The Men Who Stare at Goats
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 entire section is 1820 words.)