There are four possibilities to consider while reading Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats: that the psychic spies and Jedi warriors he describes as being part of U.S. military intelligence are but figments of eager imaginations; that these shadowy figures are limited to a few maverick crazies; that “U.S. intelligence is the repository of incredible secrets . . . kept from us for our own good”; or most frighteningly, that “the U.S. intelligence community was . . . essentially nuts.” Ronson’s enjoyably maddening feat lies in proving the validity of each conjecture.
The titular livestock are the doomed subjects of a secret U.S. Army training program that, when successful, results in the bursting of a goat’s heart by mere thought suggestion. I kid you not. Ronson, “essentially a humorous journalist” in his own estimation, peeks into the mind of a military shaken to its core after Vietnam’s failure and desperate to welcome new-age methodologies for both battle and interrogation. Possessing sharp timing and a characteristically dry Brit wit, Ronson specializes in such offbeat topics; his previous
Them: Adventures With Extremists wryly chronicled weeks spent with conspiracy theorists, Klan members, and Islamic terrorists.
Ronson’s humor rightly evaporates once he connects these flower-child-like forays into psych warfare with their bastardization at Abu Ghraib. Ignoring all distinction between the merely absurd and the sublimely ridiculous, Ronson’s account subtly implies that the eccentric, the clownish, and the more Machiavellian members of society are often one and the same. Though his tone may irk, his instinct for finding serious characters who say silly things is singular and irresistible, as the words of one ex–military man prove: “I invite the wind! The wind will come if you ask it to. Do you believe that? Come to my banyan tree.” We have no choice but to follow.