“The truth is actually much more buffoonish than most conspiracy theorists believe”, explains Jon Ronson, the author of The men who stare at goats, a book that deals with the psychological branch of the US military machine. “The men who stare at goats deals with one of the maddest conspiracy theories there is, about powerful people harnessing the occult to control us – he continues – but as the book shows, though the conspiracy theorists are right, just like they were right about Bohemian Grove and the Bilderberg group, they're right in a very different way to the way they think they are”.
The book details the strange developments within the US military, post-Vietnam, when a number of high-placed military intelligence personnel started to 'think out of the box', adapting various new-age theories. The episodes in the book range from the frankly ridiculous (Chief of US army Intelligence, General Stubblebine, who every morning attempts to walk through a wall, receiving a bruised nose for his troubles), to the darkly sinister (the use of children's music as a torture implement in Iraq).
The book is shocking and hilarious – which is an uneasy combination, and one which Ronson is well aware of. “I'm a humorist essentialy – he explains – I realise that there are quite big chunks of the men who stare at goats that aren't funny, but in general if I've got a paragraph (and I'm doing it right now with a piece I'm writing), I'm always thinking of ways to lighten it and to make it more human. To put in more dialogue, and jokes where appropriate. I'm always looking for that. Big shafts of fact based text isn't my style. I prefer to make it more like stories, with dialogue and humorous observations, portraits of human beings”. Humour, though, many would argue is not the most appropriate vehicle for dealing with stories about military intelligence and torture. “It's not so much humour – he responds, in relation to The men who stare at goats – but portraits of people. The thing is that people are often quite unintentionally funny, myself included. I rather like writing in that way. It's more fun to read, and it's the style of writing that I'm good at, but more than that I think in the end it all comes down to people, and why they behave the way that they do. Every story in the world comes down to that. Quite often people forget that. Quite often journalists think that it's all down to facts, but I think it's all down to people. If you can work out why people behave the way they do, you can get to the bottom of the story”.
As if to illustrate, he tells me a story about an eminent Islamic scholar who was invited to the White House, two days after 9/11, to meet with President Bush. “He was sitting in the Oval office, and Bush came in, in sweatpants. He'd just been jogging, and he swept into the room and said to him urgently 'I can do a mile in six and a half minutes! I've got it down to six and a half minutes. I'm feeling good!' like shadowboxing! – ' I'm feeling good, I'm feeling great!'. And I feel that that simple description of George Bush entering the room, two days after September 11th says so much more about him than some factual analysis of his policies”.
One of the central characters of The men who stare at goats is retired Lieutenant Jim Channon. After the psychological defeat of Vietnam, where the US military despite its strength had lost the war, Channon suggested to the Pentagon that the army needed to be more cunning. They paid him, in 1977 to investigate ways to do this. In 1979 he presented his First Earth Battalion Operations Manual which attempted to redesign the US military both in mindset and aspect. Troops of the First Earth Battalion would carry into battle ginseng regulators, divining tools, symbolic flowers, and loudspeakers that would emit “indigenous music and words of peace”[pg 41, The men who stare at goats]. The surprising thing was not that the military didn't take on board all his ideas, but rather that they did take on many of them, albeit in modified form.
From the First Earth Battalion's high ideals Ronson charts the uneasy steps to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. “The military takes hold of these ideas on the fringes – these think tanky ideas – and when there's no crisis they lie dormant and theoretical. Think of Guantanamo Bay as a sort of experimental lab: every time someone comes out of Guantanamo, you hear of a new esoteric technique being tried out on them. There's no way that there are individual military people coming up independently with all these ideas on the spot. It's clear that these are ideas that have been formed in think tanks over decades, think tanks like the First Earth Battalion. A place like Guantanamo Bay is the perfect place for them to flourish, because of the rare opportunity to try this stuff out on people”.