The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson

Read: 7 July, 2011

I really want to categorize this book as fiction; and, in a sane world, I would. Unfortunately…

It begins in 1983,  when Major General Albert Stubblebine III (a truly Dickensian name), upon realizing that both his body and the wall are made up of atoms and that atoms are mostly made up of empty space, tries to walk through a wall.

Starting from Stubblebine’s sore nose, Ronson takes the reader through a brief history of the US military’s more insane moments. He lulled me into a sense of “oh, that happened in ’70s, but it would never happen today” with stories of men staring at goats to make their hearts stop (and, when goats aren’t available, the odd hamster would do) and a First Earth Battalion that could end conflict with their “sparkling eyes.”

But then he gets into the ‘War on Terror’ and the horrific acts at Abu Ghraib.

The most difficult part of reading The Men Who Stare At Goats is to remember that this is only, as the subtitle says, about a “small group of men” who happen to be placed in some key positions. It isn’t representative of the army as a whole. The problem is that each of these “highly placed” men have subordinates in a culture that does not tolerate dissent – even when the orders are quite obviously insane.

Throughout, Ronson remains very objective. He allows his subjects, and their beliefs, to speak for themselves. This is an amazing feat when writing a book about men who believe that they can walk through walls or stare goats to deaths.

The tone of the book seems somewhat rambly – jumping back and forth through time and skipping from subject to subject – but it all makes sense by the end, when the whole is tied together and the influence of Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion Operations Manual is made clear. And, really, this is the story of that book – of its history and its legacy.

Men Who Stare At Goats appears to be meticulously researched. Certainly, it comes through in Ronson’s writing just how difficult certain people and facts were to find. And, although some of the connections he draws are speculative (or based on “wink wink” statements from his informants), he does make the case that it’s all at least plausible if not factual. I found it to be a very interesting and thought-provoking read, even if my faith in humanity requires that I remain somewhat provisional in my trust of Ronson’s depictions.

Assuming that it is all (or mostly) true, though, I’d be very interested in a follow up in coming years as to the effect of the book on military policies and strategies. Has Men Who Stare At Goats embarrassed the leadership sufficiently to cause a change? Will it spell the end of First Earth Battalion‘s influence? Or will it increase its popularity?

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