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Jon Ronson


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

This book is based on a recent television series and covers pretty much the same ground. Probably many people have heard of the "remote viewing" experiments that were apparently carried out by the US military over a number of years. These were intended to provide information about enemy activities by paranormal means. As Ronson's account makes plain, however, there is more to the story than remote viewing and, although much of it is pure comedy, there are also darker overtones. Ronson's claim is that the obscenity of the torture perpetrated at Abu Ghraib by American troops had its roots in the bizarre ideas he encountered among the people he spoke to.

Perhaps my favourite character in the book is General Stubblebine, whose ambition when he was a serving officer was to walk through walls. This, he thought, was quite a reasonable thing to try to do. After all, there are relatively huge amounts of space between the atoms of solid objects; he was made of atoms and so was the wall, so it ought to be possible for one set of atoms to pass through the other. The general spent a lot of time walking into walls but this resulted only in a sore nose. Stubblebine concluded that this must be because he had not tuned his consciousness sufficiently.

The "goat staring" alluded to in the title refers to attempts to kill goats by gazing at them in a particular way. Ronson met a civilian who claimed to be able to do this and to have demonstrated it to the military. For Ronson's benefit he did some staring at a hamster, though not with the intention of actually killing it. The experiment was inconclusive.

If it seems surprising that the US military should have become involved in such bizarre undertakings, their origin seems to have been the New Consciousness movement in California in the 1970s. Ronson visited a retired lieutenant-colonel called Jim Channon, who during his service spent two years in that environment and then suggested forming the First Earth Battalion. This was to have been based on the premise that soldiers could carry baby lambs into hostile territory in order to pacify the enemy. Channon realized that this might not be enough, however, so loudspeakers could be mounted to broadcast "discordant sounds" to confuse the enemy, and if all else failed the troops could have recourse to lethal weapons; this would not entail bad karma for them since they would have no choice. They would also be expected to take part in rituals, wearing special robes.

Channon was actually offered the chance of forming such a batallion, but he wisely turned it down. However, his ideas continued to influence military thinking. Ronson believes that it was idealistic theories of this kind that later became perverted to give rise to the practices at Abu Ghraib. Here and elsewhere, including at the siege at Waco, loud discordant music was used as an offensive weapon. Other methods may have been used as well: Ronson spoke to a British man who was held at Guantanamo and who may have been the subject of experiments with subliminal sounds.

This is a (mostly) funny book but also a disturbing one. There are many stories about the crazy ideas that were current in Nazi circles in the Third Reich, but it is easy to ascribe them to an irrational streak within Nazism itself. It is alarming to think that equally crazy ideas are so deeply embedded in the modern American military.

9 February 2005

%T The men who stare at goats
%A Jon Ronson
%I Picador
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 0-330-37547-4
%P 278 pp
%K military history

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