write, then finding those bits that can be used to support it. It seems likely that the one aspect that might be considered skeptical, the observation of how often the paranormal evidence never manifests, is only present to make the military’s faith in it so bizarre. Otherwise it’s simply a long line of suppositions, and the chasm Ronson leaps across to create a story is exactly what this book should be discarded into.

I feel obligated to point out that I am in no way a supporter of the US military complex or our foreign practices; in quite a few ways I am dead set against them. I still find it necessary to substantiate any claims or inferences of disreputable practices, regardless of the ‘side’ I may be on; that’s the nature of critical thinking. All too often, this standard goes missing in the face of any argument that might support someone’s views, and it is this kind of bias that we need to be aware of. It’s easy to agree with those we already agree with – but agreement isn’t evidence. Instead of demonstrating good research, Ronson targets just this kind of bias, playing the same games as the psychics even while disparaging psychics. Though standing in the midst of a real story about the rights violations that have become too prevalent in our military, Ronson produced an unauthorized celebrity biography without the celebrities, and without even naughty bits. There are better uses of your time.

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