Monday, August 08, 2005

Book # 23: The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson



Consider the archetypical polite Briton. Think of how inoffensive he is, how mild and easy-going a presence he has. Now consider this: Jon Ronson must be so extraordinarily polite and personable that he makes this archetypical polite Briton look like Idi Amin. How else could he have gotten these sources to talk so candidly about these subjects?

The sources in TMWSAG are, for the most part, ex-military brass, men used to power and the manipulation of truth. And the subjects are, well, as fantastic as the amalgam of conspiracy theories that fuel Robert Anton Wilson novels. Having these men admit to these beliefs is incredible, almost unbelievable; the consequences Ronson uncovers are stunningly plausable and thoroughly chilling.

Let's start with the title, Ronson's jumping-off point. Apparently, military intelligence in the late 70s/early 80s decided that they needed super-soldiers, Warrior Monks who could walk through walls and kill living creatures by force of will. The living creatures they used in their experiments were goats, which, unlike dogs, the military believes to be unbondable animals. People don't make friends with goats.

Ronson uncovers the men who instigated these trials, the man who developed the philosophy behind these ideas, the man who claims to have succeeded in killing a goat by force of will, and some of the other ideas that relate to or grew out of the Warrior Monk ideal as envisioned in the 70s, including the use of psychic spies (which, tangentially, led to the Heaven's Gate mass suicides), and, most shockingly, the development of psychological torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. It's the latter part where evil, in all its banality, truly rears its ugly head. Most of the stories in the book left me puzzled at the motives of the military in developing these surreal ideas. When we get to the current practices of the military, we get to the stuff of nightmares.

Ronson has casually dropped throughout the book little tidbits about the military's return to the Warrior Monk ideas - his interviewees are constantly allowing that they've been in contact with the military recently and will perhaps be working closely with PSYOPS (the psychological operations) or some similar division. Ronson even manages a meeting with some of the current PSYOPS operatives and believes at first that he learned nothing from this meeting. It's not until later that the truth about what they've told him finally sinks in: the military is blatantly hiding its cruelest and most unusual punishments under the guise of slanted stories. The army is blaring Barney The Dinosaur at prisoners? Ha, ha, ha. That's not so bad. A man released from Guantánamo reports that they played an all-female Fleetwood Mac cover band to him? Weird, but that's hardly torture. Abu Ghraib? Those soldiers were out of control.

Well, no, on all counts. Ronson hunts down the patent for a subliminal sound method that has been bought and classified by the military. He even manages to raise a person on the phone at the number associated with the subliminal sound company and has a conversation so bizarre that it's hard to even describe. Ronson finds person after person who tell him that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were under orders to take those harrowing pictures, that there was a method to that madness.

It's that unquestioned methodical destruction of human beings that I find so unsettling. Ronson has drawn a clear picture of insanity run rampant in the halls of power in the U.S. What madness lies behind Donald Rumsfeld's eyes? What sort of people are we to allow this sort of evil to have its way in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay? If this book were fiction, these stories would be considered Moliere-level satire. As is, they are true crime and horror stories addressing unpunished acts of unspeakable psychological violence. Recommended for anyone who gives a shit about the world we live in.

4 comments:

Alyssa 10:51 PM, August 08, 2005  

I really liked the journey of this book. It started out like "I've heard this totally crazy story,"and ended with "holy crap - what happened?"

The evolution is so great - and you are just taken along for the ride laughing at these people and then you realize how dangerous they have become. Their ideas aren't bad or wrong - but taken to their bizare (and literal) conclusions means... well very bad things happen.

It's also the only conspiracy theory book I've ever read that never feels like one and that I'd believe.

Joe 11:13 PM, August 23, 2005  

The First Earth Battalion manual. Worth checking out for the illustrations alone. Some of the other ones that came up when I Googled it also have great pics, but I think this is the Jim Channon version.

Jon Ronson was on Studio 360's look at conspiracies. I really want to read Them now. Of course it's much more comforting to think that the real wingnuts are on the fringe than to think they have the ear of the Powers That Be, and infinitely more comforting than thinking that the PTB are actively soliciting advice from the wingnuts. I wish Jim Channon would walk through a wall and whomp Bush, Cheney & Rummy w/ a psychically victimized goat while Gitmo's Greatest Hits blared from boombox. Bastuhds.

Ron Rosenbaum, who blurbed Them if I remember correctly, just wrote an article about late-night radio & conspiracy theories. Short version: he completely digs them. Speaking of Rosenbaum, did you see my Pale Fire joke in the music thread, Hayden? It was made for your benefit.

Now let's see if I can remember my log in.

Hayden Childs 2:15 PM, August 24, 2005  

Awesome, Joe. I also want to read Them and soon.

And, no, I missed your Pale Fire joke. Was it in the endnotes?

Joe 6:49 PM, August 24, 2005  

We were talking about songs about or inspired by pieces of art. Someone mentioned the Police and "Don't Stand So Close to Me," to which I responded:

Even better is their Pale Fire tribute, "Don't Drive My Powerful Kramler": I was the shadow of the wax Sting slain/Zembla's my home/Kinbote's the name.

I'm partial to the mixture of the esoteric and a pie in the face. Yet somehow Pynchon leaves me cold (which was the general... okay the entire reaction to the joke.) It's a puzzler.

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