The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

Better to control minds than win hearts
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The Independent Culture

In the aftermath of the Korean war, American psychiatrists wrote serious academic papers about using hypnosis to create the perfect intelligence operative. An unsuspecting man or woman could be fed top-secret information or programmed to perform an assassination under a trance. If caught by the enemy, they would be impossible to break since only controllers would know the keywords to unlock their subconscious. No coincidence, then, that The Man- churian Candidate appeared at the height of the Cold War.

In the aftermath of the Korean war, American psychiatrists wrote serious academic papers about using hypnosis to create the perfect intelligence operative. An unsuspecting man or woman could be fed top-secret information or programmed to perform an assassination under a trance. If caught by the enemy, they would be impossible to break since only controllers would know the keywords to unlock their subconscious. No coincidence, then, that The Man- churian Candidate appeared at the height of the Cold War.

Investigative journalist Jon Ronson, in this chilling book, reveals that the American military is entering a new phase of experiments with mind-control, with devastating results. The war in Iraq has afforded fresh opportunities to put into practice ideas circulating since the late 1970s, when the US military funded a secret psychic unit.

Glenn Wheaton, a former special-forces psychic spy, describes to Ronson how the military funded this unofficial group to investigate exotic forms of warfare. Their ideas included walking through walls, adopting a cloak of invisibility and even stopping an animal's heartbeat simply by staring at it.

Even more insidious is the use of psychological operations in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, where prisoners are subjected to loud music with subliminal messages as a form of mental torture. After reports that Sesame Street composer Christopher Cerf's songs were being used on Iraqi prisoners, Ronson asked him about its implications. Cerf expresses far more interest in potential royalties than in the violation of liberties.

Through his interviews, Ronson identifies a queasy mix of New Age evangelicalism, war profiteering, and the battle tactics that inspired the devotees of Vietnam vet Jim Channon's philosophy. Channon advocates that instead of assaulting the enemy, US soldiers should carry lambs into battle and wear "sparkly eyes" while speakers transmit "indigenous music and words of peace". In his theories, the average grunt can be transformed into a Zen monk so that killing would become obsolete. En route, however, this idealistic vision gets mutated into the excesses of Abu Ghraib.

The author does an impressive job of weaving these disparate strands together and showing their deadly application in the Middle East and Cuba. But Ronson is first and foremost a journalist, narrating his encounters with the far side of the American military rather than offering an analysis of its extremes. The book throws up as many questions as it answers: about how the military absorbs ideas, the training of personnel, and the historical context in which these ideas took hold. Ronson's writing is highly entertaining, but the deadly implications of the subject beg for a deeper exploration.

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