The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

by Lily Wren

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
Category: Non-fiction, conspiracy, psychological warfare.
Publication: 2004

Jon Ronson is an investigative journalist and best-selling author. He also writes for the Guardian from time to time and has the kind of ironic wit and dry sense of humour I can fully appreciate. Anyone familiar with the work of Louis Theroux might want to give Ronson a try. His interviewing and investigation techniques strike me as being very similar and just as engaging. I can only imagine what would be presented should Theroux and Ronson ever work together in the future.

I was first introduced to Ronson’s work with The Psychopath Test which I thought was an enlightening and engaging read. The downside was the sense of paranoia I started to feel which was brought about by my fledgling belief that the majority of people in politics, management and showbiz, plus a few people I have known directly, have been psychopaths. It’s in us all to varying degrees…..the potential is there…

Norman Bates

I get that similar paranoid feeling whilst reading ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’. What the heck are those people higher up getting up to? The invisible shadowy ones lying in dark corners. Who are they? Do we really want to know? Will we ever really know the truth? Is the writer really independent from all of this? I tend to push such questions to one side. No good can come!  Rightly or wrongly, I hold to the view of  ‘Look, they ain’t ever gonna let us know the truth. They’ll only allow tales to be told of what they want us to know, the rest remains hidden’.  Not surprisingly, I end up going around in circles, becoming increasingly depressed until I take on the ole ‘ignorance is bliss’ view because I know I’ll never get answers to questions searching for truth.

‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’  does provide some answers, especially if it’s an area which the reader may not be familiar with. But I’m sure we’re only allowed to scratch the surface. I wonder how many layers of the onion will need to be removed before we find what truly lies beneath. But then again, maybe that’s what THEY want us/them/whoever to think… Paranoia reigns..

Catch 22, Joseph Heller.

Anyway, as ever, I’ve veered off track like a spy stumbling about in the dark without his night vision goggles. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a fascinating book written in Ronson’s very engaging and affable style. It does jump back and forth and the structure can be difficult to keep up with for someone like me. That says more about me rather than the book.

The book provides a brief introduction into the rather dark world of ‘Psychological Operations’ (PsyOp). Ronson focuses upon the covert psychological techniques which have been used for interrogation purposes by the CIA and US Army. He introduces us to projects from as early as the 1950’s up to the modern day 2000’s and the ‘War on Terror’. Warning! For those not yet aware of this world it is pretty twisted and frightening.  Ronson touches upon areas including Project MKUltra (commenced in the 1950s by the CIA and including the use of drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnosis and various forms of torture in order to influence), the torture and human rights violations which took place at Abu Ghraib prison (2003-2004) and the link between the US military and the mass suicide by the Heaven’s Gate Cult in San Diego in 1997.

Sometimes Interesting Blog – Project MKUltra

One of the poignant stories Ronson recalls is that of Frank Olson. Olson was a leading US biochemist working with the US government in the 40’s and early 50’s. In 1953 he ‘jumped’ to his death in what was an apparent suicide.

Circumstances around his death have been suspicious, especially given that Olson was becoming more and more concerned about the work he was doing. At the time, he was rumoured to have been resigning from his post and ready to speak out against the CIA. Ronson spends some time with Eric Olson, Frank’s son, who has searched tirelessly for the truth about the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. It gives a fascinating and frightening insight and certainly provides enough interest for me to read more on the subject.

It has been said that the book is one of two halves and I would tend to agree with this opinion. At the beginning of the book you could be forgiven for thinking this is a rather humorous piece of fiction. There are some incredibly amusing stories (which Ronson hints are purposely put out there in order to detract). The tale relating to a Major General Albert Stubblebine III may even raise a chuckle. Stubblebine was active in the early 80’s and particularly interested in psychic warfare. He was also convinced given the right training people can walk through walls. Was this guy really a General?

General Stubblebine bangs his nose hard on the wall of his office. Damn, he thinks. General Stubblebine is confounded by his continual failure to walk through his wall….There is no doubt in his mind that the ability to pass through objects will one day be a common tool in the intelligence-gathering arsenal….These powers are attainable, so the only question is by whom?……Special Forces! (p.3).

However, the more we move through the book, the darker it becomes. We are reminded that fact is often stranger than fiction and that this story involves real people, families and victims. Ronson provides an insightful and thoughtful introduction to what is, essentially, a complex story of conspiracy, psyops and the ultimate power of psychological warfare and mind control which goes far deeper than we can ever know.