Pros: Entertaining and Odd.
Cons: Narrative could have been tigther.
I read Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures with Extremists several years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. (You can read my review here). While I meant to keep up with Ronson's work, he somehow got lost in the shuffle, so I didn't hear about The Men Who Stare at Goats until someone mentioned the movie on their Twitter feed (where I'm now following Ronson, so I'll catch the next one). About a week later I saw the first trailer and decided I definitely needed to pick this one up. Of course, since the only book store in our crappy little town is a Books-A-Million (motto: "If you actually want to read it, we ain't got it."), it took me longer than I'd have liked to track down a copy. With the movie almost out, the book should be a lot easier to find now, except perhaps at Books-A-Million (motto: "If it was relevant a year ago, we've just started stocking it."
I should off by pointing out that The Men Who Stare at Goats book is not exactly the wacky adventure that the movie suggests. While Ronson does end up in a few interesting situations and interviews lots of nutty characters, most of the book is fairly traditional journalism. In fact, Them, which features Ronson getting tailed by Bilderbergers and sneaking into the Bohemian Grove owl burning ceremony, seems a lot more appropriate for a movie adaptation than Goats (which is not to say I'm not looking forward to the film).
The book follows Ronson as he investigates the U.S. Army's program to train "psychic spies," to become invisible, tell the future, and, as the title of the book implies, kill goats just by staring at them. The entire program started with a manual called the First Earth Battalion Handbook, written by Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon. The Handbook is based heavily on ideas from the Human Potential Movement and its aim is, in Channon's words, "to encourage the young leaders in the army to think of new ways, with the aim of changing the nature of war and improving the chances of survival for all involved."
Why would the U.S. Army buy into such crazy hippie nonsense, which at one point suggests that soldiers carry lambs in the hopes that it will instill a sense of peace and love in their enemies? According to one of the people Ronson interviewed, they were kind of grasping at straws. After Vietnam and Watergate, the army was willing to try just about anything that could boost the morale of the troops and the nation, including Channon's attempt to train "Jedi Warriors."
Of course, this being the military, someone eventually realized that some of Channon's ideas could be turned to more traditional warfare, which lead to Goat Lab, where soldiers attempted to stare goats to death. A lot of the book involves Ronson's attempts to track down the one man who allegedly succeeded in killing a goat with the power of his mind, but it takes him down some very strange sidetracks along the way. Among other things, Ronson's investigation uncovers information about the Heaven's Gate Cult, the C.I.A.'s MK-Ultra experiments, and magical wars against Manuel Noriega. Of more current interest, Ronson argues very convincingly Abu-Ghraib and Gitmo are using techniques with roots in Channon's First Earth Battalion Handbook.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a very enjoyable if you have any interest in conspiracy theory, paranormal abilities, or just the oddness of human nature. Ronson is very good at bringing his eccentric cast of characters and strange encounters to life in a way that is both entertaining and informative. If the idea of real-life Jedi intrigues you even a little bit, this book is well worth a read.