Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats - an entertaining read

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm

The Men Who Stare at Goats
by Jon Ronson

The events covered in Jon Ronson's non-fiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats seem outlandish and eclipse anything a conspiracy theorist may dream up. Mind control? Check. Psychic assassins? Check. Goat/spider hybrids? Check.

At first, Ronson's discoveries about American military strategies seem hilarious and benign: the image of men staring at goats, with the aim to kill, is comic. His eye for the absurd and his knack for goading interviewees into juicy dialogue makes for an entertaining read. It's likely that no other writer in the English language has embarked on a mission to watch a "goat snuff film" for the sake of a report.

We meet Major General Albert Stubblebine, the US Army's chief of intelligence, who tries and fails to walk through a wall in his office in 1983. Stubblebine later proposed to the US Special Forces that they train soldiers to stop the hearts of animals, not realising that there was a place called Goat Lab, home to 100 debleated goats, where such experiments were already taking place.

Ronson uncovers how retired lieutenant-colonel Jim Channon's 125-page First Earth Battalion Operations Manual - which was meant to redesign military life using gentle, New Age guidelines - precipitated some of the greatest abuses and scandals in recent memory, such as the prison tortures at Abu Ghraib and interrogation techniques used in al-Qâ'im, Iraq.

"History seems to show that whenever there is a great American crisis - the war on terror, the trauma of Vietnam, the cold war - its military intelligence is drawn to the idea of thought control," Ronson writes. "They come up with … harebrained schemes to try out, and they all sound funny until the schemes are actually implemented."

The torture in al-Qâ'im was reported as a funny anecdote in the press: the military played songs by Barney the purple dinosaur to prisoners. But this was done along with sleep deprivation in cargo containers in desert conditions.

As the book comes to a close, we learn about the CIA programme Artichoke: "Recently declassified documents reveal that Artichoke was all about inventing insane, brutal, violent, frequently fatal new ways of interrogating people."