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When men do stare at goats

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Your wives are back at home having sex with Bart Simpson and Burt Reynolds. Iraqi Propaganda leaflet, to American soldiers in the 1991 Gulf War.

There is a line at the start of Grant Heslov’s film The Men Who Stare at Goats: “More of this is true than you would believe.” The line is off putting - what is, or isn’t true? The audience is none the wiser, and the traces to the original book from 2004 by Jon Ronson by that name are left vague.

Military men are as superstitious as any other, hiding behind the veneer of scientific dogma and vast, mechanised schedules for killing and maiming. But when it comes down to it, do these lethal practitioners know any better than the sagacious shaman?


The film takes the reporter Bob Wilton, played by an awkward Ewan McGregor, into the Iraq war. As war tends to be punctuated by spates of numbing boredom, Wilton finds himself starved of information in Kuwait. There are no leads that might take him into the war zone. He is rescued, at least in the journalistic sense, when he runs into Lyn Cassidy, a private contractor played by George Clooney. Cassidy is a combination of jittery madness and opportunism.

This time, Clooney abandons tie and suit for long hair and mysticism. He opens up a world of psychic war and New Age strategy to McGregor. Much of it seems like colossal bunk - the development of Goat Lab, the US Army’s seemingly spurious efforts at harnessing psychic powers through the establishment of “Jedi” warriors in the 1970s. Then again much planning in war, governed by colossal “ifs” and “what nots”, is bunk. Remember Star Wars, President Ronald Reagan and astrology. What matters is that the enemy, in this case the Soviets, might well be doing the same thing. If countries can have an arms race, a space race, and a culture race, why not a race into the world of the paranormal?

While the superpowers threaten to annihilate each other at the push of a button, the flower-loving, secret New Earth Army, led by Vietnam veteran Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), attempts to plot peace from within. The Flower Revolution, nourished on a diet of drugs, nude rituals and sex, becomes a feature at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Haight Ashbury meets the US military establishment, the spreading of love in place of the shedding of blood.

A weakness to this film is palpable from the start: a reluctance to entertain the possibility that all these dotty events could actually be true. Aronson’s premise was to show that the First Earth Battalion made something of a re-appearance during the War on Terror; that tasteless music was played in the assault on General Manuel Antonio Noriega’s Panama; and psychic “messages” were to be transmitted by a Russian scientist to members of the Branch Davidian complex in Waco that was assaulted by Federal forces.

Django is, in fact, based on the very real Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who attempted to establish that unit, and published the 125-page First Earth Battalion Operations Manual. The film has been reviewed as a comic flick, with some such as Anne Hornaday from The Washington Post (November 6) calling it a variant of the Boomer Conspiracy Comedy, marked by “nostalgia and paranoia”. Audiences are not left to appreciate with cold clarity how foolish the military personnel of the free world (or any, for that matter), might be.

Staring at a goat to cause it harm is one thing, but the transferring of evil seems to be the stock in trade of magic ritual. The endless examples put forth by Joseph Frazer in his study of magic and religion in The Golden Bough spring to mind. Enemies can be dealt with through effigy, surrogate figures, dolls. Evil can be transferred and destroyed through moving the sins of one world onto another. The mind becomes the supreme weapon. Paranormal prowess was very much a feature of the “primitive” mind. Goat Lab suggests how far we haven’t come in killing and torturing one another.


The affable Clooney is quirky and plays the fool of destiny with competence; Bridges takes the transformation from psychedelic freedom fighter to boozed redeemer rather well; and we have McGregor less than convincing as the broken man who went to war and found an addled, enterprising mind. To this day, he is incapable of affecting an American accent without the Scottish trace, a Waldorf salad served with haggis. The malignant, ambitious Kevin Spacey is a touch underdone, and might have been left to cook a bit more in his performance as the jealous saboteur of the New Earth Army.

Leave aside the slogans, the well-remunerated but vicious quacks, the assortment of pranks, and we have a military establishment that will do anything to win. And if that involves consulting and mastering the inner workings of humanity’s psychic impulses, we can hardly be surprised. The line between the First Earth Battalion and Abu Ghraib does not need a stupefacient to become clear.

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First published in Scoop on December 1, 2009.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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