A couple months ago, I watched the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s a decent movie, definitely with its funny moments and with its flaws. This inspired me to read the book, since I love conspiracy theories and really whacked-out journalistic research and history.
Jon Ronson writes brilliantly, the book moving quickly from one subject to the next. He manages to weave a coherent, lucid narrative of his travels down the rabbit hole into the bizarre heart of the U.S. intelligence and psych operations community. What starts as a humorous, oddball story of the intelligence community investing in psychics and trying to train soldiers into super warrior monk Jedi who could slay goats simply by staring at them quickly spirals out of control into the dark, murky waters known as today’s War on Terror. The book sucks you into the lurid, horrifying details, from the disgusting atrocities of Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo’s systematic experimentation with torture (because, as one interviewee mentioned, we can’t experiment this kind of scary, potentially harmful and dangerous stuff on other Americans, right? Right?). In the eye of this storm lies the mysterious figure Jim Channon and his First Earth Battalion, a concept born out of the humiliations of Vietnam mixed with the New Age concepts of the 1960s and 1970s. While supposedly pushing the boundaries of “non-lethal” ways to deal with enemy combatants, as Ronson describes various methods experimented by the intelligence community (from blasting Barney & Friends’ theme song “I Love You, You Love Me” non-stop into jail cells to injecting heroin in hopes that prisoners suffering withdrawal become “conditioned” to talk), you start to wonder what exactly “non-lethal” really means.
Many of the stories seem too bizarre to be true. Yet, with all of the revelations in the recent decade since we’ve begun the War on Terror, at the same time it doesn’t seem that far off. I ended up reading this book all in one sitting, devouring it. I had no idea if these stories were true or not; Jon Ronson writes with refreshing candidness, admitting that he probably sounds a little bit crazy (and he does). But as more characters are introduced and the various threads in each chapter weave together seemingly disparate events, you start to wonder that maybe it’s the leaders who are just a little bit crazy, or maybe you’re going crazy, too.
While the movie is a satirical war comedy in the same spirit as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and ends on a triumphant note, Jon Ronson’s book explores the darker side of our wars, slowly peeling the paint away from the facade of seemingly harmless, bizarre humor to reveal an incredibly frightening and sickening documentary of when humanity takes principles originally meant to enlighten and transforms them into inhumane weapons of war. I highly recommend.