The story is fun again

>> Sunday, December 20, 2009

(This piece discusses the Jon Ronson book The Men Who Stare At Goats and the film version of the book released earlier this year. I've tried not to be spoiler-ey, but I can't promise I succeeded; if you're trying to maintain a total tabula rasa to either the movie or the book, or both, you might want to skip this entry. You've been duly warned.)

I just read Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats in a blitz--started around noon and finished it around four p.m.; it's not a hard read, Ronson's prose being what I'd call "sprightly."

Ronson's book had been on my "to get" list since it came out in 2004, when reviews and excerpts suggested it would be a hell of a fun read (which it is), what with it's take on the kind of lunacy and paranoia that sometimes infects even otherwise ostensibly sane men. The book, for those of you who don't know, offers a kind of summary history of the U.S. Army's flirtations with paranormal and New Age stuff: remote viewing, psychic warfare, nonlethal weapons, et al. Some of it being really funny stuff if you set aside the taxpayer expense of it; e.g. the book starts with a description of how, one morning in 1983, Major General Albert Stubblebine III, then the Army's chief of intelligence, decided to walk into the next office:

He stands up, moves out from behind his desk, and begins to walk.

I mean, he thinks, what is the atom mostly made up of anyway? Space!

He quickens his pace.

What am I mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms!

He is almost at a jog now.

What is the wall mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms! All I have to do is merge the spaces. The wall is an illusion. What is destiny? Am I destined to stay in this room? Ha, no!

Then General Stubblebine bangs his nose hard on the wall of his office.

Damn, he thinks.

The title of the book itself comes from another series of military experiments involving ESP: the "men who stare at goats" did so literally--in an attempt to think the goats to death by psychically stopping the animals' hearts. Which, allegedly, worked this one time except Mr. Ronson first has a bitch of a time tracking down the man who allegedly did it. And then when he does track down one of the men who says that, yes, he killed a goat with his brain, what he's able to demonstrate to Mr. Ronson is a videotape of himself making a hamster act "weird." (Hamsters being ideal test subjects, we learn, because the doughty psychic warrior really, really, really hates hamsters.)

Anyway, the book had been on my list for awhile. The impetus to finally go and buy it at last came earlier this year the same day I saw the movie version starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor, which I thought was really funny and sort of guardedly recommended to some friends; in the plus column, the movie is really, really funny, especially for the first two-thirds or so--the reservations come mostly from the film's final act, which is sort of stupid and you feel like the screenwriter maybe felt he'd written himself into a corner with the way he fictionalizes the events and characters of Ronson's book.

I'm really having to reconsider the movie though, having read the book now. It's nothing to do with the usual issues you have with movies based on books. No, reading the book, I'm finding myself mildly horrified by something subtle and awful that the movie does with the book's subject matter.

See, the book starts off very, very funny--the above passage about the Army general trying to walk through a solid wall and banging his nose is from the first few pages of the book, and the first half of the book is hysterical, as Mr. Ronson finds himself plummeting down this absurd rabbithole in which the loopier ideas of the '60s counterculture weirdly merge with the missions of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment, not to mention the conservative culture and politics of '80s America (at one point, Ronson tells us, the aforementioned General Stubblebine meets resistance from General John Adams Wickham when he tries to demonstrate spoon-bending at a party--not because General Wickham thinks the idea is stupid, but because Wickham, who later went on to receive a commendation from President George W. Bush for his efforts in creating "the Presidential Prayer Team," was concerned that Stubblebine's efforts smacked of Satanic influence and conflicted with Deuteronomy 18:10-11's prohibition against witchcraft). But as Mr. Ronson's research progresses, he finds himself butting up against harder and uglier and decidedly unfunny absurdities: alternative warfare techniques suggested during the '70s and '80s, such as the use of sound and music to influence or incapacitate enemies on the battlefield, morph, over time, into interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo; before that, psychological warfare aspects proposed alongside goat-staring and wall-walking find themselves deployed on the "battlefield" of Waco, Texas, during the ill-starred FBI and ATF face-off against the Branch Davidians. Ronson stumbles into evidence that even the crazier aspects of the Stubblebine era were reactivated in the aftermath of September 11th, with government agencies polling psychics and remote viewers for tips and leads of Al Qaeda activity.

Most surprisingly, however, the rabbithole leads Mr. Ronson into the past, to 1953 and one of the direct antecedents of the U.S. Army's psychological warfare: to the CIA's awful MK-ULTRA program and the death of Frank Olson, who either had a bad trip on LSD and went window-diving from a 10th-story hotel window or was pushed after being hit in the back of the head with a blunt object in order to keep Olson, a chemist, from divulging information about MK-ULTRA, "Artichoke" (a pharmacological interrogation program) and/or other projects the CIA had him tangled up in (some witnesses have suggested that Olson was having deep moral qualms about his involvement in torture or possibly even assassination in the weeks prior to his death).

In 1975, after The New York Times claimed that the CIA had engaged in covert experiments using Americans as test subjects, President Gerald Ford (who, as a U.S. Representative, had served on the Warren Commission) created the U.S. President's Commission On CIA Activities Within The United States, better known as "The Rockefeller Commission" after the commission chair, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller. It was the Rockefeller Commission that broke what became, technically, the second version of Frank Olson's death, that it was the result of LSD experiments gone horribly awry (the first version being the original official account that Olson was depressed and either fell or jumped). Writing about the Rockefeller Commission version, Ronson describes a conversation he had with Frank Olson's son, Eric Olson:

"The old story [that Frank Olson had a bad LSD trip] is so much fun," Eric said, "why would anyone want to replace it with a story that's not fun [that Frank Olson was murdered]. You see? The person who puts the spin on the story controls it from the beginning. It's very hard for people to read against the grain of what you've been told the narrative is about."

"Your new story is not as much fun, " I agreed.

"This is no longer a happy, feel-good story," Eric said, "and I don't like it any better than anyone else does. It's hard to accept your father didn't die because of suicide, nor did he die because of negligence after a drug experiment, he died because they killed him. That's a different feeling."

But in the end, Eric Olson fails to gain much headway after he has his father's body exhumed and a forensic examiner finds evidence of blunt-force trauma inconsistent with a fall on Frank Olson's corpse, and holds a press conference to announce these results to the world:

Eric hoped his press conference would, at least, change the language of reporting the story. At best, it would motivate some energetic journalist to take up the challenge and find an unequivocal smoking gun that proved Frank Olson was pushed out a window.

But in the days that followed the press conference it became clear that every journalist had decided to report the story in much the same way.

Eric had finally found "closure."

He was on the way to being "healed."

He had finally "laid his mystery to rest."

He could "move on" now.

Perhaps we will "never know" what happened to Frank Olson, but the important thing was that Eric had achieved "closure."

The story was fun again.

This is where we get back to what, maybe, is possibly really awful about the movie version of The Men Who Stare At Goats, and why I really need to rethink it. See--and I don't want to spoil anything here, so I'll try to be vague--the ending of the movie version also has a sequence involving the liberal use of LSD. Unlike the Ronson section dealing with the use of LSD, however, the movie's LSD sequence doesn't involve a civilian government employee falling, jumping or being pushed out of a tall building's window after having his beverage spiked with acid as a result of an amoral (or perhaps even immoral) mindset that cannot distinguish between can and should; the movie's version of an LSD spiking is played for laughs, with no harm done, no foul, indeed it's quite the contrary, with everybody being better off for it.

In other words, the makers of the movie decided to make the story fun again. Instead of Ronson's point, which is that notions that are absurd and silly on the surface may have horrifying consequences when implemented as real-world projects, we have "oh, look how goofy all these people are." The Men Who Stare At Goats, the movie, is The Men Who Stare At Goats, the book, completely defanged and venomless. Whether or not Mr. Ronson is right that there's a straight-line between a man trying to walk through a solid object and a man being blindfolded in a shipping container in Iraq and having psychologically debilitating lights and music blasted at him for endless hours at a time, there's a provocative and challenging claim being advanced that the reader has to grope with. The movie, on the other hand, is just goofy fun up through a dumb and completely-fictional ending that wouldn't have been out-of-place in any number of post-Caddyshack '80s comedies in which the tightasses have "loosening up" thrust upon them by laid-back heroes.

In which case, I don't know how to feel about the movie. It's one thing to take liberties with a book, which isn't really what we're talking about here. It's another thing to subversively take something that's actually really serious and turn it into a harmless self-parody that everybody can just have a laugh over before getting back to their lives. The former isn't, ultimately, that big a deal however much fanboys (myself included) might fret over how Legolas is depicted or whether Count Fenring's absence is ultimately a death-blow to the movie. The latter, however, is a particularly disingenuous, evil and poisonous form of propaganda. If Mr. Ronson's account and conclusions are right, The Men Who Stare At Goats ultimately isn't funny at all; I found myself, in reading the book, to go from chuckling over every page to reading in fascinated horror at what Ronson was describing, even when I was otherwise familiar with the events he describes. If Ronson's right, then one reason to be vigilant and serious about stupid ideas, even ones that are advanced with the best of intentions, is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and cemented with dumb ideas.

But if we're content with the movie's "based on real events" version?

What a fun story.


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