Book review: The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson
In 1979 a secret unit was established by the most gifted minds within the U.S. Army. Defying all known accepted military practice—and indeed, the laws of physics—they believed that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them.
Journalist Jon Ronson, ever the skeptic but with an open mind, explores some of the stranger, more surreal stories to trickle out of the US military and intelligence units, including the title group of men who trained to hone an ability to make goats explode with their minds (spoiler alert: unsuccessful.) He’s on a quest to find out why such logic-defying methods were employed, the psychology and belief systems behind their use, and what may still be employed in certain government areas.
‘Where can I go from here?’ I asked.
‘Nowhere,’ said Glenn. ‘Forget it.’
‘I can’t forget it,’ I said. ‘It is an image I am unable to get out of my head.’
‘Forget it!’ said Glenn. ‘Forget I ever said anything about the goats.’
But I couldn’t. I had many questions.
As we all would.
Ronson’s explorations also take him into the torture chambers of the US military, where we learn the disturbing methodology employed to make supposed enemies of the country talk. This apparently included the Barney theme song on endless loop, as well as blasting the less popular Fleetwood Mac albums.
One of the more intriguing oddities/cover-ups that Ronson explores is the story of Frank Olsen, the CIA agent who allegedly fell out of a New York City hotel window after being slipped LSD by his superiors days earlier in an agency experiment testing the drug’s possibilities. Only the fall is alleged, the CIA really did drug him. His family believe he was killed by his minder and thrown out the window in the guise of an accident after having a bad trip that was going to be tough for the agency to manage. His story has been covered extensively in the recent Netflix series Wormwood. His son, a primary figure in the show and driving force behind finding the truth about his father’s death, also figures heavily in the story told here, and the human toll of at least the CIA’s willingness to illicitly experiment where it wants is chillingly felt.
In this chapter, Ronson references a “disconcertingly surreal combination of dark intelligence secrets and familiar pop culture” that helped create the lurid response Americans have to whatever has trickled out about these stories in the past. It applies to most of the topics he follows here – to hear that government agencies we’d expect to be serious, exacting, and scientific relied (still do?) on psychics, supernatural phenomena and the like is definitely one of the odder bits of American history. It comes across as so lurid that maybe it’s hard to digest – despite the proof he collects, the sheer unbelievability of it all seems to help shroud it in obscurity.
Ronson also touches on instances of the supernatural and paranormal as they played roles in government decisions. In case you didn’t know that the supernatural and paranormal ever figured in government, beyond the more colorful conspiracy theories, prepare to be schooled:
[Ronald Reagan’s] chief of staff Donald Regan wrote in his memoirs that ‘virtually every major move and decision the Reagans made during my time as White House chief of staff was cleared in advance with a woman in San Francisco who drew up horoscopes to make certain that the planets were in a favourable alignment for the enterprise.’
This woman … fixed the exact time that the president would sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in 1987. Joan Quigley now goes by the presumably unauthorized title ‘Presidential Astrologer Joan Quigley’.
Not surprisingly, some religious aspects get coverage too. I’d love to see a whole book written about things like what decisions George W. Bush specifically let God influence, as he used to describe, as that falls into the same category of woo-woo for me. As Ronson puts it: “For everyday agnostics, it is not easy to accept the idea that our leaders, and the leaders of our enemies, sometimes seem to believe that the business of managing world affairs should be carried out within both standard and supernatural dimensions.”
Ronson’s journalism style is less research-intensive, or at least he blends his research more subtly here than in his other projects, and more go-with-the-flow: He follows one lead naturally on to the next one it suggests, or as it’s suggested by his subjects. He talks to whoever will talk to him. It makes sense dealing with subjects like this, namely the military’s blunders, embarrassments, and cover-ups. It’s hard to find solid and trusted source material on that, so I think his methodology of collecting interviews and stories from those willing to talk works particularly well here.
My problem with his books is that I can’t read them slowly – they’re fast-paced, hilarious, and despite being cleverly written, the sentence structure is deceptively simple. It almost propels you to keep reading. So the drawback is that I inhale them too quickly and then am left somewhat jumbled about what all took place. It’s not the worst drawback a book can have and it didn’t detract from me loving this one.
Ronson just has this incredible journalistic gift of getting his interview subjects to open up to him in the right way. And when the stories are so outrageous, seemingly impossible, and equal parts eerie and hilarious as they are here, it’s a winning combination.
General Stubblebine countered by setting his psychic spies on Noriega. This was the Fort Meade team, who worked out of a condemned clapboard building down a wooded track in Maryland and who, as a result of not officially existing, had no coffee budget, a fact they had come to resent. They were also going stir-crazy. Their offices were claustrophobic, and many of them didn’t much like each other to begin with. One…had taken to psychically spying on the Loch Ness monster during the fallow months, when there wasn’t much official military psychic work. He determined it was a dinosaur’s ghost. This finding irritated some of the others, who considered it unscientific and frankly implausible.
The psychic spies are a highlight, especially Kristy McNichol’s alleged role in apprehending Manuel Noriega.
Truth is stranger than fiction; it’s cliche because it’s so apt. The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of the best illustrations of that saying I can think of. A whirlwind of a book but completely enlightening, curiosity-stoking, unexpectedly funny. 4/5
The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson
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