- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS

By Jon Ronson

Simon & Schuster, $24, 259 pages

REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER

Jon Ronson never uses the term”mind over matter” but in a way that’s what his book, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” is about. How else do you explain an otherwise sane two-star general who thinks he ought to be able to walk through walls and men who can kill goats and hamsters and maybe other critters without laying a hand them? Or who, if you’re Uri Geller, you can bend spoons merely by concentrating on bending spoons.

All of this makes “The Men Who Stare at Goats” sound like a bit of light reading about paranormal subjects, theories and possibilities. And the author’s name, which reads like a spoonerism of Ron Johnson, does nothing to change that early perception. And while we’re at it, neither does his picture, which shows him by whatever name in dire need of a haircut and a severe hairbrushing, or the jacket picture which is of a distorted goat surrounded by six rifles, designed by someone named Kai Chu who sounds more like a sneeze than an artist. Despite all of this, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” if you take it seriously, and maybe you should, is a scary book. It doesn’t begin that way, but it ends that way.

This is abook about the United States Army or at least, about some people in or working with the Army who set out to prove that the mind, if utilized at its highest potential, is the most potent weapon a soldier can have. The man who had this weird idea was a colonel named Jim Channon upon whom combat in Vietnam had a strange effect. He came out of the war thinking that American soldiers lacked cunning which is why “we got our butts shot off.”

Surprisingly he was able to convince his superiors that he was on to something and they gave him two years to come up with a proposal that would make our troops more cunning. Instead, he came up with an idea that would make them more peaceful, that soldiers, dressed like monks and cradling lambs in their arms, would start out selling “peace” to the enemy and when that didn’t work they would switch, first to bombarding the enemy with “discordant sounds,” followed, that failing, by the use of non-lethal weapons. As a last resort, lethal weapons would be used.

Well, according to Mr. Ronson, the Army never quite took to all of that, but one thing led to another and the army went to work on some of Col. Channon’s ideas, minus such monkey business as the lambs and the peace and brotherhood concept.

Col. Channon’s ideas eventually found their way to Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, the chief of army intelligence, who got it into his head that with the proper state of mind a man could go beyond bending spoons, a la Uri Geller, and walk through walls and/or levitate. Unfortunately, he never accomplished either of the latter but, now retired, he did tell Mr. Ronson that he can burst clouds, presumably making it rain on someone’s parade.

Mr. Ronson doesn’t tell us if the Army has any other cloud busters but he says he did discover that the Army has a man — a civilian — who can concentrate a hamster to death, or a goat. Once again, there is no indication that the hamster killer can do the same to his fellow man.

What Mr. Ronsone does find out, he says, is that the Army is using sound —discordant sound and subliminal sound — as a weapon or rather as a tool. Loud sound, discordant sound and possibly subliminal sound are used as means of persuading prisoners to talk, to reveal secrets.

There is the implication here that this may be a form of torture, that it has been used on prisoners at Abu Ghraib, along with the acts of sexual depravity to which they were subjected.He quotes Gen. Stubblebine as saying, “This was not started by some youngsters down in the trenches. This had to have been driven by the intelligence community.”

As one delves more deeply into the book, it becomes evident that Mr. Ronson’s real purpose is not, as it seems in the beginning, to paint a lighthearted description of the Army’s unusual and far-out attempts to develop a means of waging psychological warfare. Instead, it is to show how the Army, perhaps with the connivance of the Central Intelligence Agency, is using sound to break down the resistance of prisoners not only at Abu Ghraib, but also elsewhere in Iraq, and in Guantanamo; there are no cuddly lambs involved and, itseems, little effort at gentle persuasion.

But Mr. Ronson asserts that the use of sound as a persuasion tool actually began years before the Iraq war, at Waco, for instance where the FBI and the Army, after their sound operations failed, set fire to a compound occupied by members of the Branch Davidian religious cult, burning to death in the process more than 80 men, women and children.

And even four years earlier in Panama there was the incident where the Army, with Gen. Stubblebine still in charge of psychological operations, literally blasted Panama dictator Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican Embassy’s building by playing the Guns N’ Roses piece, “Welcome to the Jungle,” again and again and again.

What’s next for the Army, Mr. Ronson can’t say. But there is little doubt that experimental work goes on in this area. There is a guy involved — Guy Savelli is his name — with whom Mr. Ronson stays in touch. Mr. Savelli is the man who can kill hamsters and goats by staring at them.And now the Army — it’s mid-July of 2004 — wants him to go to Fort Bragg, the place where it keeps its experimental goats, because there’s a new general there who wants a demonstration.

Can Guy really kill goats and hamsters by staring them to death? Guy had said he was willing to take Mr. Ronson with him. But suddenly he refuses to take Mr. Ronson’s phone calls, much less along on the trip to Fort Bragg. So Mr. Ronson is left and remains left in the dark.

As are his readers. Apparently, the best we can hope for is a sequel.

Lyn Nofziger spent three weeks at Fort Bragg in l943. He does not remember seeing any goats there.

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