[Daemonic Dispatches] Since there were no military recruiters in evidence on my Vermont village's green this Memorial Day, I imagined setting up a table stacked high with free copies of journalist Jon Ronson's 2005 book The Men Who Stare at Goats.
I've just finished reading this book the second time through, and I am still left slack-jawed by this story, at once sinister and absurd, of the U.S. government's experiments in psychic warfare. The book opens with the 1983 scene of Lee Marvin look-alike Major General Albert Stubblebine III, U. S. Army Chief of Intelligence, attempting to will himself through his office wall (it goes without saying that the use of the word "intelligence" in the context of the United States government demands scare quotes).
Remember that episode of "Superman" where Professor LaSerne theorizes a way for our hero to catch a crook who lives inside an impenetrable cube? Superman concentrates on rearranging his atomic structure, and simply walks through the wall. General Stubblebine has no such luck, and keeps bumping his nose, but that does not keep him from flying down to Fort Bragg, North Carolina to convince a group of Special Forces commanders that they should undertake a program of turning certain enlisted men into supermen, with powers of invisibility, psychokinesis, and remote killing through mental telepathy.
Though the Army brass laughed Stubblevine out of the room, Ronson relates, Fort Bragg was already home to a special goat-execution chamber, kept under wraps because some of the Special Ops forces had learned how to excise the goats' larynxes.
With his account of the reminiscences of General Stubblevine as a kick-off, Ronson sets off on a wild goat chase that leads him to Uri Geller, Ed Dames and the Army's remote viewing program, Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion, Steven Halpern and subliminal suggestion, Guy Savelli's death touch, the Heaven's Gate suicides, the Barney theme song employed as a torture interrogation device in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and finally, the 1953 "suicide" of CIA scientist Frank Olson.
Ronson's book is an excellent primer on enantiodromia the process by which things turn into their opposites. I can't help but feel that it all started in the fifties, the decade of innocence that turned out to be as dark and terrifying as any period in American history. George Reeves becoming one with that wall melds with the MK-ULTRA manipulative mind-bending of innocents; "Warrior Monk" Col. Jim Channon, a veteran of both Vietnam and Esalen, plays with ideas from the California human potential movement as a template for an alternative military, and his metaphors and tropes get trapped in the literalism of the military mindset, culminating in the horror of the Iraq war. The too-familiar Army recruitment jingle, "Be All You Can Be," Ronson tells us, was plucked from Channon's First Earth Battalion Manualthis New Age transformational motto rings awfully hollow in the wake of the tragedy of Abu Ghraib.
In 1953, Ronson suggests, the CIA murdered Frank Olson (and who knows how many others) to keep him from revealing dark secrets about our government's role in torture and chemical weapons development. (Leading the coverup from within the White House were Donald Rumsfeld, Chief of Staff to President Gerald Ford, and Dick Cheney, senior White House assistant.)
The really sad thing is that in 2007 killing people to ensure their silence is no longer necessary. The American public, shown photographs of US soldiers brutalizing innocent Iraqi detainees, turned a blind eye, happy to make jokes about the Barney "I Love You" song while their government continued to torture and kill in their name.