The curious title is specific — this really is a book about men who stare at goats. But it’s general as well, alluding to all those engaged in the application of paranormal powers for military purposes.
After all, if Uri Geller can bend a spoon with his mind, imagine what an entire battalion of similarly skilled mentalists might do to the enemy’s machines of war — or, for that matter, to the enemies themselves? What if special subliminal sounds can influence a large group? What if psychics can use remote viewing to spy on people miles — continents — away?
That, more or less, has been the thinking behind American military and intelligence agencies’ clandestine exploration of all manner of paranormal phenomena. The Men Who Stare at Goats purports to be a legitimate investigation into such weird and troubling enterprises, but Jon Ronson, a noted British documentary filmmaker and author of Them: Adventures With Extremists, skitters clumsily between genuine inquisitiveness and invented interpretations worthy of an X-Files episode. Intriguing? At times. Humorous? Occasionally. Informative? Not so much.
Those titular goats, for example, supposedly were (and still are) housed at Fort Bragg to be used as test subjects for those honing their psychic skills to inflict damage on other living beings. Word around the ol’ psychic water cooler is that one of the recruits had, in fact, been able to stare one of the goats to death.
It was this particular bit of urban folklore that first caught Ronson’s attention and set him on a quest to learn The Truth. Hoping to confirm (or quash) the persistent goat report, Ronson tracked down and interviewed long-retired Maj.Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, who served as the Army’s chief of intelligence during the early 1980s. Stubblebine — whom Ronson informs us could pass for Lee Marvin’s identical twin — is himself a true believer, given to walking through walls. Well, trying to, anyway. A bumped nose was the inevitable outcome. Stubblebine’s attempts at levitation never got off the ground either.
But what about the goats? We get neither confirmation nor denial … but the barmy general does send Ronson off to talk to another source about another aspect of the government’s involvement in such things. But, no, that person can’t exactly verify psychic spying research … but he can put Ronson in touch with another guy who was involved with, um, the extrasensory aspects of martial arts. And, of course, that fellow can’t actually substantiate anything either, but he sends Ronson to another potential informant.
Ronson follows this Yellow Brick Road, passing along the way the CIA’s experiments with LSD in the 1950s, the Branch Davidian siege, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicides and even Iraqi prisoners being blasted with Barney’s I Love You. But he never really gets to Oz. And his dry quips can’t make up for his lack of progress.
Yet Ronson doesn’t consider his investigation a failure. Quite the contrary. For Ronson, silence indicates suppression, absurdity is a ruse, and lack of evidence proves there’s been a cover-up.
With those as his guiding principles, he’s able to color his inquiry as a confrontation with a powerful and vaguely sinister system when really he just seems unable (or reluctant) to do any solid reporting. It’s very telling that The Men Who Stare at Goats contains no index, no end notes, no bibliography, no appendices — no supporting apparatus whatsoever, just 200-plus pages of Ronson’s chatty, slipshod speculation.
“He said it in such a way as to lead me to think that he actually had a very shrewd, secret motive,” Ronson tells us about one chap he interviewed. Golly. With such acute powers of insight perhaps Ronson ought to try a little goat-staring himself.
Which is not to dismiss the book entirely.
The fascinating revelations about the Army’s “First Earth Battalion Operations Manual,” an unofficial publication from the 1970s that suggested martial applications of New Age philosophies, merit their own book.
And, let’s face it, a slapdash presentation about the government’s efforts in these peculiar areas is better than none at all. Still, it’s impossible not to be exasperated when an author declares in his first sentence, “This is true,” then offers us little more than a shaggy goat story.