Picture a military made up of psychically gifted soldiers who can walk through walls, stare animals to death and whose primary weapons are subliminal music, disarming hugs and symbols of peace (like baby lambs). In 1979, a lieut. colonel in the U.S. Army named Jim Channon imagined just that, and wrote his ideas down in a 125-page confidential report called "The First Earth Battalion." Thirty years later, British journalist Jon Ronson explored the legacy of Channon's New Age manual and the U.S. military's surprising and often sinister enthusiasm for supernatural warfare in his 2004 book, The Men Who Stare at Goats. TIME spoke with Ronson about turning his book into a Hollywood film and why he thinks Channon's vision of the future is still in the works.
I noticed that Channon has been writing for the Guardian in the run-up to the film's release. How did that come about?
Well, I suggested it, but it was sort of a gamble because Jim's his own man. He could have written, "I hate Jon Ronson's book." He loved the movie, and he loves Jeff Bridges, who plays him in the movie. Obviously, George Clooney didn't hurt either. George Clooney is like an antiseptic bandage, he kind of heals all wounds.
So have you seen the film yet?
I've seen it four times. I really love it. The second half of my book is quite dark there's a lot of jokes in the first half and not many in the second half and what Clooney and director Grant Heslov decided to do was make it a much more sweet-natured, slightly batty, feel-good film. It's sort of like Little Miss Sunshine goes to war.
That's one of the more disturbing descriptions you could have given.
[Laughs.] But there's something really engaging and sweet and warm about it, and that's something I didn't expect.That's interesting to me, because in your book you indict the mainstream media for spinning gruesome stories like using music to psychologically manipulate prisoners and turning them into a fluff pieces on Barney's "I Love You" song being played at prisons in Iraq.
I'm definitely, definitely not accusing the movie of the thing I accused the media of doing in the book. And in fact, that stuff about Barney being turned into a funny story is the kind of sharp, dark end of the movie. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist when it comes to the whole Barney thing because I think [the U.S. military] deliberately disseminated it to make torture seem funny. I think they saw an opportunity and went with it. That's exactly the kind of thing that psyops [Psychological Operations] does and I think everybody fell for it. And not just the American media, but the British media. The newspaper I work for, which is the Guardian it's a very left-wing paper was running funny stories about Barney torture. Everybody was. Until Abu Ghraib came along, it was just treated that way.
This book began as an assignment for a TV show, right?
It was first going to be a series about the Bush dynasty, and then I had this amazingly good trip to Hawaii where I met [onetime psychic spy] Glenn Wheaton, who told me about Project Jedi and training U.S. soldiers to reach Level 2 "Intuition" then Level 3 "Invisibility," which I thought was such a great leap. Level 1 is, like, eat only nuts and grains for a month, and Level 3 is invisibility? It was the greatest interview of my life. All I had to do was say, "What's Level 4?" And he goes, "Level 4 is, we can kill a goat just by staring at it." By the time we got to Level 4, I was thinking, There's a book in there.
How do you think the military's strategy has changed in the five years since this book came out?
I have no doubt that research in this field is still going on. Someone sent me this quote from General Stanley McChrystal about how we have to show the enemy our good side, and it seems very similar to passages in Channon's manual about sparkly eyes and baby lambs. I think it's rather nice the military would try out all this crazy stuff, because if the U.S. Army doesn't try this stuff, nobody's going to and maybe something wonderful could come from of it. I don't want to sound all massively promilitary, but Jim always said that some of the most loving, kind people in the world are military people because they've seen how bad things can get.