Rating 5 stars
Read for Dewithon 2020.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a book and a film. I knew when I picked it up that I hadn’t read the book. It was on my To Read pile after all. The film is one of those that I think I’ve seen, because it has George Clooney in it and I love Clooney, but I haven’t watched it yet.
I decided to shuttle the book to the top of the pile because it was Saint David’s Day when I finished my last book.
Over on Book Jotter, Paula is running the second Dewithon, a reading challenge that celebrates Welsh writers. It starts on Saint David’s Day. There’s a group read, which sounds wonderful, but I’ve banned myself from buying books and my local library doesn’t have a copy for me to borrow. So I’m ploughing my own furrow and knocking a title off my To Read pile.
I love Jon Ronson. I can’t explain why I haven’t read The Men Who Stare at Goats yet. It’s part of a compendium called Jon Ronson’s Adventures with Extraordinary People with Them and The Psychopath Test. I read The Psychopath Test a while ago and must have decided to pace myself rather than read the entire compendium. Then other books flirted with me. Including Ronson’s Frank.
Whenever I read a Jon Ronson book, I hear his voice. It’s a little strange but somehow I can’t shake it. He writes the way he speaks. He has the faintest of Welsh lilts to his voice, written and spoken.
At the start of The Men Who Stare at Goats, Ronson introduces us to Major General Albert Stubblebine III, the US Army’s chief of intelligence in 1983.
His face is craggy and unusually still, like an aerial photograph of some mountainous terrain taken from one of his spy planes.
General Stubblebine believes that it’s only a matter of time before the ability to pass through solid objects becomes a tool in the arsenal of intelligence gathering.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is the story of why he believes that and how attempts are made to make it happen. But first General Stubblebine fails to walk through a wall, before failing to convince Special Forces to help him in his quest. Next General Stubblebine has to take early retirement and become a military secret. Only then can Jon Ronson investigate the whole thing and entertain the rest of us.
It’s a story that involves a bluff on the part of Special Forces, and a hundred de-bleated goats. It takes in New Age theories and torture in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. It reveals the bizarre extremes US security agencies from the military to the FBI and the CIA will go to. It also shows that these agencies try to keep those extremes secret because the public they purportedly serve won’t understand. Worse, the public don’t want to understand because they want to believe that these agencies are keeping them safe.
How did Ronson become the one to tell the story? Well, Uri Geller, of course. Psychic spoon bender Uri Geller who may or may not have been a US intelligence spy. An enigmatic conversation with Geller about a man called Ron led Ronson to discover General Stubblebine and his secret military psychic spying ring of the early 1980s.
It’s a story so bonkers that it has to be true. If most of the stories Bob Mortimer shares on Would I Lie to You are truth, then so is a Black Ops unit of soldiers sitting in a clapboard building trying to be psychic. And it’s only a small leap from this to a unit of Jedi Warriors led by a man who can stop the heart of a goat by staring at it.
As funny as Ronson makes all of this seem, there are serious things under the surface. The psychological damage caused to young men forced into close combat in the Vietnam War. The paranoia of the Cold War enabling an ongoing psychosis in the US military, giving free reign to a small percentage of aggressive psychopathic personalities. The echoes of the Cold War in the War on Terror that began in the early years of the 21st century.
I recently watched the Chris Morris film The Day Shall Come about the varied ways the FBI finds to justify its anti-terrorism remit. Such as secretly setting deluded people up to behave like terrorists so that they can arrest them. Special Forces seems similarly off the wall in its quest to find ways to kill people without touching them.
The USA is a strange place. As Ronson points out
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.
And yet, in America, the supernatural, in the form of the deity known as God, is everything. Worryingly so at times.
The story about Barney the Purple Dinosaur is the most disturbing part of the book. The Iraq War didn’t cover anyone in glory. The use of the ‘I Love You’ song from Barney & Friends to torture Iraqi POWs in al-Qā’im is disturbing on more than one level. The first being that US armed forces think it’s acceptable to torture anyone, stripping them of their dignity. The second being that it is clear from what Ronson recounts that some in the US armed forces view people from other countries with different cultures as sub-human. The third being that journalists told the story as though it was a joke. The fourth being that a composer for Sesame Street not only found it funny that his tunes were also used in torturing Iraqi POWs but wondered what his royalty cut might be. I have a dark sense of humour. I laugh at some horrible things. I think it’s human to use humour to deal with horrible things. There’s an acknowledgement that something too horrible to contemplate lies behind the joke. Done well, the laughter provoked by gallows humour doesn’t squeeze the humanity out of the situation. What isn’t funny about the story Ronson reports is the cruelty that lies behind the situation and that inhabits the joke being made of it. I wasn’t offended reading it, but I didn’t find it funny or comfortable reading.
Ronson’s credulous persona opens up all manner of access to information. He’s never cruel but he is often wry. Self-deprecating as he is, it’s not always clear whether he’s taking the mickey out of his subjects. His curiosity about a topic is genuine. His accommodation of the more extreme individuals he engages with is necessary for the writing of the story. The people he meets with pass quickly from suspicion of Ronson’s motives to total bean spilling. It’s as much Ronson’s demeanour as it is their desire for attention and validation that draws out their confidences. And he deploys his credulous persona to leave his writing open ended, up to the reader to work out whether he’s on the side of his subjects or subtly criticising them. The apparent lightness of his touch makes me think more deeply about his subject matter than any earnest polemicist could.
There are many interesting revelations and near revelations throughout the book. One of the more chilling comes from Colonel John Alexander. It’s an explanation of why alternative ways of overcoming the enemy are being sought and why they are so secret.
… World War X is on, and it is religious. We are now faced with a problem of how to handle prisoners caught in a war that never ends. Nobody has asked that before. The traditional response (over millennia) is to kill them or put them into slavery. Tough to do in today’s environment.
The son of a scientist who worked on the CIA’s Operation Artichoke tells Ronson this
… America fundamentally wants to think of itself as being good, and that we’re fundamentally right in what we’re doing, and we have a very compelling responsibility for the free world. And looking at some of these issues is troubling, because if America does have a darker side it threatens your hold on your view of America …
His father died because he was horrified by what he was involved in. The CIA dressed it up as suicide or an accident caused by the CIA testing out the effects of LSD on one of its scientists. Evidence uncovered by the scientist’s older son suggests it was murder. When he went to the press with his story, the press didn’t want to believe him. CIA authorised murder was less newsworthy than the idea of an experiment with LSD gone wrong.
Ronson includes this story because it goes back to 1953 and the first use of psychological intervention in the interrogation of enemy agents by the US and its European partners in the Cold War. It links Cold War counter espionage with the War on Terror. It puts another slant on what America’s self-appointed guardianship of the free world means.
Although it’s 16 years old now, there’s much in the book that feels pertinent to the world as it is now. Ronson walks the line between reportage and validation of conspiracy theories. He leaves it to the reader to decide whether there is, as he puts it, a feeling of truth about what his sources tell him. He’s a clever writer. Of the three books I’ve now read by him, this one is my favourite.