The Men Who Stare At Goats: John Ronson

★★½

This is the third of Jon Ronson’s books that I’ve read and probably the most famous thanks to the film based on it; but it’s also the most bewildering. I enjoyed it far less than the other two, The Psychopath Test and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamedbecause it required me, straight off, to give credit to some absolutely ridiculous things. It reads like absurdist fiction and even now I don’t quite believe that it hasn’t all just been made up. Ronson tells us the story of some very senior people in the US military who start believing that they have very strange powers; and whose principles gradually begin to filter throughout the wider military. Quite frankly, I don’t suppose it’s much of a revelation – given the current political climate – that there are some seriously odd and misguided people in power; but are we really expected to believe this? But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning. Basically, it all begins with these goats…

According to Ronson’s interviewees, in a rundown part of the Fort Bragg US military base, in North Carolina, a small cluster of dilapidated buildings conceal a shocking secret. Goats. One hundred de-bleated goats. These goats are used for training in one of Special Ops’s more bizarre secret practices, where soldiers in a very hush-hush training programme are taught to harness enough psychic power to stop a goat’s heart from the next room. Mm-hmm. Gently baffled, Jon Ronson travels in search of evidence of this secret psychic battalion, in the face of the expected denials from the military’s PR arm, helped onward by bizarre clues given to him by a handful of former goat-bothering officers. He discovers an alleged plan to create super-soldiers, codenamed Project Jedi, which would unleash a superior brand of human being upon the world, trained to fight evil with his mind as well as his body, and aiming to bring (US-sanctioned) world peace. (He also unearths a plan to splice spider genes into goats so that they can produce spider silk to be woven into bulletproof vests for US soldiers, but sadly we don’t get much detail on this, save a suspicion that someone’s been taking Spiderman just a bit too seriously.)

Along the way, Ronson meets some very odd people, with some very odd beliefs. Some of them are tragic, like General Stubblebine, who embarrasses himself by insisting to Special Forces that, with enough concentration and psychic power, it should be possible to walk through walls. There’s Uri Geller. And there’s the handlebar-moustachioed Glenn Wheaton, a former sergeant, former spy and self-proclaimed Jedi Warrior, who explains three levels of super psychic powers: instant observational awareness; razor-sharp intuition; and invisibility. (‘“How good are you at invisibility?” I asked. “Well,” said Glenn, “I’ve got red hair and blue eyes, so people tend to remember me. But I get by. I’m alive today.”‘). And then there’s the level above that: the ability, with psychic power, to stop the heart of a goat; although, according to Glenn, you don’t really want to do that because the amount of power involved can actually inflict sympathetic injury on your own heart. He meets former psychic trainees who claim to be able to disperse clouds in the sky; who claim foreknowledge of the end of the world; and who create masses of swelling sticky foam, which is supposed to be used as a weapon and which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t quite work as planned. And these people all take themselves deadly seriously.

Now, I have to be open and say that I don’t believe in psychic power, which probably makes me far more resistant than others to the beliefs of the people who Ronson interviews. But I don’t think one has to be a sceptic in order to find this terrifying. It’s like Catch-22 crossed with M*A*S*H crossed with Airplane. How on earth did people like this get into positions of control? And this isn’t just a retrospective story of some quaintly odd old-school officers in the 1980s: Ronson explains that their methods have seeped into Special Ops practice and that these very odd ideas now inform certain aspects of interrogation in places like Guantanamo Bay. Who on earth gave these people the keys? And yet the pursuit of these very weird ideas seems to have grown out of a strange desire to do good, and the aftermath of tragedy. It’s notable that many of the people Ronson speaks to are Vietnam veterans, psychologically damaged by their experiences in the field. At least at the beginning, their aims were admirable even if the methods were a bit alarming. These people believed that, with psychic power, it would be possible to create a world in which there was only peace: in which meditation and self-awareness would guide trainees to a gentler, more generous, more expansive understanding of the world around them. Of course, being the US military, they believed that this would only be possible if the US military guided and oversaw it, but never mind. The motivation was generous, even if the beliefs and ‘methods’ sound like the remnants of a particularly weird branch of hippy esoterica. But what Ronson shows is that the benign intentions of the original few were swiftly adopted by Special Ops and other branches of the military, and adapted into theories of psychic torture, not just for the goats.

The book reads as a sequence of encounters in which Ronson meets lots of strange people, who give him half-clues, significant looks, and implications that they have access to psychic powers beyond his imagination – presumably while Ronson nods, smiles and keeps a clear line of flight to the exit. He never really explains why these former senior people in a very secret field are ready to speak so openly to an outsider, or how he got access to them, and that is part of the reason that the book feels a bit too pat to be convincing. There’s no conclusion. And then there’s the question of its underlying point. It was like a series of articles, not a book. Is the point supposed to be that there are some weird people in the US military and we should all be extremely scared? Are we meant to be moved by the efforts of a group of damaged men to create a better world? Is this an exploration of how good intentions can be warped? Or is it simply a rather voyeuristic ramble through conversations with very, very strange people, so that we can smile at what they think they know? Ronson doesn’t make explicit judgements of that kind, though it’s often clear that he thinks certain interviews have a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. This makes the book a good piece of journalism – if these people really did say all these weird things – but perhaps not the most satisfying book.

A very weird piece of work. Ideally, you should finish a book like this saying, “Wow, that was fascinating!” rather than thinking, “That was utterly ridiculous and implausible.” Indeed, if this were the first book I’d read by Ronson, I probably wouldn’t have gone on to his others. I haven’t watched the film and so I don’t know whether it dramatises Ronson’s investigations or the actual psychic training that his interviewees report. Has anyone else seen it? Is it worth watching? Will it help the book to make any more sense? And does anyone know if there have been any articles or TV programmes which present further information on any of Ronson’s claims? I imagine that, when this book came out in 2004, it must have sparked a great deal of interest (I don’t remember, but then I was in the university bubble at that time). Surely there must have been follow-ups; attempts to corroborate his claims; further interviews with the people he met? (Obviously the US military will have denied everything, but one wouldn’t expect anything else.) This is the kind of book that really needs a follow-up.

Do please share your thoughts…

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A Goat

Run away! Run away! Run like the wind!

2 thoughts on “The Men Who Stare At Goats: John Ronson

  1. lauriebrown54 says:

    I had no idea this was presented as nonfiction! I’ve seen the movie, and it came across as total farce. BTW, the spider genes in the goats was real. I saw it in either Sci Am or Discovery years ago. I don’t know if the experiment ever came to anything.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Spider-goats… the mind just boggles, doesn’t it? Presumably the military would never tell us if it did come to anything, so we’re just left with the mental image. Thanks for that update – it does make you wonder who on earth came up with the idea in the first place. (Will they be able to climb walls, I wonder?) As for what you say about ‘farce’, yes, that’s how the book comes across too, with the exception that Jon Ronson is a highly regarded journalist and, despite my unwillingness to do so, I can’t help but believe that he is telling us what he was told. It’s deeply alarming.

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