Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats
reviewed by Paul H. Smith
(Adapted from a review that appeared in Aperture, Vol. 4, No. 3, the newsletter of the International Remote Viewing Association.) If you have spent much time in the remote viewing community, then you’ve probably heard more than one outlandish story that turned out not to be quite the way things really happened. The Men Who Stare at Goats contributes to the noise-level by linking remote viewing to stories about Army generals trying to walk through walls, people stopping the hearts of bleat-less goats just by staring at them, and alleged torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. It should be no surprise that such linkages don’t stand up to scrutiny.
The Men Who Stare at Goats has been around a long time in book-years, ever since the spring of 2005. But the book has gained fresh notoriety now that it has been made into a major motion picture starring none other than George Clooney. (See my review of the movie and my take on the characters who inspired it.)
As I said in a review of the book I posted on Amazon a couple of years ago, I really do recommend you read Goats if only for its entertainment value. But if you do read it, do so with a very large helping of salt, since it presents a warped, if amusing version of how remote viewing was passed on to the civilian world through the military.
Whenever possible, Jon Ronson and his crew (yes, Goats is a team effort, though Ronson gets prime billing) opted for color and sensationalism over accuracy. Interviews with the main characters are cherry-picked for the juiciest stuff. Context that would have presented what they did choose to print in an entirely different light had it been more honestly presented got left on the cutting-room floor. I intentionally use the film-making language. The book is not only the inspiration for the new George Clooney movie. It is also the literary companion to a three-hour conspiracy-laced documentary called Crazy Rulers of the Universe. Crazy Rulers, like Goats, is highly entertaining, but presents what may be an even more distorted view because it has more footage to work with.
For the sake of the story, Ronson and his associates make vast logical leaps to connect events and persons which in reality were either never connected, or only were distantly linked. In one example, former intelligence command staff officer Col. John Alexander is labeled as being “one of Al Gore’s oldest friends,” when in fact what Alexander actually told his interviewers was that he had once, decades before, shaken Gore’s hand — and that Gore would not know him from Adam. Alexander’s real quote, of course, never made it into either book or documentary.
As another example, the book claims that General Bert Stubblebine actively recruited the now highly-controversial Ed Dames to become a remote viewer. It then implies that because of this, Stubblebine was responsible for the eventual deaths of 39 Heaven’s Gate cult members through a very convoluted chain-of-events. (I won’t take space here to tell you how this is alleged to have occurred — read the book!)
The real facts are that Stubblebine had nothing to do with Dames becoming a remote viewer. Dames had been involved with the remote viewing program for months before he and Stubblebine ever crossed paths. [I had a subsequent exchange with Ronson in which he refused to acknowledge he was wrong about this, even when I presented extensive evidence that contradicted his version.]
Another take on Stubblebine, one used widely to promote the book, has Stubblebine walking smack into solid walls over and over again in an effort to cause his molecules to pass through those of the wall so he can emerge into the next room without having to use the door. Many think the portrayal makes the general look like a buffoon and, by extension, makes the remote viewing effort look silly.
However, General Stubblebine told me during a phone call after the book was published that he had only ever tried once to walk through a wall. He had read about the large spaces between molecules in physical objects and heard stories of people who claimed to have adjusted their mental states in just the right way to pass through walls. Stubblebine tried it once as an informal experiment, but only needed to bump his nose once to realize it really didn’t work. He certainly didn’t do it over and over again the way Goats portrays it. The general’s real mistake was even mentioning it to Ronson and his crew.
Goats oddly mixes up “psychic” operations as done in the military remote viewing program with psychological operations, or ‘psyops,’ though neither had anything to do with the other.
But it goes beyond that. After beginning with remote viewing, the book connects RV to an odd little story coming out of Fort Bragg, N.C. The story has a couple of variations. One story describes an informal program aimed at testing whether Special Forces soldiers with the right martial arts training could psychically stop the heart of a live goat. Another variation of the story says that goat staring was only done once or twice by an experienced Special Forces martial arts instructor.
There is further confusion as to whether the goat died after being stared at, or being touched. The more credible version is that, rather than being stared at, the goat was struck using dim mak, or “death touch,” a martial arts technique where a light touch is administered to an opponent, but intense mental energy is transferred through the touch into the opponent’s body with catastrophic effect. Unfortunately, little independent verification is available for any of these stories and versions. And it clearly had nothing to do with remote viewing.
Not many pages pass before Goats has the remote viewing program further indirectly hooked up with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Guantanamo Bay, and other alleged excesses of the Global War on Terror. The connecting thread is a colorful figure, retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon. Channon is the author of The First Earth Battalion manual (available on the Web with only a brief Google search). The Men Who Stare at Goats claims on very thin evidence that Channon, witting or not, and his First Earth Battalion was the cause of everything (though Channon himself admits that he was never a part of nor had any connection to the remote viewing program).
I first heard Channon’s name long ago, even before I was recruited into the remote viewing program in 1983. But I had never met or spoken with him until Goats was published. Shortly after that he and I had a few lively phone conversations, and I found him an interesting and delightful fellow. But one thing quickly became clear. Like Stubblebine and Alexander, Jim Channon had also been mis-edited and mis-quoted in Goats. The conglomerating of all these stories amounted to a fanciful work of journalistic excess.
But back to remote viewing. Missing from the book is any account of the successful intelligence work done by the military remote viewers (and there is plenty of authentic documentary evidence available to show this, that Ronson and his crew could easily have availed themselves of), or the extensive scientific research that grounded it.
Many important figures are left out of the book altogether, perhaps because their presence would fail to move the story in the direction the authors intended. Surprisingly, John Alexander, Bert Stubblebine, and even Jim Channon at first denied having ever met Jon Ronson, the purported author of the book. They reported to me that they had all been interviewed by a John Sergeant. They had no idea who Ronson was.
It turned out that they had indeed been interviewed by Mr. Sergeant, but that Ronson had been present as well, and had perhaps a time or two even asked a couple of questions. But he had not presented himself in a way that made him memorable as either the designated interviewer or main figure in the project. Sergeant seems to have done all the heavy lifting, while Ronson got the credit.
John Ronson did attend the 2002 remote viewing conference, and together with a few of his crew interviewed several remote viewing figures there, including myself. But he was even more selective with the results of those interviews (which mostly appeared in the documentary version of the story, rather than in the print edition of Goats), choosing once again to focus on only the most controversial, sensational, or titillating elements of the story.
It’s not possible to cover all the literary crimes of Goats. The carnival-esque image with which the book paints what became known as the “Star Gate” remote viewing program is merely a caricature (and a very rough one at that) of a program that, while not perfect, was indeed successful and valuable despite what its detractors might prefer to believe.
I don’t want to be only negative. I found the book engaging, amusing, and well written. And to be fair, there are others with different takes on Goats. Bob Durant, a past-contributor to Aperture, had this to say in an e-mail he sent me shortly after the book was published:
“To me, it is a fascinating trip through the history of innovative thinking applied to military and intelligence matters. For once I am happy to see how my tax money has been spent…The people I know, like Stubblebine and Alexander, are treated with respect, and come off as sympathetic figures. They most certainly are not portrayed as buffoons, as Ingo [Swann] seems to think. (I have a high opinion of John Alexander…[and] Stubblebine is, in my opinion, a truly heroic figure.)”
In an e-mail conversation Ronson himself told me his intent was not to poke fun, but to paint the characters in a sympathetic light. Perhaps I view the book more harshly than it deserves. But if so, that is likely because my interpretation seems to match what was taken away from it by the mainstream media which declared, for example:
“At the start of the twisted treasure hunt that is The Men Who Stare at Goats, the journalist Jon Ronson appears to be looking for furtive, paranoid quacks who play mind games. He seems to have hit the mother lode.” (The New York Times).”
“Very funny, and packed with oddities. If Ronson doesn’t manage to expose this official hall of mirrors entirely, he still makes an admirable effort, entertaining and alarming in equal parts.” (Kirkus Review).
“There are many weird and not so wonderful characters in his book who support the theory, but they are all liars or fantasists to some degree…” (London Daily Telegraph).
So once again, I say: don’t trust anything that you read in this book. But do read it…really! The amusement value alone is worth the price.
The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson. Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 2004. 259 pp. List $24.
(Read Paul’s review of the movie version of The Men Who Stare At Goats here.)