February 9, 2010


by Jon Ronson
272 pages, Simon & Schuster

Review by S.F. Winser

I say 'cool' too much. I use the word 'interesting' all the time. Much more often than I should, I use the word 'insane'.

Just plain wrongly: 'That well-executed political decision that I disagree with is insane!'

As a superlative: 'He broke the world record by how much!? Insane!'

Ironically: 'Sigmund Freud was one insane dude!' (Actually... Maybe that's not very ironic, after all.)

'The Men Who Stare at Goats' may just have cured that stupidity. Because now 'insane' is devalued when I use it. If I need to use it in context, and with the purest of intentions, it feels wrong. But, well... this book is insane. Pure. Unadulterated. Mental Illness. There is no other word to describe the happenings of this book.

In- [dramatic pause] -sane

This is the story of the US army's flirtation with the occult and supernatural. Their courtship. Their secret marriage. Because if what happens in this book is to be believed, then flirtation simply does not go far enough.

This is the story of psychic spying. Psychic invisibility. Psychic murder. Tax-payer funded. And authorised at the highest levels. For decades. With real-world consequences.

It is the story of generals who try to walk through walls. And corporals who try to kill goats by staring at them.

I kind of want to avoid describing the events more than that. They... well... they're beyond my ability to condense in between 500 and 1000 words without major spoilers. And also, because I really don't want to put into words what I just read. Because I simply do not want to believe it. Parts of it, I'm not sure I do. The parts I do believe? I said it before: I.N.S.A.N.E.

Ever heard of MK Ultra? The secret-service investigation that involved deliberate drugging of unsuspecting people from the secret-service itself just to see what happened? And ended up killing at least one person? (There's more to it... And the motives weren't even always that banally negligent... but that's the general idea).

If you haven't, information isn't too hard to find. It is one of the more famous of the black ops in US history. It's a small part of this book. And, quite frankly, the least weird. Drugging allies and co-workers with LSD without their knowledge is one of the least insane parts of the book. I just had to repeat that.

But I'm supposed to be reviewing the book, not the subject itself so let's get to it. Jon Ronson is a strangely trusted fella. He gets into places and gets information other people would never get to. His previous book dealt with the KKK and Jihadis and other nutters. People trust this guy and tell him stuff. It's an important trait in a writer of non-fiction. Especially when dealing with such typically paranoid people. Ronson is apparently some kind of savant at this. He gets information on amazing and secret things with a near magical success rate.

That's only half the battle though. Ronson then takes that stuff and welds it into a somewhat cohesive narrative. I don't think I buy the premise of all the happenings described in the book as coming out of the original, New Age investigations of one army officer – and spreading like wildfire from that one point. But Ronson makes a decent stab at defending this argument. And he tells the whole story with charm and wit and a graceful style. For such a strange, scary and...insane... book, this was fun to read and well-paced.

This book makes you laugh for no other reason than it's that or cry.

This book shouldn't be funny. And it isn't. It's hilarious. This is distilled schadenfreude. Like reading a Monty Python sketch full of absurdity and memorable characters all doing horrible and unbelievable things for what they think are excellent reasons. Except it's also true. Ronson has excellent comic timing. Although my favorite bit was when he was talking to one of the few sane people in the book, a songwriter for Sesame Street. It appears that some of his songs were (are being?) used during softening techniques in Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. Two funny guys (and a funny lawyer) just riffing off the terrible weirdness of the whole situation as they semi-seriously discuss chasing the army for performance royalties.

Ronson is the Bill Bryson of wackjob investigation and this is a friendly travel guide through institutional madness.

I'm told the book has been made into a movie. I was reading the book thinking: 'How did they manage it?'. This book is the embodiment of truth being stranger than fiction. You make a movie of this and people simply will not believe it. I'm going to have to see it, anyway. It's gotta be worth watching the attempt a such an insa... umm... incredible task. And maybe seeing George Clooney try to walk through walls or kill a goat with his mind or whatever it is his character in this does... maybe then the pure weirdness will pass some rationality-threshold and all of a sudden it will somehow seem less insane. It's worth a shot. It's not like it could make it weirder.

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