Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

As always, when I find an author/series that I really enjoy, I can’t rest until I’ve collected all the related books so I can binge-read them.  That’s what happened with my latest read, The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson – after reading The Psychopath Test, I wanted to read everything else he’d written.  The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a movie a few years ago, but I haven’t seen it yet, so I was coming to this book with very little knowledge about it, other than the brief write up on the cover: “This story is about what happened when a small group of men – highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services – began believing in very strange things.”  It seemed like classic Them-Ronson, and I was really looking forward to reading it.

I realized though, within the first couple of chapters, that even though I hadn’t seen the movie by the same name, I was influenced by it.  I had figured that, because it had been made into a movie, and because of the use of the term ‘group’ in the write up, that there must be a running plot/characters through the book, and so I was reading it and looking for those common threads.  But, this was a mistake on my part; this book is classic Ronson – there is no plot, but rather a collection of stories and observations about interesting people that have something in common and, in this case, that was the exploration of the metaphysical to advance the strength of the US armed forces.  Once I caught on that I was super-imposing my expectation onto the book, and let them go, I was able to really get into Ronson’s work and enjoy it.  

As always, Ronson has collected an eclectic combination of people to tell his story.  Some of them, highly-placed commanders in the US armed forces, other, like a media-hungry spy (think about that combination for a minute) all come together to confirm that, yes, the US armed forces have explored various metaphysical ways of gaining an advantage over the enemy.  These ‘interesting’ techniques include approaching enemy combatants with lambs and soothing music, to the more hostile methods of stopping their hearts by staring at them.

Ronson was writing shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and if you think back to that era in world history, you might remember it as one of insipid panic: the Bush administration was constantly reminding the population (domestic and global) that more attacks were imminent.  For a while, everyone seemed caught up in the case that Bush was building against extremists who were lurking around every corner.  So, maybe exploring the concept of using psychics to find bin Laden, or stopping the hearts of any plane highjackers, or using subliminal messages buried in Fleetwood Mac songs at Guantanamo during interrogations wasn’t the worst way to spend time and money on the off-chance that they would work.  But, as Ronson shows, these methods weren’t developed in response to the 2001 attacks; rather, they had been developed as early as the 1970s.  

Ronson takes his readers on a curious journey from the new-age movement that emerged in 1970s California to a dilapidated building at Fort Bragg that is supposedly filled with debleated goats, who are used for a variety of training exercises (medical and metaphysical).  The Men Who Stare at Goats is classic Ronson in that it meanders along an odd little path, with many curious stops, that all build to show that, in fact, what might have appeared insane in the beginning of the journey actually has a rational foundation.  But it’s still an odd foundation, no doubt.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Ronson’s book.  Lobby Ronson to write more.  There is something so charming and engaging about Ronson’s writing style that, even though it may appear disjointed at first, it contains an innate sense of logic that never leaves the reader behind.  The Men Who Stare at Goats is a curious little read, about a curious time and course of events in American history, that is worth exploring.

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