The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

About the US Army's attempt to exploit psychic abilities. The narrative jumps about a bit, and I couldn't always remember who was who, but it has quite a lot of funny episodes (see quotes below).

The basic premise is that various people in the US military became persuaded that there may be some mileage in looking at unconventional ways of becoming more militarily effective, using psychological, or in some cases psychic, techniques. Uri Geller (sort of) claims to be helping them with the psychic stuff:

'Uri,' I said, 'please give me something to go on. Please tell me one more thing.'
Uri sighed.
'OK,' he said, 'I will tell you one more thing only. The man who reactivated me is ...' Uri paused, then he said, 'called Ron.'
And that was it. I have not spoken to Uri Geller since. He has not returned my calls. He refused to divulge anything further about Ron. Was Ron FBI? CIA? Military intelligence? Homeland Security? Could Ron be MI5? MI6? Was Uri Geller palying a part in the War on Terror?
Some of the psychological ones sound plausible, such as the playing of Barney the Dinosaur songs to prisoners in Guantanamo
For an hour or so, Danny and Christoper attempted to calculate exactly how much money Christopher might be due if - as he estimated - his songs were being played on a continuous loop in a shipping container for up to three days at a time.
'That's fourteen thousand times or more over three days,' said Christopher. 'If it was radio play I'd get three or four cents every time that loop went through, right?'
'It would be a money machine,' concurred Danny.
'That's what I'm thinking,' said Christopher. 'We could be helping our country and cleaning up at the same time.'

Whereas some of the others, such as the titular goat-staring, sound more unlikely. But you get the feeling that they thought there might just be something in it, so why not have a go. So they assemble a group to investigate the possibility of psychic warfare

The psychics were what is known in military jargon as Black Op. Because they didn't 'exist' they were not permitted access to the US army's coffee budget. They had to bring their own coffee into work. They had come to resent this.

And after someone claims that they know of a person who can stop the heart of a goat simply by staring at it, they use Goat Lab:

Goat Lab was originally created as a clandestine laboratory to provide in-the-field surgical training for Special Forces soldiers. During this more conventional phase of the goats' lives, each one was taken through a heavy steel soundproofed door into a bunker and shot in the leg using a bolt gun. Then the Special Forces trainees would rush the goat into an operating theatre, anaesthetize it, dress the wound and nurse it back to health. Goat Lab used to be called Dog Lab, but it turned out that nobody wanted to do all that to dogs, so they switched to goats. It was apparently determined within Special Forces that it was just about impossible to form an emotional bond with a goat.

All the goats at Goat Lab are "de-bleated"

Even the luckier goats - the ones that had only been shot - were presumably hobbling around Goat Lab in eerie silence with their legs in plaster. Perhaps the master sergeant had been staring at a particularly sickly goat?

Needless to say, no-one seems actually to have documented evidence that staring at goats can actually stop their hearts, although in one case he comes across someone who claims to be able to do it on people ("it always works, although not necessarily straight away; in one case it took 18 years for him to die"). And not all the military think it's a useful skill in any case:

Pete is a military veteran. He fought in Cambodia for ten months. His combat experience has made him sniffy about Guy's goat-staring capabilities. Violent goats don't come running at you in the battlefield. Guy's goat staring may be fabled, but it is basically a party trick.
Basically a pretty easy and fun read.

Completed : 13-February-2016

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