Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1820
Jon Ronson is a British documentary filmmaker and journalist who lives in London. His first book, Them: Adventures with Extremists (2002), was an international best seller that examined fringe hate groups around the world. The Men Who Stare at Goats is his second book. Ronson engages in on-the-site reporting, but he is not particularly objective about his politics or his reactions to what he learns. Neither does he attempt to persuade the reader to adopt his point of view.
The Men Who Stare at Goats opens in the year 1983. Major General Albert Stubblebine is frustrated at his inability to walk through his office wall. He believes that this should be possible, that one day it will be “a common tool in the intelligence-gathering arsenal.” Stubblebine, the United States Army’s chief of intelligence, is a soldier of the Cold War, with the memory of the U.S. military’s failure in Vietnam still painfully fresh. Stubblebine is rebuffed when he tries to share his ideas with Special Forces, but he does not know that the Special Forces are already deep into their own experiments with psychic warfare.
The most amazing part of Ronson’s book may be that any of these people talked to him at all. Stubblebine shares part of the story of the military’s attempt to harness psychic powers in its soldiers but not all of it. He does provide Ronson with intriguing anecdotes that are, surprisingly enough, verified by other people Ronson manages to track down. In the first chapter, one learns that these antics involving psychic warfare have been revived in President George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror.
In his second chapter, Ronson meets with Uri Geller, who has long claimed to have been a psychic spy for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). At first Geller denies ever having made such claims, but Ronson’s file from the 1970’s and 1980’s proves that Geller did make such statements in interviews. Then Geller surprises Ronson by informing him that he has been reactivated but refuses to reveal anything more, including what organization extended the offer. He mentions only a mysterious “Ron,” whom the author attempts to find.
This quest for “Ron” puts Ronson on the trail of Glen Wheaton, who lives on a large estate in Hawaii and appears to be a hearty, healthy fellow. Wheaton immediately confronts Ronson with the idea of the “supersoldier.” He speaks about a Project Jedi, an attempt by Special Forces to train soldiers to become supersoldiers with superpowers. The goals of this training are expressed as “levels.” Wheaton explains that the first-level soldier would have the ability to be instantly aware of every detail of his or her surroundings. The second level involves developing one’s intuition to guide unfailingly the soldier’s decisions. The third-level soldier could become invisible. The soldier of the next level would be able to stop the heart of a goat just by thinking it, by applying his or her powers of concentration. Wheaton claims that one of his soldiers actually could do this.
Inside Goat Lab, perhaps as many as a hundred goats were subject to Special Forces experiments. At first, the goats were purposely wounded and served as patients in battlefield surgical training for Special Forces soldiers. Later, Special Forces supersoldier trainees targeted these same goats in their attempts to cause death through the power of their minds. Wheaton reveals the name of the soldier whom he claims was successful, and the author sets out to find this man who can stare a goat to death.
Ronson’s research into the background of this man, Michael Echanis, reveals that he was briefly a soldier in Vietnam, with twenty-nine confirmed kills. Upon being wounded, Echanis was sent back to the United States. After his recovery, he became a practitioner of a Korean martial arts system and trained Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg. A former colleague of Echanis describes him as psychotic. He became a soldier of fortune known to be operating in Nicaragua. Ronson is unable to interview Echanis, as he has been killed, although there are several versions of how his death occurred. Yet in all the author’s attempts to link Echanis with goat staring, he was unsuccessful because none of Echanis’s associates would discuss anything to do with psychic powers. Ronson begins to doubt that Echanis is the man for whom he is looking.
The military’s fascination with psychic abilities and the possibility of training psychic soldiers, however, can be traced to a work written by Jim Channon, a retired lieutentant colonel. Channon’s experiences in Vietnam had convinced him that soldiers needed to be more “cunning,” an ability he found sadly lacking in those he commanded. He proposed a fact-finding mission, and the Pentagon approved, paying his salary for the duration of the project. Channon traveled extensively, visiting many New-Age practitioners, including another man interviewed by the author, Steven Halpern, a composer specializing in meditation and subliminal recordings. Later Ronson uncovers a link between Halpern’s subliminal message tapes and practices used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq.
Another group Channon visited was the Gentle Wind World Healing Organization, which filed a lawsuit in 2004 against former members who claimed that the secret ingredient in their special healing bar consisted of group sex.
When Channon finished his journey, he returned and wrote a report for his superiors that he titled The First Earth Battalion Operations Manual. Channon envisioned a future world in which many of the New Age values of harmony and conservation of natural resources were commonplace, normal behaviors. His “Warrior Monk” army would conquer an enemy with kindness and love. Music would be used to try to pacify the crowd, but if unsuccessful, discordant sounds would replace the pleasant ones. He envisioned instruments that could project positive energy into crowds, although he acknowledged that lethal force might still need to be used if these methods failed. Channon’s new vision was seen as a promising new direction for a military chastened by Vietnam and immobilized by the Cold War.
The military’s initial attempts to train their supersoldiers by inviting “peak-performance guru[s]” from California failed. Ronson located Dr. Jim Hardt, who was hired by the Special Forces to tune the minds of the soldiers with his alleged mind-reading devices. Hardt describes working with the soldiers but does not know what happened to them after his treatment.
In his journey to discover the truth about staring at goats, Ronson uncovers some interesting, though failed, weapons that the military attempted to develop for nonlethal confrontations. One of these is Sticky Foam, designed to be sprayed upon someone or something. The foam expands and then hardens, immobilizing whatever it covers. Unfortunately, Sticky Foam has not proved to be useful in deployment. Rioting inmates can be immobilized with it, but then they cannot be moved from their cells once the foam hardens. Canisters of Sticky Foam were taken to Iraq, supposedly to coat the weapons of mass destruction when they were found, but no opportunity for such use was found, or for any other use, to Ronson’s knowledge. The evidence of the foam and other nonlethal weapons comes from a leaked 2002 Air Force report. The trail leads Ronson to the coauthor of this report, Colonel John Alexander, who lives in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Alexander proves to be the source for which Ronson has been looking. Echanis was not the soldier who stared the goat to death, Alexander claims. The one Ronson wants is Guy Savelli.
Ronson tracks Savelli down and finds yet another martial arts enthusiast and instructor. Savelli claims he was recruited by Special Forces in 1983, after a hiatus in the special training following the death of Echanis in Nicaragua. Savelli tells the author that he did, indeed, cause a goat to drop dead. Then he plays a tape that is supposed to show him doing the same thing to a hamster. Ronson watches the hamster fall over, and then recover fifteen minutes later. When he points out that the hamster did not die, Savelli claims his wife warned him not to show Ronson the tape of the hamster actually dying from Savelli’s power. At the end of their meeting, Savelli reveals that he has been contacted by the military and asked to participate in a sting operation involving teaching Muslims to stare goats to death. He reports his visits to Ronson but does not tell his handlers that Ronson is aware of what Savelli is doing. Just after he says he is going to tell them, Ronson loses contact with him altogether.
The most troubling part of the book describes an incident reported in the media, in which Iraqi prisoners were supposedly being tortured. They were held in shipping containers and subjected to loud playing of Barney the Dinosaur’s famous “I Love You” song. Instead of expressing outrage at this treatment, the media made the incident out to be some sort of joke, while at the same time not denying that it had actually happened.
Ronson reports a harrowing tale about a man who was involved in the CIA’s experiments with LSD and ended up jumping out of a hotel window to his death in 1953. The name Sidney Gottlieb kept turning up in this story, and Ronson finally remembers that Gottlieb was the other administrator of the “secret psychic spies.” Gottlieb has been linked with more well-known, but less effective plots to disable or kill enemies of the United States, including the failed attempt to poison Fidel Castro’s cigars.
Graduates of the psychic program did not always keep their secrets. Major Ed Dames actually founded a school to train people to use the psychic ability called remote viewing. Someone with this ability can supposedly view any place at any time on earth, even from the other side of the globe. It is not hard to see the advantages this would give to military operations. Dames appeared often on a popular radio show that discussed unidentified flying objects and other strange topics. Some of Dames’s students credulously supported the false rumor that a mysterious companion accompanied the Hale-Bopp comet, which may have indirectly contributed to the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult near San Diego.
Copies of The First Earth Battalion Operations Manual may have found their way into Iraq and Afghanistan. Jim Channon was pleased that “[Donald] Rumsfeld has now openly asked for creative input on the war on terrorism.” For a peaceful system, the ideas seem to have harsh implementation. Ronson points out the juxtaposition of nearly comical, clownish attempts at assassinations and mind control with the real evidence of torture going on in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. This book alleges plenty of quirky goings-on behind the walls of the Pentagon. One can only speculate about what Ronson was not able to uncover.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22
Entertainment Weekly, April 15, 2005, pp. 87-88.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 4 (February 15, 2005): 219.
The New York Times 154 (April 7, 2005): E9.
Newsweek 145, no. 2 (January 10, 2005): 49.
The Village Voice 50 (April 13, 2005): 86.
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