That is the quandary posed by the film “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” and, even more so, by the book of the same name that inspired the film.

First, run — do not walk, do not pass Go — to the theater to see “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” Films that are both hilarious and intelligent, provocative yet madcap, are hard to come by.

And because this film teaches us, in a wildly entertaining manner, about recent military and intelligence history, I have a feeling certain people will work hard to rush this movie right back out of the theaters. So see it before showings of it, like some of the characters in the film, disappear. 

The film presents a largely fictitious story based on all-too-real projects and programs conducted by various agencies of the government. Very little of it is literally true, yet many of the stranger events in the film happened in a manner similar to the one portrayed.

The film presents a story of a journalist, played by Ewan McGregor who – to prove his manliness to his ex-wife – finds a way into Iraq to cover the war there by hitching a ride with military man Lyn Cassidy, played by George Clooney.
Clooney claims to be on a military assignment. But Clooney’s mission turns out to have been self-assigned, due to a vision.

He felt a former mentor, a man who brought New Age religion to the post-Vietnam Army and helped spawn a wave of activity that unfortunately led to the “dark side” of new and improved ways to torture people and turn their minds to putty, had called him psychically. Cassidy doesn’t know his mission, but trusts he’ll figure it out when he arrives.

That through-line is entirely fictional. Journalist Jon Ronson, on whose book of the same name the film is loosely based, did not go to Iraq. George Clooney’s character is a composite. The character that Kevin Spacey plays is the nearly entirely fictitious. 

And yet, there really was a man who stared a goat to death, or so it appears. There really was a project within the Army, called Project Jedi, to create soldiers with superpowers. There really is a device called the “Predator” which looks like a toy yet can be used to inflict incredible pain.

And there really was a man similar to the character portrayed by Jeff Bridges. His real name is Jim Channon.  

Walking Through Walls

The film opens with a Major General trying to walk through a wall. According to Jon Ronson, the source of this incident was a real life Major General himself, Albert Stubblebine III.

We are, after all, simply a collection of atoms, and atoms are more space than mass. Why shouldn’t our mind have the power to rearrange, temporarily, those spaces to allow us to pass through walls?

But theory is not reality, and Stubblebine, for all his faith and concentration, did indeed smash nose-first into his office wall in 1983. You should know that, from 1981 to 1984, General Stubblebine was the head of the U.S. Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, with authority over some 16,000 enlisted personnel.

In that position, General Stubblebine inherited control of some of the Army’s “remote viewers,” defined as people with the purported ability to gather information about a distant or unseen target using paranormal means or extra-sensory perception.

According to one of the most highly regarded one of them, Joseph Moneagle, the remote viewers served clients in the CIA, DIA, Secret Service, Naval Intelligence Command, the NSA, the National Security Council, the FBI, the ATF, and the DEA, among others.

Despite the ever-present “giggle factor,” clearly, something of value was being produced, or at least some influential officials in the U.S. intelligence agencies must have thought so.

General Stubblebine became so convinced of man’s psychic nature that he appealed to the Special Forces program leaders at Fort Bragg to pursue programs in psychic healing (for teams without access to medical facilities). His suggestion was met with silence.

How about investigating the probability that time was simply another axis in space and that we should be able to travel through space in past and future time as easily as we traveled through space in the present time. More silence.
The General then suggested that soldiers could be trained to burst hearts with thought, and suggested experimenting on animals.

While overtly the Special Forces evinced no interest in General Stubblebine’s suggestions, they did, indeed, have a set of 300 goats in a shed just a few yards away that had been de-bleated, to keep their presence on the base covert.

At “goat lab,” the goats were de-bleated, apparently to hide their presence from the local ASPCA, as the goats were shot up and then surgically repaired there as part of a medical training program. And the lab really was originally called “dog lab”, but people became too attached to the dogs.

For whatever reason, people do not seem to form emotional attachments as easily to goats, hence their grisly fate. And, most amazingly of all, a man at Fort Bragg really did, it appears, eventually succeed in mentally downing a goat.

Hamster’s Death

In the film, one of the character shows the journalist a film documenting his staring his own hamster not quite to death. That incident actually happened. Guy Savelli showed Ronson a film of himself stunning, but not killing, his pet hamster.

And, as in the film, the reason Savelli says he didn’t show the tape of him actually killing the hamster was because his wife wasn’t sure how Ronson would react to seeing him kill a real animal.

Savelli also appears in the character of Lyn Cassidy, played by Clooney. According to Savelli, who really does run a dance studio, he did down a goat in this manner. He made one goat collapse by thinking strongly about it, and apparently killed another, goat #17 (out of 30) by accident while trying to kill goat #16 on purpose.  

Or so Savelli claims. Col. John Alexander has countered with the story, sent to me and others by e-mail, that Savelli downed the goat with a karate chop, not psychically. However, given Col. Alexander’s background with covert operations, it’s also possible that Col. Alexander is either telling the truth as he heard it, which may not be the truth, or he is putting out a cover story to muddy the waters.

Not one but several people told Ronson that a man had killed a goat simply by willing it to die. So either a group was running an operation against Ronson (or people in the military) to convince him (or them) that goats were killed by mental power, or it really happened. I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to believe the former, so I am stuck contemplating the latter.

Whatever the truth about the goats, it’s no secret that Jim Channon (“Bill Django” in the film, portrayed by Jeff Bridges) really did envision a New Age-type army of warriors who used their powers for peace. Channon noted that in Vietnam, most of the soldiers were essentially good people who were not eager to kill another human being.

Could this humanitarian instinct be repurposed into a new kind of weapon?

In the wake of America’s utter failure in Vietnam, the military establishment genuinely considered alternative solutions to traditional warfare, and gave Jim time and money to explore other avenues for conquering the enemy.

Channon sat naked in hot tubs, took seminars at the Esalen Institute, experienced Reichian rebirthing, and talked to a man who composed subliminal message CDs to help people lose weight and find inner peace. (Ronson wrote that an evangelical church in America found its donations tripled after it blasted its congregation with subliminal sounds during the hymns.)

After these explorations, Jim wrote a confidential paper to his superiors in the Army that opened with this line: “The U.S. Army doesn’t really have any serious alternative than to be wonderful.”

Jim’s document was his “First Earth Battalion Operations Manual.” His recommendations included approaching enemy combatants with soldiers holding symbols of peace, like baby lambs in their arms, of greeting people with “sparkly eyes,” and hugging the enemy.

Channon was also the one who came up with the Army’s most successful recruiting slogan of all time: “Be all that you can be.”

‘Warrior Monks’

Channon proposed a set of “Warrior Monks” who had conquered personal lust, and designed his program to weed out sheer mercenaries. But Channon’s suggestions were not all peaceful. Channon also proposed the use of nonlethal weapons.

Or maybe that was the influence of the document’s co-author, the aforementioned Col. John Alexander.

One of Col. Alexander’s “nonlethal” inventions was “sticky foam,” designed to literally freeze the enemy in its tracks. This foam was featured in a recent incarnation of “The Incredible Hulk,” the latest Dan Brown novel The Lost Symbol, and America’s 1995 military engagement in Somalia.

Unlike the fictional application in the Hulk film, when the foam was used in the real world to create a barrier between food and a rioting crowd, the crowd simply waited for the foam to harden and then climbed over it.

The foam had also been used in an attempt to subdue violent prisoners before they were moved to a new facility, however, as Ronson reported, the practice was discontinued because the prison authorities found it impossible to move the prisoners once the foam had solidified (begging the question of what happened to the prisoners unlucky enough to be the first test subjects).

The foam was taken to Iraq for use on the expected Weapons of Mass Destruction, which were, of course, never found.

Another nonlethal weapon Channon/Alexander suggested was the blasting of combatants with “discordant sounds” designed to disorient, confuse, and sicken.

This technique was used at Waco, where the FBI blasted the Branch Davidians with discordant rock music, the sound of dentist drills, Buddhist chants (a move protested by the Dalai Lama), dying rabbit noises, and other strange noises that served no obvious purpose, but which may have carried subliminal sounds.

The FBI even tried to hire Dr. Igor Smirnov, who had, at the behest of the Soviet government, blasted subliminal messages to Soviet troops en route to Afghanistan in the 1970s telling them, “Do not get drunk before battle.” The FBI wanted to know if Smirnov could put the “voice of God,” directly into the mind of David Koresh.

God was to be played by — and I’m not making this up — Charlton Heston. Dr. Smirnov said it was possible, but when the FBI also wanted him to sign something effectively taking responsibility should the Branch Davidians end up killing themselves, Dr. Smirnoff refused to participate.

Sleep Deprivation

Yet some of these theories have been put into practice, often in sinister ways. For instance, repeated playing of songs over and over, sometimes accompanied by flashing lights, is a method of torture that was used in Iraq.

The media laughed when it was revealed that one of the songs used to torture captured Iraqis was the “I Love You” song from the popular icon of children, the purple dinosaur named Barney. The media totally avoided the far more serious fact that music, especially when played in ways that cause serious sleep deprivation, can be horrific instruments of torture.

Songs can even, as another children’s show composer learned, provably reduce knowledge. Ronson talked to Christopher Cerf, the longtime composer for the beloved children’s show Sesame Street. Cerf told how the Sesame Street team includes education researchers who test the results of his work to see if it really helps children learn.

In one case, a song he wrote provably helped kids unlearn something they already knew.

“So I figure if I have the power to suck information out of people’s brains by writing these songs, maybe that’s something that could be useful to the CIA for brainwashing techniques,” Cerf told Ronson.

I find it profoundly disconcerting that a man tasked with writing music to help educate children on a popular PBS show could also be interested in helping the CIA brainwash people.

Ronson’s book suggests that some of the torture methods used in the recent wars were more similar to the infamous Nazi experiments that tested human limits than any intelligence-gathering exercise, the standard excuse for this war crime.

Both the CIA and the military have sought to control minds — from within and from without — for years.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, the CIA conducted numerous mind-control experiments designed in some cases to break down people’s defenses so they would tell the truth when captured and designed in other cases to produce operational amnesia so that the truth could never be extracted if the agent was captured. (One wonders if the fact that these goals were mutually exclusive seemed to bother anyone.)

 The CIA experimented with drugs, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, flashing lights, sleep deprivation, and other torturous techniques, sometimes in “terminal” experiments.

CIA scientists tried to completely control people’s behavior. They discussed fragmenting minds through trauma and then rebuilding the fragmented parts into multiple personalities that could be separately programmed, so that personality A would not know what personality B was doing even though both personalities shared the same body.

Mind Over Matter 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, studies proliferated showing that the mind was not something simply to be broken and/or reprogrammed, but could be used, by specially talented people, to influence the world in a physical way.

The best-selling 1973 book Supernature, by Lyall Watson, described, among many other examples, a Soviet experiment in which a woman was captured on film using nothing but the power of her mind to separate a yolk from an egg after it had been broken into a saline solution in a container six feet in front of her.  

In America, at the Stanford Research Institute, scientists Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff used films of such Soviet experiments, along with other data, to convince the CIA to invest in their studies of psychic research. The program evolved into both remote influencing and remote viewing experiments.

The program showed conclusively that some people really do seem to have an ability to learn things they have no direct way of knowing. But since the results were never 100 percent accurate nor 100 percent reproducible on demand, the program was eventually phased out, only to resurface later from time to time under the auspices of agencies that included, among others, the Army, the CIA, the Air Force, and NASA.

One of these programs was exposed rather dramatically in 1995 on national television when Ed Dames, a remote viewer from these programs, discussed his work. One of the remote viewers speculated to Ronson that perhaps the program was exposed to publicize its “cancellation” while deeper, blacker operations continued.  

Most people react to the thought of man being able to use psychic power (whether for good or evil) in one of two unfortunate ways: they either discount it entirely, or believe it uncritically. The truth, it appears, is likely somewhere between those extremes.

Whatever the truth, this “technology” of remote viewing and remote influencing, such as it is, has moved into the private sector. Most of the people involved in these programs have started their own private enterprises, selling their psychic services and offering training programs, at a price, of course.

It’s ironic that, at the same time this film has come to the fore, Dan Brown’s latest novel also takes on the topic of the power of thought. One of his characters describes how thoughts may actually have discernible, if beyond miniscule, mass, and that if enough people share the same thought, that thought attains somewhat of a critical mass, enabling it to exert a kind of gravity over other thoughts.

When you couple that with the research that shows most people appear to have at least some psychic ability, whether they realize it or not, perhaps we all have the power to pull this country out of its “means justify the ends” mindset regarding torture and to move our national mindset onto a path that enables us to more gracefully cohabitate this planet with others.

Now that’s a thought worth contemplating, with whatever power we have. Then perhaps we could, like Clooney’s character in the “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” experience a much needed redemption from our past.

Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era. She is also a movie buff.    

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