“More of this is true than you would believe,” we’re told, just a few minutes into the movie version of The Men Who Stare At Goats, which opens today. But how many of the film’s outlandish military research projects really happened? Turns out there’s plenty of material in the movie which sticks quite close to the truth — though reality is a bit more complicated.
(Warning: minor spoilers ahead.)
True. The non-fiction book which serves as the movie’s basis features Colonel John B. Alexander. He served as a Special Forces commander in Vietnam and spent decades promoting the use of psychics and “remote viewers” for national security. (That is, when he wasn’t pursuing his interests in -linguistic programming, UFOs, or non-lethal weapons.) In 2007, our own Sharon Weinberger interviewed Col. Alexander in some depth on the military use of witches. “They were doing palmistry, crystal ball kinds of stuff,” he said.
Danger Room also noted Col. Alexander’s long-running feud with Armen Victorian (alias Henry Azadehdel, alias Habib Azadehdel, alias Cassava N’tumba and others), orchid smuggler, conspiracy theorist and all-round spooky character in the intelligence world.
Moving into the further reaches of the fringe we find earlier work, such as Boeing’s 60’s psychic experiments which concluded that certain subjects could force a random number generator to produce a specific number by sheer willpower. By 1985 an Army report declared that “psychokinesis could, with continued research, have a potential military value for future military operations ” and as recently as 1996 the phenomenon of eyeless vision was being investigated.
Military psychics may still be in business: a 2007 report suggested that the 9/11 attacks had been predicted some years beforehand by Remote Viewers. In the post-9/11 world where every option seemed worth exploring, it’s not implausible that some psychic spies were reactivated.
True. Troops were doused with everything from concentrated cannabis oil to LSD — at times, without their knowledge. Researchers would watch as servicemen would then “carry on conversations with various invisible people for as long as 2-3 days.” The CIA was so enamored of acid, the agency had to issue a memo instructing that the punch bowls at office Christmas parties were not to be spiked.
True. Lt. Col. Jim Channon dove deep into the New Age movement, and came back to the military with a most alternative view of warfare — one in which troops would carry flowers and symbolic animals into battle. In the movie, Channon is played by Jeff Bridges. His First Earth Battalion is renamed the “New Earth Army.” But the ideas are the same. Much of the artwork from the New Earth manual is lifted straight from the Channon original.
Channon has been taking advantage of the publicity for his cause; this week he has a column in the Guardian newspaper, suggesting (among other things) that armies should be used for reforestation and navies to control over-fishing.
The military’s interest in Eastern and alternative practices is once again on the rise. “Warrior mind training“, apparently based on ancient Samurai techniques, is being taught at Camp Lejeune as a possible treatment for PTSD. Elsewhere the Army has a $4 million initiative exploring other approaches including Reiki, transcendental meditation and “bioenergy.” The Air Force is looking into acupuncture for battlefield pain relief.
True. Unpleasant sounds and repetitive music — including the Barney theme — have been used as real-life psychological warfare and interrogation techniques. (Some of the bands involved have been less than happy about it.) Repetitive music takes a long time to be effective, but loud, discordant noise is becoming more common as a method of dispersing crowds. Danger Room’s David Axe was a test subject for the LRAD sonic blaster and reported “It was like having a hundred nagging girlfriends in my brain screaming at me”, while Sharon Weinberger tried the Inferno blaster and experienced “the most unbearable, gut-wrenching noise I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Killing animals with telepathy?
False. The most outrageous claims in the movie (and book) is that military psychics could kill goats by looking at them. Even John Alexander says this isn’t true. “As I told Jon Ronson when the book first came out, Alexander writes, ‘He [one of the soldiers] hit the goat.’”
Goats are the one of the preferred substitutes for human targets in military testing, and there are rumors of lethal goat-zapping experiments with the Active Denial System. Special operations Command use them for training battlefield medicine – first shoot your (anesthetised) goat — a practice which is still controversial.
In her review of the movie, Col Alexander’s wife mentions that in real life her husband can disperse clouds by looking at them — “It certainly helped during our cruise to Antarctica!” – but asserts that he has never used his powers to kill a goat. (Look at time lapse photography of clouds and cloud-busting becomes less impressive).
Psychics are notoriously prone to believing in their own powers and are often convinced that experiments have proven their abilities when the results have been equivocal. In the Guardian, Dr. Phillip Sponenberg suggests that mytonic or fainting goats plus little self-deception may be behind the supposed success of the goat-staring experiment.
However, as the First Earth Battalion’s manual makes clear, winning the psychological battle is a big part of the struggle. If your opponent believes that you can kill them with a look, then they are already half-way to being defeated. And many martial arts masters know that by overawing their students with displays that might be described as trickery, they can convince them of the value of their discipline. So it might be best not to take everything quite at face value, as Jon Ronson does in the book and Ewan Mcgregor does in the movie.
…Or maybe they really can kill goats with a look.