BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’ by Jon Ronson

goatsbook1After the past eight years of American leadership I have gotten to the point where nothing going on in our government would surprise me. The bizarre handling of the Iraq War by the Bush administration has me believing that somebody who is certifiably insane has been running things. This is why when Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare at Goats made the claim that there is a secret arm of the U.S. government that consists of psychic spies, I had to believe it.

Jon Ronson’s book is written like a bizarre documentary. He manages to get connected with some of the most peculiar characters in U.S. military history. These are the type of people who you hear shouting conspiracy theories on the street and you shake your head and think “what a nut.” However, Ronson presents their stories with an unnerving sense of reality. I think I continually had the same reaction as I made my way through the book. It was something like “ha ha, that’s ridiculous…wait…really?”

The narrative starts way back in the early 1970s when a man named Jim Channon came up with a revolutionary idea of psychological warfare. It consisted of implementing psychic spy techniques, morale boosting fighting methods, and a unique system of martial arts. It became known as “The First Earth Battalion.” The ideas were received “enthusiastically” by higher ups inside the United States government and thus began the first implementation of mind-warfare tactics in the U.S.

The book jumps around time periods, investigating the various forms of U.S. psycho-warfare throughout history – some documented, some not. The more bizarre instances include interrogation techniques that involved blasting the Barney theme song at detainees as well as experimenting with LSD and other drugs on prisoners. Techniques that are apparently so effective that U.S. officials fear terrorist groups might get a hold of them and use them for evil, rather than good.

One of these techniques is called remote viewing which is essentially telepathy. It is the ability to learn information from miles away by psychically connecting to a target. A character in the book named Guy Savelli is apparently so powerful at remote viewing that he is able to kill small livestock just by staring at it (like goats, hence the title). Ronson never really learns whether or not this power was meant to be used on humans, which is a repetitive theme in the book. We never really know what the psychic powers are being used for. The scariest thing, though, is that they are being used at all.

Ronson’s writing style is hilarious in all the wrong ways. He finds these real-life characters and recounts the bizarre stories they told him; presenting them as potential fact, rather than lunatic hearsay. The people he interviews are intelligent and most of them have respectable jobs and live mostly normal lives. For instance there is U.S. military official General Stubblebine, who regularly charges full speed into his wall, waiting for the day that he will pass through it.

Whether or not the stories told in The Men Who Stare at Goats has any factual evidence will probably never be known. Regardless of whether they’re true or not, Ronson’s book still makes for an interesting, and definitely entertaining read.

About the Upcoming Film

It’s always hard to guess what is coming from a movie that is based on a non-fiction book. Author Jon Ronson is also a documentary filmmaker, and the book is constructed like a documentary film. It has no linearity and no specific protagonist.

The film version of this story has a dynamite cast and crew. Writer/producer Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck) gets the chance to direct and he will be working with one of the best casts of the year including George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, and Stephen Root. With a cast that powerful I can’t imagine there won’t be some supporting actor speculation.

The exact Oscar chances of the film are almost impossible to determine. None of the characters from the book are going to be in the film version, so knowing exactly what each of the actors will have to work with is not really known. The film is likely going to be a spy-comedy (along the lines of Burn After Reading) and with Clooney and Heslov producing, it will definitely have a few rips into the past administration and the handling of the Iraq War.

It’s possible that the film could sneak into the screenplay categories and with past Oscar winner Robert Elswitt doing the cinematography it could get a nomination there. However, expect most of the attention to be paid to the film’s actors. My early guess is that Kevin Spacey or Jeff Bridges could see supporting actor nominations.

Men Who Stare at Goats still has a TBA 2009 release date.

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