271 of 291 people found the following review helpful
on October 9, 2005
Some reviewers have completely missed the point. This is the author's journey researching an inane army experiment, and what manifestations may remain. This book is no more an investigative proof than Ronson's last novel was an argument for joining extremists. This book is Errol Morris, not Art Bell.
Wholly enjoyable and entertaining, it's hard to remember at times this is non-fiction, as some of the interviews seem insane. The presentation base comes from declassified goverment documents. However, they are not included, nor are there any footnotes, because Ronson is not trying to convince the reader of anything. He is writing about his interviews and conversations investigating the chronology of the "First Earth Battalion" manual. I believe Ronson started this project intending it to be much funnier (he is a comedian after all), but some of the subject matter and personas he found, though entertaining, aren't laughable: staring at a goat trying to kill sounds funny, but imagine the views of a person who wishes they had the ability to kill people with their mind. So it is a perspective on the legacy of a few persons relieved of common sense, that were given a little power and a budget.
You might enjoy this book if you:
- Find Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) funny.
- Like character documentaries, like those by Errol Morris.
- Enjoy psychology.
- Want a light introduction to a bizzare goverment-funded experiment.
You probably won't enjoy this book if you:
- Are looking for hard documentation on goverment conspiracy
- Believe our goverment would never do bad things to people
- Are uncomfortable with light critisism of George W. Bush
79 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2006
I had the hardest time deciding whether or not to read this book based on the various Amazon reviews. While I love a good conspiracy theory or two, I try to avoid books either written by conspiracy fanatics who have no objectivity, or conspiracy comics who treat the subject from a distance and use it to poke fun. As you can imagine, it's tough to find middle ground.
Goats ends up being worth reading for fitting somewhere into my realm of acceptibility, but sadly not enough to merit more than 3 stars. Ronson definitely keeps his distance during the first half of the book - as military men, some of whom are clearly unhinged to some extent, talk about crazy programs, Ronson makes it clear that he's not confirming or denying the allegations, merely quoting. And here, the book takes a comic tone and allows the reader to decide who to believe. On top of this, the book feels light, as if little research beyond interviews was done. Perhaps there's no other way to get this kind of information. Regardless, every chapter was more of a series of anecdotes than anything.
For the second half, the tone turns more serious as it becomes clear that there is a spider web connecting many of the participants of various army plots, and here Ronson suddenly suddenly gets too serious without enough evidence. I was fine with the tone change, and the book does lead you on the same inner feeling: at first, "this is nuts" to "hey, maybe there's something seriously wrong going on." The problem is that this is where we needed a lot more hardcore research. And yet the book still felt light and airy. I mean, Ronson didn't even bother to look up the name of the song or band that features the words "Burn Mother*ucker, Burn!" A small point, but one that will stand out to American readers as an obvious example of not doing all the homework. Also, the history of these programs is basically presented as Ronson discovered them, and the problem with this is that he backtracks and overlaps on himself a zillion times rather than present the material sequentially. Again, I see the reasons for taking us on the same path of discovery he did, but I'm not convinced it was for the best.
I think that there's a better book that could've been written buried in here somewhere, and what actually hit the page isn't necessarily bad. It just ultimately comes off as too light to be as important as it could have been. For those who were in my quandry of deciding whether to buy it, I recommend it, but I felt a lot better buying it used.
83 of 104 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2005
This is a fascinating tale about people who are completely nuts. Unfortunately, many of these people who are completely nuts hold or have held senior positions in the United States military. Ronson rarely writes a judgmental word, but allows his subject to speak for themselves--and hang themselves with their own words. (At least, that's the impression--obviously Ronson has selected which of their words to present.)
Ronson looks at ideas for a "First Earth Battallion" by soldier-turned-newage-marketing-guru Jim Channon, who proposed in 1979 that the military put greater emphasis on influencing people with alternative weapons such as paranormal abilities and music. Ronson traces the use of music in warfare to the use of loud music by the FBI at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas and as a torture technique used by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq.
The book covers a wide-ranging territory of nuttiness, including Uri Geller (who is quoted in the book suggesting that he has been re-activated for use by the U.S. military), the remote viewers at Ft. Meade (Joe McMoneagle, Ingo Swann, Pat Price, Ed Dames, etc.), the non-lethal weaponry of UFO and paranormal investigator Col. John Alexander, the connections between the remote viewers and Courtney Brown--and then to Art Bell and Heaven's Gate, and the CIA's MKULTRA experiments and the death-by-LSD of Frank Olson and his son Eric's search for the facts about his death.
The book is alternately amusing and horrifying. It would be funny if this craziness wasn't taken so seriously by high-ranking officials who have put it into practice, wasting tax dollars and occasionally producing horribly unethical outcomes.
I highly recommend this book.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This book isn't funny.
Mind you, Ronson knows exactly what he's doing by presenting the book as "hilarious" - it starts out completely absurd, with the high-minded hippy ideals of a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran presented to a beleaguered military under siege. Jim Channon, seeking solace in the emerging human potential movement in California, struck a chord with the top brass, and the repercussions are still felt today.
But instead of being used as a positive force for peace, the military twisted it into a force of evil. Ronson ties it all together: September 11, Heaven's Gate, sticky foam, Abu-Grahib, Waco, Art Bell, Projects STARGATE, MKULTRA, and ARTICHOKE, and yes, Barney. Goat-staring is the least of our worries.
The thread running throughout all these seemingly disconnected blips in history is that they are a new form of psychological warfare that is innocuous, ruthless, and entirely effective. The Men Who Stare at Goats would be just another conspiracy-laden anti-government diatribe if it wasn't for the fact that Ronson always takes the next step as an investigative reporter. He finds people to back up the wild claims, interviews them, and often challenges their wild theories.
The sad thing is, very few of these shadowy contacts hide their past. Almost unilaterally, Ronson calls them all out by name and they step forward, sharing a story that sheds a disconcerting light on America's human rights record. Where is the vigorous conversation, the protests, the discord over these revelations? The facts are right here before us - even photographic evidence -- but we laugh about Barney being used to torture prisoners and we shake our heads at the poor, misguided psychics. But outrage? There's no outrage. We save our vitriol for partisan debates in our own government.
Eric Olson, son of Frank Olson, a military scientist who died under mysterious circumstances while working on MKULTRA, sums it up best:
"The old story is so much fun, why would anyone want to replace it with a story that's not fun. You see...this is no longer a happy, feel-good story...People have been brainwashed by fiction...so brainwashed by the Tom Clancy thing, they think, 'We know this stuff. We know the CIA does this.' Actually, we know nothing of this. There's no case of this, and all this fictional stuff is like an immunization against reality. It makes people think they know things that they don't know and it enables them to have a kind of superficial quasi-sophistication and cynicism which is just a thin layer beyond which they're not cynical at all."
Have you heard? There's a movie based on this book coming out starring George Clooney.
It's a comedy.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2005
It's hard to know what to make of Ronson's book. I bought it because I saw him on C-SPAN2's BookTV, and found him engaging and credible, with a keen sense of the absurd. But as others here have noted, his book is thin on documentation, and the claims made in it are outlandish. On the other hand, if they are true, they're just the sort of thing you would expect there to be scant documentary evidence of. Therein lies the rub.
Either way, the book is well-written, and quick and entertaining to read. My suggestion is to read it for yourself and form your own conclusions about its claims. And by the way, if you find the sort of thing Ronson writes about interesting, you should rent the DVD "Suspect Zero," starring Ben Kingsley, which covers some of the same territory and includes some documentaries on one very odd military program.
28 of 35 people found the following review helpful
"The Men Who Stare At Goats" is perhaps the oddest book I have read since "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" by Chuck Barris. Both books are incredibly entertaining and have plots revolving around fairly unbelievable government programs. Chuck would have fit in here perfectly.
This is the story of military and government intelligence officials who believe and promote utterly wacky concepts, like "Warrior Monks," the ability to stop a goat's heart telepathically by staring at it (this was allegedly demonstrated later on guinea pigs for budgetary reasons), and the ability to walk through walls.
Jon Ronson has a wonderful, conversational writing style. The only unfortunate part of that it is hard to tell when he is serious and when he isn't. I do not know how much of this book is true, and how much is complete, if inspired lunacy. I am not accusing Ronson (a documentary filmmaker) of fabricating anything, but given that his references are all speaking from first-person experiences which were supposedly classified, verification of these stories is nigh-impossible. In other words, even if Ronson reported the facts as he knew them, there is no way to verify the bulk of these allegations. I do know that Art Bell is discussed to a degree, and despite relative skepticism from Ronson and others, his mere appearance in the book tends to make most people (including myself) more skeptical of matters at hand.
I don't know what parts of this book I believe and what parts to merely laugh at. Within that conundrum is the entertainment value (as disturbing as it may be) of this book.
I recommend this book for people with open, but skeptical, minds.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
It's hard to know where to begin with this book from British freelance journalist and documentarian Ronson. It is, in a sense, victim to a kind of clandestine catch-22. The claims made in it are so outrageously bizarre that they demand documentation to substantiate and take seriously. And yet, the matters involved are so ultra secret and frightening that it's unlikely such documentation could ever be produced without resorting to real espionage. So even though Ronson manages to get surprising number of former officers and others to go on the record about the American military's flirtation with the paranormal over the last 25 years, one has to kind of read the book with either a grain of salt or a bit of faith.
The basic gist is that in the years following the end of the Vietnam War, there was a real malaise in the American military. An officer named Jim Channon took it upon himself to examine alternative forms of warfare and spent about a year traveling around the U.S. immersed in the new agey, positive self-transformation movement that was burgeoning at the time (and still does). He wrote a manual in 1979 based on his findings, full of suggestions, some wackier than others, some of which have been explored the military intelligence community. At the core of his manual was the notion that the military could create "warrior monks" trained in paranormal techniques such remote viewing, mind control, and invisibility. To that end, there was a secret unit established which was involved in remote viewing and, as the title indicates, attempts to psychically kill animals by staring at them. One of the less bizarre offshoots of this research is the blasting of music by the military and FBI in siege situations (such as Panama or Waco) and at detainees in Iraq and elsewhere. There's also some interesting stuff about subliminal messages, and the entirely strange detainee experience of a British man, who was subjected to Fleetwood Mac covers, Kris Kristofferson, and Matchbox 20 at normal volume for no apparent reason.
The story is such a tangled one with so many bizarre threads that one has to applaud Ronson for keeping it all in some semblance of order -- although the bit about the Art Bell show and Heavens Gate cult seemed to stray a little too far from the core. Ronson's approach is to simply keep asking questions, acting naive to his interviewees and then devastatingly connecting the dots in writing. The writing style is so breezy and wittily deadpan that it somewhat undercuts the seriousness of the topics under discussion, although to be fair, when he does discuss detainee torture and the apparent murder of a civilian scientist, the tone does switch to appropriately respectful. Indeed, the parts of the book that trace how the more whimsical fancys of the late '70s got twisted into the very real torture at Abu Gharib prison (and elsewhere) are chilling. Similarly, his account of the famous CIA MKULTRA experiments of the '50s turn what might be comical into sobering stuff.
The whole thing is rather unsettling, because even though much of it is pretty wacky stuff, there's no disputing that a good portion of it is true. And yes, it'll confirm the worst beliefs of those who are are distrustful of the American military establishment, but it should prove shocking to the rest of us as well. It's hard to know what to do after reading a book like this other than scream for greater transparency in the intelligence community. But when the president has authorized some $30 billion for "off the books" operations... one gets the uncomfortable sense this may be only the tip of the iceberg.
PS. In conjunction with this book, Ronson put together a three-part documentary called The Crazy Rulers of the World which ran on BBC4 in the UK.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2007
On getting around to writing a review on "Goats," I found myself wishing that there were two rating scales on Amazon -- one for entertainment value, and one for accuracy. I rate "Goats" five stars for amusement value -- it really is an entertaining and engagingly-written book, and nothing I say further in this review is meant to discourage you from reading it -- I really do recommend you buy it if only for its entertainment value alone. But do so with a very large helping of salt, since I only give it one star for accuracy (I averaged the two ratings, hence the three stars).
I shall leave the amusement factor behind as sufficiently addressed, and talk now about the accuracy issue -- at least so far as the parts of the book about parapsychology are concerned (there is an odd conflation in it of 'psychic' operations and psychological operations, or 'psyops,' neither of which had anything to do with each other; I cannot speak authoritatively on the psyops part of the book). Whenever possible, Jon Ronson and his crew (yes, "Goats" is a team effort, though Ronson gets prime billing) opted for color and sensationalism over accuracy. Interviews are cherry-picked for the juiciest stuff, leaving context on the cutting-room floor that would have presented what they did choose to print in an entirely different light had it been more honestly presented (the film-making language is intentional, as the book is the literary companion to a three-hour conspiracy-laced documentary on the same topics).
For the sake of the story they also seem to have been perfectly happy to make logical leaps connecting events and persons which in reality were either never connected, or only were very tenuously. As one example, retired Colonel John Alexander is presented as being "one of Al Gore's oldest friends," when in fact what John (a close friend of mine) told them in an interview was that he had once decades before been briefly introduced to Gore and shaken his hand -- and that Gore would not know him from Adam.
As another example, they present Gen. Bert Stubblebine as having actively recruited Ed Dames to become a government remote viewer, making the general eventually responsible for the deaths of 39 Heaven's Gate cult members (I won't take space here to tell you how this is alleged to have occurred -- read the book!). The real facts are that Stubblebine had nothing to do with Dames until the latter was already well entrenched in the remote viewing program. Missing from the book is any account of the successful intelligence work done by the military remote viewers (and there is plenty of authentic documentary evidence available to show this), or the extensive scientific research that grounded it.
It's not possible to cover all the literary crimes of "Goats," but I assure you my take on this does not result from hearsay, but from first-hand knowledge of and direct communication with nearly all the remote-viewing-associated people featured in the book, plus my own multi-year involvement with the government remote viewing program. The carnival-esque image with which "Goats" paints what became known as the "Star Gate" remote viewing program is merely a caricature (and a very rough one at that) of a program that, while not perfect, was indeed successful and valuable despite what its detractors might prefer to believe. But please, do buy the book!
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2005
Jon Ronson writes in a very relaxed, entertaining style. Almost too relaxed and entertaining. I picked up and read the first third of the book in one sitting and enjoyed it deeply. I'd frequently laugh out loud at the completly insane ideas these government officials were devoting their lives to. They seemed essentially like harmless quacks (or, at worst, snake oil salesmen) who ultimately weren't doing a whole lot of harm.
Then Jon started making connections to Abu Ghraib and programs of assassination.
Jon's style is so accessible that you occasionally have to remind yourself that either this stuff if true or (at a minimum) there are people in fairly high positions who believe in it and act on it.
Either way, this is that rare book that has both interesting subject matter and is a great read.
My only regret is that the style of the book will probably prevent it from getting widely read or seriously discussed.
I'm not into conspiracy theories (I think I'm the last guy who really thinks Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK) but this book definately has me scratching my head. A great read!
I couldn't recommend it more highly!
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
It's difficult to know what to make of Ronson's trek through the land of US military intelligence (?) and psychological operations except to say, "You gotta be kidding me."
The featured player in this Dr. Strangelove-ish tale is Major General Albert Stubblebine III, onetime chief of intelligence for the US Army. No, Terry Southern (who wrote the script for Kubrick's Cold War satire) did not make up the name. There really is a General Stubblebine and he really did work hard on training himself to walk through walls and to levitate, and he really did talk to Brit journalist and film maker Jon Ronson about his various parapsychological ideas.
To get a sense of what Ronson is up to, it helps to have read his previous book, Them: Adventures with Extremists (2002) in which he disarms various wackos, from would-be jihad warriors to Klu Klux Klan grand wizards, by turning them into almost lovable comedic figures. Here nobody comes off as exactly lovable (although there are plenty of chuckles), but somehow one gets the sense that crazy as these warriors are, they are only the fringe on the patchwork quilt of state.
The goats in the title refers to "Goat Lab" a secret enterprise housed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The idea is to keep a herd of de-bleated goats (100 strong and de-bleated so that they don't make a lot of noise that passers-by might hear) around so that special forces and other military operatives can do various things with them including staring them to death. The idea is that if some people can kill goats just by staring at them, think what they can do to Al Qaeda!
Yes, your tax dollars do go to pay for this. But, as Gen. Stubblebine, who is also into psychic healing, says "You cannot afford to get stale in the intelligence world...You cannot afford to miss something when you're talking about the intelligence world." (p.6)
Indeed. And I suppose this is how such shenanigans are justified by the higher ups. I mean, what if we're wrong? What if Al Qaeda or the ayatollahs get there first? Think about that! And I suppose that the powers that be in the US military are somewhat sensitive to the charge of restrictive, in-house thinking. So perhaps that is why people like Gen. Stubblebine get to be generals because somebody has to think outside the box.
Also thinking outside the box was General Stubblebine's superior officer, General John Adams Wickham, then army chief of staff, who was not impressed with the bent fork that Stubblebine presented to him at a black-tie party. He concluded "that Satan had somehow taken over General Stubblebine's soul. It was Satan, not General Stubblebine, who had bent the fork." (pp. 76-77)
Leading theoretician of outside the box military thinking would be Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Jim Channon who produced the First Earth Battalion Operations Manual. He's a guy the military wanted to lead a Warrior Monk unit into Iraq. (p. 254) Warrior Monks absolutely know how to stay cool when the bullets are flying, and they have no dependence on lust or on status. They can subsist on grains and nuts for extended periods of time and they don't need any Budweiser.
Another interesting character is Major Ed Dames (who would later become a regular on the Art Bell syndicated radio show spinning lurid tales of disasters and such to come). One time when there wasn't a lot of official military psychic work to do, Major Dames took to spying on the Loch Ness monster. He concluded that the monster was the ghost of a dinosaur. (pp. 73-74) Sounds right.
Amazingly (or appropriately) enough Ronson also looks into David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult, as well as the Heaven's Gate suicide comet riders--or would be riders. He examines the use of "silent sound" and other methods employed by the military to break down prisoners to get them to talk, including blaring songs from Sesame Street and Barney the purple dinosaur and some Guns and Roses rock and roll ("Welcome to the Jungle"!). You talk about your torture methods! One gets the sense that stuff like this ought to be barred by the Geneva Convention. Ronson also manages to give us some info about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, forcing this reader at least to conclude that the techniques used there were the result of planned military PsyOps orchestrated by people a lot higher up the chain of command than Private Lynndie England and her cohorts.
In what turned out as a kind of counterpoint Ronson interviewed army Colonel John Alexander who opined that a lot of what Ronson found of interest "has no basis in reality." When asked what silent sounds are, he replied, "It sounds like an oxymoron to me." Too bad we don't know whether he said this with a straight face or not. Ronson reports that "He gave me a hard look, which seemed to suggest that I was masquerading as a journalist but was, in fact, a dangerous and irrational conspiracy nut."
I'm sure everybody in the military's psychological operations are having a good laugh reading this book, just as Ronson intended, but I wonder how the strait-laced commanders feel about it. Of course they will ignore it, but this book, folks, does NOT make the military look good. And that is an understatement.