Thursday, November 05, 2009

Culture Shock 11.05.09: Be all the Jedi that you can be

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" is probably the most unlikely film that can justifiably lay claim to the phrase "based on a true story." The film, which opens Friday and stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, is based on author and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson's 2004 nonfiction book of the same name about a top-secret psychic spy unit within the U.S. military.

Just in case you missed that, I'll repeat: The book is about the U.S. military's top-secret psychic spy unit.

The movie version takes certain liberties. For instance, Clooney's character is a composite of several people, and the movie itself is played mostly for laughs. The book, however, is Ronson's best attempt to get the goods on probably the strangest program on which the U.S. government has ever squandered taxpayer money.

If you've ever listened to much late-night talk radio, you may already know part of the story.

One of the players is Maj. Ed Dames, who was a frequent guest on the "Coast to Coast A.M." program back when Art Bell was still its host. Dames claimed to be — and in fact was — a member of a secret "remote viewing" program intended to spy psychically on potential threats to Truth, Justice and the American Way. Remote viewing means just what it says. It means viewing events occurring someplace else, often on the other side of the world, and possibly seeing into the future, too.

When Dames wasn't safeguarding the American Dream, however, he was attempting to unravel deeper, more meaningful mysteries, such as the true identity of the Loch Ness monster.

Eventually, for whatever reason, Dames went public and told his story to credulous broadcasters like Bell. He also went into business, teaching others how to perform remote viewings. Not too long ago, on late-night TV, I saw a commercial for his remote viewing training seminars.

During his appearances on Bell's radio show, Dames made a lot of wild and inaccurate predictions, some of which Ronson chronicles in his book. One was that President Bill Clinton would be killed in April 1998 while playing golf. Eleven years later, the former president is still hitting the links, along with the lecture circuit.

The military eventually shut down its psychic spy program, claiming it had yielded no practical results, and this is one instance when I'm prepared to take the government at its word. But in the aftermath of 9/11, it seems like some of the military's experiments in unorthodox techniques — the ones that don't violate the laws of physics — have resurfaced.

While Dames is probably the most famous figure to emerge from the U.S. government's flirtation with the paranormal, he is merely a supporting character in Ronson's story. The main players are Lt. Col. Jim Channon, who sought to remake the U.S. Army using New Age philosophy, and Channon's main supporter, Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine, who commanded the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command from 1981 to 1984.

Channon wrote the manual for the First Earth Battalion. The battalion was never formed, but the manual advocated techniques that would supposedly turn U.S. soldiers into sensitive, caring Jedi warriors who could see the future, become invisible and even walk through walls. According to Ronson, Stubblebine was especially keen on that "walking through walls" bit, but Stubblebine's nose wasn't.

One of the soldiers Channon trained could supposedly kill a goat just by staring at it, and Ronson's search for that soldier makes up most of the first quarter of his book.

Unsurprisingly, nothing seems to have come from the paranormal aspects of the First Earth Battalion, but where there are Jedi, there are inevitably some who embrace the Dark Side.

Ronson uncovered information linking some First Earth techniques to the incidents of torture and abuse at Iraq's infamous Abu Ghraib prison. If being exposed repeatedly to Barney the Dinosaur's "I Love You" song isn't torture, I don't know what is.

Any story that starts with psychic soldiers and ends with the War on Terror has got to qualify as unlikely. But that doesn't make it untrue.

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