If ever there was a book which personified conspiracy theory version of Poe’s law, “The Men Who Stare at Goats ” by Jon Ronson is it. The history of PsyOps in American security forces often stretches credulity.
The author starts with Maj. Gen. Stubblebine’s (US Army’s Chief of Intelligence) unsuccessful efforts to walk through his office wall. The efforts are provoked by Lt. Col. Jim Channon’s field manual for First Earth Battalion (FEB – I dare you to google that). Gen. Stubblebine’s efforts are mirrored in Special Forces, where among other things Guy Savelli once killed a goat just by staring at it (or close enough), and there are a group of officers of an underfunded, unacknowledged unit, in an abandoned building with no coffee budget, trying their hands at remote viewing.
What they are trying to create is a Warrior Monk, or a Ninja, a supersoldier. There is a psychic or supernatural war going on between Gen. Stubblebine and Panama dictator. The descriptions of human potential groups and the Jim Channon’s vision of FEB is so bizarre, that you start wondering whether it is fiction. (And even if it was fiction, you would dismiss it as just too far-fetched).
And then, within a page or two, you start wishing the book was a work of fiction. We read about a man described by a trainer for Special Forces as ‘Luke Skywalker’. Except, the comparison would be with Skywalker Sr. in this case, as the man walked in United Airline flight 93, and hijacked it. Guy Savelli is contacted by various men from Axis-of-Evil countries, who are interested in learning about psychically killing a goat.
And on the home front, PsyOps have developed into something FEB and it’s proponents would never have guessed. Iraqi prisoners placed within containers are bombarded continuously with songs from Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Sesame street. A British citizen imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay talks about other forms of aural stimulation and other unusual tortures there. The scandalous pictures from Abu Ghraib take a whole new, and deeper aspect when seen from the author’s talks with members at PsyOps HQ at Fort Bragg. As the author says, the book is “about the changing relationship between Jim Channon’s ideas and the army at large.”
At some level, you understand the motivation of early proponents of the idea, the officers like Channon, Alexander etc. Post-Vietnam, when FEB was first floated, they wanted to create a supersoldier who was as much a deterrent as the atom bomb was post-WWII. Some of the ideas can only be a product of ‘60s, like the FEB soldiers carrying “symbols and sounds of peace” in enemy territories. And they have resulted in some good – some early converts have become advocates and experts on non-lethal weapons in army and law enforcement.
There are a lot of crazy-sounding excerpts from human potential, sublime sound etc. companies. But what you don’t expect is to read about a Special Forces Colonel refusing a demo of mind reader machine, because he cannot risk divulging the classified military information stored in his brain. Or a General offering to bend spoons with his mind in a black-tie affair in front of his superior, only to be shot down because his superior believes that the Satan is bending the spoons. The psychic, supernatural battle between Gen. Stubblebine and Panama dictator Noriega has to be read to be believed, with psychic spying and spells involved.
At this point you are almost ready to believe that the author’s next book will be on how moon landings were faked. Even Ronson mentions that he felt like a conspiracy nut asking certain queries about subliminal messages or about if a person was “remotely affecting livestock”. It’s hard to keep yourself from chuckling while reading this.
And then, you realise that the techniques you found so crazy are being used in Guantanamo Bay, in Abu Ghraib, or behind that train station where prisoners live in cargo containers. And suddenly, phrases like aural stimulation control, subliminal messages start sounding a whole lot less crazy and lot scarier.
There are perhaps better reasons to read a book than the author’s interview on The Colbert Report, or an upcoming movie with George Clooney. But once you get into the book, you forget everything else.
During the aforementioned Sesame Street songblasting episode, there is a page or two, where the creators of Sesame Street discuss about how much royalty they should be getting for Army’s use of the songs (calculated for about 14000 or so times over three days). They discuss whether they should be getting money on per container, per prisoner basis, or should apply jingle rate, with some knockdown (and they joke how the music is being used to knock down prisoners). For me, this half-serious, half-joking, entirely surreal conversation caught the mood of the book perfectly.
Quote of the Day:
It’s not like selling coke. Sometimes you are trying to sell someone something that you know they might not want in their hearts. So it causes ambiguities, and problems.
– “Dave”, a Senior Cultural Analyst for PsyOps