Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mountain Jam: New Age Combatants, Guerrilla Gurus, and Magic Marker Mastery

The great thing about this blog is that no-one reads it! I know that sounds silly, but writing in an electronic space that everyone can access and yet remain aloof at the same time has a sublime appeal. Sure as hell beats Facebook, which has to one of the most insidious and viral of e-phenomenon that the i-generation has vomited up. As I recount the descent of this blog from raging commentary that challenges people's points of view (point of views? points of views?) to the ruminant by-product of an overactive mind, I thought I would share the best two books I have read this year.

First of these is Gerard Prunier's "Africa World War", which has some enlightening passages and disturbing observations of the wilful ignorance of the 'international community'. But, I haven't quite finished thinking through this book, and I need more time to properly digest it. It's deep.

The book that I did finish - in a half-day I might add (which speaks for itself) - is Jon Ronson's "The Men Who Stare at Goats".

Ronson takes the reader on a an amusing discovery of the colourful and kooky characters that the US military spawned in the wake of the Viet Nam War. His primary focus is psychological operations and related metaphysical techniques being researched and developed for adaption to modern warfare. The central premise of the book focuses on Jim Channon, the author and protagonist behind the concept-army known as the "First Earth Battalion" - recently played by Jeff Bridges in the star-studded movie by the same name - and how he stumbled and sought out the innocuous, naive, profligate, and remarkable elements of the New Age movement. Naturally, Channon distilled his discoveries into his own movement! Channon makes for a highly serviceable protagonist for Ronson's literary ends, and Ronson deploys him with calibrated gusto, driving the narrative deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine world of the bizarre, the botched, the overcooked, and the heinous doings of the US, its military, civilian agencies, and the irrepressible imagination of its greatest asset - it's people. The following slide (Channon's hand) encapsulates some of his hero's thinking:

Most of 'Goats' is pretty light-hearted (hilarious in parts - you will find yourself laughing at the most absurd notions that transfixed otherwise very serious men), although several sections, most notably the somewhat tangential section on Frank Olsen and MKULTRA make for a frightening reminder of the telling impunity of the US government and the lengths that private citizens have to go to just to extract an admission that a wrong was commited (in their collective name). Ronson focuses on the First Earth Battalion's Manual, which is a magic-marker odyssey of Channon's stream-of-consciousness reflections on both the times he was in and the people and interactions that were framing his thinking, such as the slide below:

The thing that 'Goats' impressed upon me, especially when reviewed alongside the First Earth Battalion Manual, is the wide berth that people like Channon and his acolytes were given to explore different and obscure fields like New Age movements, meta-physical experimentation (e.g. staring goats to death, remote viewing). I wonder if there were a few arms-length and enlightened people within the US military or civilian-government establishments that realised that within these crackpot and far-out fields there might exist an edge or advantage to gain at a time when anti-Communist paranoia only just outweighed the despair that the war in Viet Nam exacted of America's government and people. Beneath the (and I don't think this is not too strong a word) ludicrous manifestations of this openness to new ideas and new thinking probably lay a cold and calculated desire to understand whether these movements were a threat, whether any of these areas had an underlying science, and what new communication mediums and modes of thinking they employed that might have practical applications which could be adapted to modern warfare technology. What is clearly an inexact science (which I have discussed before) is presented by Ronson as a harbinger to more sinister developments in modern warfare; this really is the only potential hypothesis that Ronson posits. For instance, Ronson notes a precursor to the internet came about in the 80s being developed by some of Channon's devotees/admirers (?), and he asserts that certain developments in psychological warfare and interrogation methods were influenced by findings and recommendations attributable to the First Earth Battalion learning and practices. It's instrictive to bear in mind that the First Earth Battalion Manual was collated and written in the late seventies, just as the full horror of the Viet Nam was coursing through the American military establishment.

Anyway. The book is at least as amusing as the movie, definitely as tangential and slow in passages, besides being wonderfully creative non-fiction in a mercifully slim volume! It cannot stand up to the rigours of serious research, and probably shouldn't be discussed in the same breath as Prunier's work. One thing I really liked about 'Goats' is Ronson's treatment of the issues, which is reporter-like and spares the reader the neurotic and obsessive tempo of a lot of writing on conspiracy theory.

If you're interested in the images I lifted from the FEB field manual and Jim Channon's own take on the First Earth Battalion - the following links might interest you:

Part 1 of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion epilogue-monologue

Part 2 of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion epilogue-monologue

Download The First Earth Battalion Field Manual

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