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on 15 May 2011
"The Men Who Stare at Goats" is a book by Jon Ronson. The author has written several books on religious cults, conspiracy theories and other absurdities. He has also made TV documentaries on the same subjects. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is arguably Ronson's most bizarre book ever. In fact, it might be the most bizarre book ever written.

The first part of the book is hilariously funny, so funny that I almost laughed out load when reading it at my favourite café and, later, at the metro. People must have wondered what the hell I was up to! Apparently, several high-ranking members of the US military believe in paranormal phenomena. They have attempted to create the ultimate soldier, a soldier with supernatural powers: invisibility, the power to walk through solid walls, killing people just by staring at them, etc. Some of these ideas originated with a New Age hippie who wanted the US military to become more peaceful and friendly. His ideas were seized upon by other operatives, more interested in "the dark side".

Are we to believe Ronson, the military actually recruited a number of "psychic spies" who attempted to kill goats just by staring at them (one of them says he can kill hamsters, too). They were also supposed to spy on Panama's then-dictator Manuel Noriega, a former CIA asset who later had a fall out with the US authorities. Noriega apparently believed in occult powers himself, and tried to defend himself from the psychic spying by erecting a crucifix on some distant shore in Panama. One of the clairvoyants later ended up at a mental institution, while another became a big star on Art Bell Show. Ronson also writes about his own experiences interviewing these somewhat shadowy characters. Apparently, the guy who can kill golden hamsters just by looking at them, quite seriously believed that Ronson (a Jew) must have been al-Qaeda!

I'm not surprised that the first chapters of "The Men Who Stare at Goats" have been turned into a comic flick by Hollywood. Unfortunately, the second part of the book is not funny, not funny at all...

It deals with MK-Ultra, suicide cults, the bizarre torture of prisoners at Guantanamo and in Iraq, and the disturbing mindset of music producers and media people in the United States. I wasn't laughing when reading the concluding chapters.

Jon Ronson's book "Them: Adventures with extremists" left me similarly bewildered. That book is also supposed to be entertaining, but when I read it, I got some kind of involuntary sympathies with the extremists.

I honestly don't know how to rate "The Men Who Stare at Goats". The book is just too bizarre and disturbing. After some deliberation, I nevertheless settled for a five star review.

But don't tell me I haven't warned you!
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VINE VOICEon 15 August 2005
Jon Ronson is probably better suited to the medium of text than the airwaves. His previous book, Them, was both a successful and interesting book, and an interesting TV programme. The only problem being that as a presenter Ronson is just not as funny or masterly as he appears in print.
This is his second outing in the world of the bizarre and deluded. Whereas 'Them' dealt with the world of extremists, from the militia men, ku klux klan of the USA to our homebread extremists, Men Who Stare At Goats deals with the US army's willingness to use all methods to secure victory in the cold war. All methods.
This extends to the training of the psycorp - a group of men being specially selected and trained to be able to walk through walls, stop the heartbeats of animals by a glance and become invisable (the title refers to the experiments carried out by these men on goats - I would like to say no animals were harmed in the making of the book, but you will have to read it to find out)
All of the wealth of information that Ronson provides is delivered in a trademark jaunty and incredulous style, which mixes healthy sceptisism with a willingness to believe the incredible. It makes for a very refreshing read in an area of science that is too often the reserve of those even more paranoid and crazy than the members of the psycorp.
The only criticism I have is that Ronson narrowed the field of inquiry so much that the book begins to drag. It becomes obvious that the US Army did little more than flirt with these ideas, and that they remain in the realm of fringe belief. He does hold out the hope that a pinch of the mind techniques are real. Whereas 'Them' was kept flowing by flirting with such different extreme groups, Men Who Stare At Goats is a touch too limited to maintain interest throughout.
If you enjoy Ronson's work, from his newspaper column to 'Them', or enjoy the style of comic writing that is also used by Bill Bryson amongst others, this will be a very enjoyable read. Just don't forget not to stare at any pets in the vicinity.
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on 1 August 2009
This is written as a documentary exploration of some truly bizarre forms of research into alternative forms of killing, torture and manipulation by various governments, mainly US and UK. While similar to a Michael Moore exposure, it's also so close to a novel that it's hard to tell whether this is truth or fiction (take Moore's Sicko and add in The Constant Gardener).

The book investigates forms of development of the human brain usually associated with the personal development movement, but applied to military and government control. From staring at goats (to kill them) to walking through walls, this covers a number of esoteric development skills. The reporting lists interviews with people purported to be involved in this research, and interweaves well-documented cases that add semblance of veracity to these reports. But the evidence is thin.

As a light-hearted holiday read, this deserves marks for an imaginative overview of potentially crazy investments of public funds. As an investigative journal, this is light on evidence and poorly organised to prove a point. Read it and laugh, and suspend belief.
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on 27 April 2008
An enjoyably light read that doesn't try to over-claim for what is quite a slight piece of investigative journalism. The style is similar to Louis Theroux: ask innocent sounding questions, and let people talk. And quite soon you're thinking...are these people for real? In this case that's a pretty serious question, because these people are in charge of the most powerful military in the world. But in the end, too many questions are left unasked, never mind unanswered.
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on 17 September 2014
At the beginning of this book I thought it was crazy, funny and unbelievable. I had to stop reading at times as the book went on as the contents were becoming just a bit too weird to take in. I always thought physical torture must be the hardest thing to bear, but now I realise that there are many evil ways information can be extracted by mental torture, and to know it still goes on and is being done by the 'educated' West makes you wonder about the sanity of those using it as much as the mental state of those being broken by it.
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on 2 September 2014
Ronson has nearly cornered the market in the 'what a crazy world we live in, where will it all end' genre of gonzo journalism, at least in the UK. A sort of Danny Wallace meets Louis Theroux. In particular, Ronson's adventures and subsequent breathless prose relies heavily on the Louis Theroux on screen device of feigned innocence and naiveté. This is his 2nd book, published in 2004 some 10 years after his first, and well before he got into his stride with The Psychopath test (2011) and Lost at Sea (2012). I read it as a result of seeing the film of the book (2009) staring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan MacGregor and Kevin Spacey.

The film covers only a small part of the book which, like all Ronson's efforts, is largely taken up with him wandering around meeting odd balls, engaging in one sided ironic comment and going on to meet the next oddball. One either loves or hates this style of reportage which very much succeeds or fails on the author's skill at characterization. Ronson is generally good at this. In this book he brings to life the oddballs that interact with, or are part of, the US military over the last 40 years.

I find the Ronson's style very entertaining but this book does not have the punch or drive of the 2 later books. Any new readers coming to the book in 2014 or beyond will probably do so following the film. And they will probably be disappointed.

The best that can be said about the book is that it is decent knock about stuff and entertaining to a degree. Not particularly sensational and with little revelation of things we didn't already know about. I can only go to 3 stars.
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on 28 November 2005
This is the kind of book that contians information that most readers will find hard to accept. I am familiar with many of the subjects covered within, but even so it contained a lot of amazing ideas and discoveries that fascinated me. It was a professional, dedicated, serious look at secret government explorations into the world of the supernatural. In this way it could not be more different from Ronson's previous book "Them" which was nothing much more than a humourous micky-take (affectionate rather than aggressive). It's nice to see so-called "conspiracy theories" dealt with seriously for a change.
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on 28 February 2016
Very informative and yet Jon Ronson's information will come as no surprise to most of us, but it is still disturbing, to think that the fate of the entire world lies in the hands of groups seeking to use the paranormal as a weapon to wage war.
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on 9 July 2015
I think Jon Ronson is a very entertaining and insightful author. Them! and The Psychopath Test were at times laugh out loud funny, but at the same time very informative. The first half of the book was the same; funny, interesting and thought provoking. The second half of the book seemed much drier, and humorless unfortunately. The audiobook version is not narrated by Ronson, which is a pity as his narrating style was quite enjoyable on his other works.
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on 10 August 2014
This book is a likeable romp through the world of secret services, conspiracies and military research with a psychic and psychological, if not occasionally psychotic, bias. It is well written and features a number of larger than life characters. As a reader you have to decide whether they are completely barmy, slightly deranged, the victims of bizarre experiments and whatever. The twist in the book is that quite a lot of the ideas have come home to roost in the war on terror which shows that inhumanity can take any number of interesting forms. I quite enjoyed it but wasn't convinced by a lot of the evidence.
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