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BOOK REVIEW: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson

The Men Who Stare at GoatsThe Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ronson investigates the US military intelligence community’s forays into extrasensory perception (ESP) and mind control. Those who’ve seen the movie loosely based on this book will be aware of the quirky-humorous tone it takes. (If the title wasn’t enough to convey that the author was aiming for quirky humor.) Ronson’s style, favoring punchy simple sentences, offers a kind of deadpan delivery that supports the tone of the book.

That said, the book also has a sad edge as it can be seen as a commentary on military officers who came back from the war in Vietnam damaged and grasping at straws as to how to prevent history from repeating itself. It’s as if what these men experienced made some eager to believe because they so wanted to believe they could win with the mind and avoid the carnage of war.

While the book’s sixteen chapters are not divided by the author, they can be roughly divided into three parts. The first is the pursuit of ESP starting in the late 1970’s. This includes remote viewing and the titular psychokinesis (i.e. starring goats to death.)

The middle section is the resurgence of these esoteric approaches in the late 90’s and, especially, after 9-11 (also speaking to how dire blows to the psyche lead to wild approaches.) Much of this section is about mind control rather than ESP. One may remember the news story of the “I Love You, You Love Me” song from Barney [i.e. the purple dinosaur] being played over and over again to break terror suspects. The question remaining unanswered is whether there was anything else going on besides torture by Barney song (i.e. subliminal messages or sonic / ultrasonic frequencies [as used in non-lethal weapon technology.])

The latter section deals with the famous case of a scientist who jumped from a hotel room window to his death. It was later admitted that the scientist had been the unwitting victim of hallucinogen experimentation as part of the famed MKUltra project, and his death was written off as a trip gone bad. Ronson presents the story of the scientist’s son, a man who firmly believes that the story copped to was neither the full story nor the true story.

This book is interesting and entertaining, despite the fact that many of the questions that Ronson sets out to answer remain unanswered and probably always will. While the author got several key people to talk to him, the projects discussed are highly classified and the possibility of disinformation is ever-present.

Ronson manages to walk a fine line throughout the book. He presents all this quirky and bizarre activity in a way that neither comes across as mocking nor even particularly skeptical. (His punchy delivery does hint at this intention on occasion.) He lets the reader do the mocking and be the skeptic. At times he comes across as a believer. That is, while many of the happenings of the book reflect bat-shit crazy behavior / decisions, he suggests that all but the most hardened skeptics would believe that some of the people involved had inexplicable gifts.

I’d recommend this book. If you’re interested in government sponsored esoteric activities like psi and mind control and related scandals / conspiracies, you’ll find it fascinating. On the other hand, even if you’re not, it’s still an entertaining read that provides a sort of commentary on the effects of war on the psyche.

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