This week’s book review is The Men who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson. It’s hard to tell what to think about this book. Ronson is a UK journalist (for the Guardian), who investigates the US military’s dabblings in alternative culture and the paranormal over the years; or at least as much as he can find out.
Highlights include the story of a hippy who created the “First Earth Battalions” within the US military (an attempt to seriously win the hearts and minds of the enemy by understanding them which seems to have mostly gone by the wayside); the story of Abu Ghraib inmates being played “Barney the Dinosaur” music over and over as part of a carefully selected set of music designed to unsettle them, and many other cases of attempted psychological warfare by the US Army. The very unsettling part of all of this is that much of the psychological warfare seems complete lunacy, but it segues seamlessly into the hiring of prostitutes to torment religious moslems in various US detention camps (Guantanamo Bay being a prime example).
I read the book torn between complete disbelief that any of it could be true (the goats of the title were stared at by a number of different military types in the attempt to kill them by mindpower alone; one claimed success), and shock at some of the meaner aspects of psychological warfare that were actually attempted.
In an organisation as large as the US Army, you can almost understand that it’s worth spending a small amount of money on psychic stuff; what, after all, if it was true? Then they would have a monopoly on it. But mostly what comes through to me is outrage that such fruitcakes can be anywhere near having a power of life and death over anyone on this planet.
Ronson’s evidence is quite thin, and is mainly hearsay, but in allowing his interview subjects to speak for themselves, he has an effective style that is more powerful than if he added his own commentary.
It’s a thin book, and a quick read, but entertaining and horrifying at the same time.