Some people will tell you that you should never watch a movie based on a book before reading the book, but this has never made sense to me. We almost always say that the book is better, so why set yourself up for disappointment by engaging the superior version first and the inferior one second? See the movie first, enjoy it a bit, then go back to the book for the more fulfilling experience.
I suppose this sort of thinking doesn't work for those who enjoy a story less once they know the outcome. But with a story as fraught with improbability as Men Who Stare at Goats the concept of "spoilers" is probably meaningless. A bigger question is not, "What happened?" but rather, "What really happened?"
Here's the story as both author/documentarian Jon Ronson and the movie adaptation tell it: during the late 1970s' post-Vietnam hangover, the American military sought any means to adapt its human strategy and tactics and also to restore a sense of morality and purpose. A general named Subblebine, who to this day attempts to walk through walls, envisioned an alternative fighting force, warriors of the mind and spirit.
Enter Jim Channon, a disillusioned Vietnam veteran. He persuaded the Pentagon to fund his personal research into the burgeoning New Age movement springing up on the coasts. After over a year of bumming around, aligning his chakras, he devised the First Earth Battalion Operations Manual, which called for an army of Jedi Warriors, psychic soldiers who remotely viewed the enemy and then fought him with the mind. Naturally, here's where things get weird.
The Manual calls for playing dissonant noises at opposing armies to confuse soldiers and defuse their fighting instincts. At the same time, American soldiers will appear in towns bearing baby lambs in their arms. There are other recommendations, but basically they're of a piece with this kind of thinking. Killing isn't really mentioned. The point is to change hearts and minds, literally.
However, since this is the military, these lofty and basically impractical ideals get perverted. The idea of changing minds by using psychic powers morphs into the concept of forcibly interrogating with the mind, or remotely detecting the presence of an enemy target for assassination. Meanwhile, affecting others' hearts gets reoriented to mentally stopping them, literally. Ronson tried to track down a man who is supposed to have killed a goat by staring at it. Instead he finds a man who can make a hamster afraid of its wheel—after only days of mental effort.
Both the book and the movie rely a lot on faith. The men in question have to have faith that they can cultivate these powers and affect tangible change with them. At the same time, you, the reader or viewer, have to have faith that all of this is real. Many of the names and incidents can be tracked down on Google, and indeed the periphery of many incidents can be established in a factual record. But the question of whether these remote viewers were truly tasked to be Jedis, to become invisible, to walk through walls—this is something only answered by hearsay, by rumors related to Ronson, by third parties of questionable reliability or by people unwilling to go on the record.
Men Who Stare at Goats thus becomes a kind of exercise in Occam's Razor. It's possible that a man changed a hamster's behavior by willing it to change, but it's more likely that over days of observed behavior the hamster accidentally did something that aligned with the man's intent. Yes, the army and CIA have experimented with remote viewing, and there were people interested in attempting this stuff, but Ronson's probably getting some iffy material from self-promoting kooks and educated guessers.
That said, it's difficult for a reader to know where to draw the line. Intelligence work of any stripe has always been the home of the oddball person and the oddball idea. Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician at Bletchley Park who essentially invented the computer to decrypt the Enigma code, used to chain his coffee mug to a radiator to keep people from stealing it. It looked like every other mug at Bletchley. People in the OSS seriously entertained whether Japanese soldiers could see in the dark.
The book and the movie diverge at a very significant point, one that definitely lessens the impact of the movie. Ronson takes care to temper the wackiness in his book by connecting the strange ideas to very real moments of pathos. The most moving part of the book—one omitted from the movie for all but a scant few seconds—takes place in storage containers in the Iraqi desert. In them, Iraqi citizens are bombarded by strobe lights and deafening music, including Metallica, Matchbox 20, and the theme from the children's TV show, Barney and Friends.
Ronson spends some time trying to figure out why. Different psychic experts, scientists and even an LAPD non-lethal weapons advocate weigh in. Some believe that the lights and noise might be trying to induce involuntary reactions in the amygdala inside the Iraqis' brains. Others think that the music might have had subliminal messages. Still others suggest that the music masks low-frequency signals designed to provoke involuntary physical responses. Looking at photos of one detainee, the explanation seems fairly obvious to Ronson; in the last one, the man in the container "is screaming so hard it almost looks as if he's laughing."
You can blink and miss this scene in the film, as a character opens a container door and, for a moment, the horrifying din of the Barney theme pours out of it. In the book, however, it provides ample meditative fodder. Ronson's started out profiling a bizarre but brave attempt, by at least a few people, to try to rethink a massive institutional beast resistant to change. Instead, he sees their creativity and alternate ideas repurposed to serve the same naked brutality they were trying to be an alternative to.
For the most part, The Men Who Stare at Goats is not as grim as all this. The book is funny and kind of adorable for long stretches. But where its far-out practices start to meet application in reality, it forces us to ask some rough questions.
Do we too readily dismiss nightmarish tales like the Barney and Friends episode because the wackiness makes them seem innocuous? Are far-out stories a convenient cover for the brutality of real stories? And what does it say about us when we so easily can take far-out ideas with such good intentions and seamlessly adapt them to service suffering?