New Age warriors

November 19, 2009

A new film has the U.S. military trying for war without death with its New Earth Army.

IT'S 2003, and Bob Wilton's life sucks. His wife has left him for another man, his boss at the local Ann Arbor newspaper assigns him stupid stories, and his life in general is meaningless. So he decides to do what other men have done when their hearts are broken--"They go to war," he says.

In the new movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Wilton (Ewan MacGregor) heads for Iraq, but is waylaid in Kuwait waiting for permission to enter the country. While drowning his frustrations at a hotel bar, he has a chance encounter with a civilian contractor named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) who is posing as a sanitation engineer.

Cassady clues him into what is either one of the great untold stories in U.S. military history or a psychotic fantasy. It turns out to be both, with sinister implications for the war in Iraq.

Cassady tells a rapt Wilton that he was part of secret program in the early 1980s at the Fort Bragg U.S. Army Special Forces Base to develop "super-soldiers"--specifically, psychic warriors whose special training amplifies their alleged psychic abilities. These abilities range from "remote viewing," to predicting the future, to putting disarming thoughts in the heads of enemy soldiers.

The godfather of this program is Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who had a vision or a serious concussion--depending on your point of view--during a helicopter landing mishap in the Vietnam War. His vision--a Vietnamese woman in the sky--tells him that his soldiers will be more powerful if they embraced gentleness. This changes Django's life.

He returns home and convinces his superiors to let him explore the possibilities of developing new soldiers. He then disappears into New Age California of the 1970s. Django does it all: acid, pop psychology, paranormal mysticism, hot tubs and men's movement mumbo-jumbo--all of the navel-gazing crap that made up the so-called human potential movement. He thinks he's found his answer.

A new Bill Django (ponytail and all) returns to Fort Bragg as a self-styled shaman and makes a pitch to his superiors. "Vietnam has stolen our soul," he says, arguing that they should let him make new soldiers. Django wants to create "warrior-monks" or "Jedi," who will use non-lethal methods to defeat the enemy. In effect, Django wants to have war without death with his New Earth Army. His slogan is "Be all that you can be"--a phrase we all recognize.

Django's favorite pupil is Cassady. But into this New Age experiment also comes the evil Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), whose after-dinner magic tricks--bending spoons with his mind--get him a spot in the New Earth Army. However, Hooper's ambitions and jealousies lead to disaster and the disbanding of the unit, despite President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan's fervent belief in the paranormal.

FLASH FORWARD to the post-September 11 world. Cassady and others have been reactivated to fight the "war on terror." Wilton and Cassady go to a remote base in Iraq that houses Hooper's psychic mercenary company PSIC. Hooper is a perfect fit for the George W. Bush presidency's weakness for incompetence, corruption and crackpots.

Hooper's job is to take everything they learned during their New Earth Army days about human potential and turn it on its head specifically to break Iraqi prisoners of war. Simply put: New Age gone bad. Cassady is horrified and organizes a breakout of the Iraqi prisoners. Django and Cassady disappear into the Iraq desert.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a mildly amusing story based on Jon Ronson's book of the same title. But how much of it is true? The opening credits declare that more of it is than you might believe.

Django's character is based on real-life Jim Channon, who was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. He did propose creating a First Earth Battalion, but it was never formed. The Army published Channon's manual, Evolutionary Tactics, modeled on the Whole Earth Catalog, in 1978. He retired in 1982 and hasn't served in Iraq or Afghanistan, either in a military or civilian capacity.

The film strongly insinuates that some of the techniques for using sound that Channon advocated in his non-lethal war strategies were turned over to the dark side, and morphed into torture techniques in Iraq.

This is the one aspect of the film--which is essentially a military comedy/fantasy--that is seriously off the mark. Alfred McCoy's A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror addresses this issue far better.

I want to recommend Three Kings, David O. Russell's 1999 film starring Clooney, Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg, about American soldiers in the first Gulf War. It is a far better film than Goats.

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