The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (2004)

Book review: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (Picador, 2009 [2004])

In 1979 a secret unit was established by the US Army. Defying all known military practice – and indeed the laws of physics – they believed that a soldier could adopt a cloak of invisibility, pass cleanly through walls, and, perhaps most chillingly, kill goats just by staring at them.

They were the First Earth Battalion. And they really weren’t joking. What’s more, they’re back and fighting the War on Terror. So unbelievable it has to be true – this is the real-life account that inspired the film.

I remember getting this book at WH Smith on some sort of 3 for 2 offer, and thought it might be something that either the Squeeze or myself might get a giggle out of. A couple of years later I took it down from the bookshelf, thinking that it’s the book that the movie was based on. You know, based on the title, the cover and the “Now a major motion picture” blurb on the front.

It’s not entirely true. The book and the film only have in common the title, and the concept of a squad of hippie supersoldiers. The film is about a journalist stumbling on a story, and following one of the would-be supersoldiers around. The book, on the other hand, isn’t a fictional account. It’s a journalist writing about how he came to hear about the First Earth Battalion, and the surrounding conspiracy theories, and so on, as he travels around America to try to substantiate the claims made by the people he has interviewed.

Was I disappointed that there was such a difference between film and book? No, definitely not. To tell the truth, I could hardly put this book down and gobbled it up in a matter of days! Incredible though it is, it’s remarkably fascinating to read.

Always tongue-in-cheek, and reporting it with a sort of amused scepticism, Ronson has pieced together an incredible story, especially considering some of the tactics for non-lethal warfare put forward in the First Earth Battalion handbook seem to have been picked up by the military and put to good use. Granted, not the way that its creator intended it, because with sound, for instance, the intent was to confuse the enemy, but in a kind way … not by blaring out Metallica inside metal containers all through the night.

So, de-bleeted goats and killing hamsters with ones mind to breaking prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, or secret drug experiments by the CIA in the 1950s, it’s a great concoction of “WTF?!” moments. The Men Who Stare at Goats is written in an amusing and entertaining way, even though the subject matter is serious, and while the tone is sceptical, it’s not actually mocking – however wacky the ideas sound.

I’m left wondering what the world would look like if wars were conducted in non-lethal ways … except, of course, it might be even more psychologically traumatising than actual flesh wounds. Still, if you want to know what happens when the military dabble with New Age, this is the book to read, and gawk at in disbelief at what taxpayers have been funding all these years. Question is if it was money well spent or not. Decide for yourself.

5 out of 5 hamster cages.

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