The Men Who Stare At Goats: Would You Believe the Book Is Better Than the Movie?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Grant Heslov's movie adaptation of Jon Ronson's 2004 nonfiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats, a darkly comic look at some of the U.S. Army's paranormal investigations. I saw the movie before reading the book, and was unimpressed: the filmmakers often treated the material as satire or farce, even though it was based on the work of a journalist. The book does a much better job. It reads so quickly that it feels like a throwaway page-turner, but because the stories are true they stay with you much longer.

(There's a dispute currently brewing on who did what. Ronson frequently interjects himself into the narrative, but John Sergeant -- producer of the BBC documentary that inspired Ronson's book -- claims that he discovered many of the sources and was the person who first persuaded them to talk. In all events, the words on the page are certainly Ronson's, but the narrative may not have been entirely discovered or pieced together by him.)

Unlike Serious Journalists like Lawrence Wright, Ronson writes with an effectively, almost distractingly light touch. Some of his interactions with Army personnel come off as slapstick, including one scene that made it into the movie. During an interview with Pete Brusso (whose character is added to George Clooney's composite), Brusso demonstrates a number of his nonlethal methods of inflicting pain.

"You want a bit of pain compliance?" he asked me.
"No," I said.
Pete rapidly rubbed the serrated edge of the Predator against a part of my temple, and, as I let out a bloodcurdling scream, he grabbed my fingers and squeezed them agonizingly against the smooth edge.
"STOP!" I yelled.
"Picture this scenario," said Pete. "We're in a bar in Baghdad and I want you to come with me. Are you coming now?"
"Stop hurting me all the time," I said.

Ronson's light touch may work better on the written page because it's harder to believe the veracity of source material when it's in the context of a George Clooney movie. That said, the book's structure shares more with a documentary (or a Malcolm Gladwell book) than a definitive investigative tome. It's not a patient survey of all the Army's actions, as Steve Coll did for the Army's actions in Afghanistan in the 1980s in Ghost Wars (rating: 81), or Tom Ricks did for the Iraq War in Fiasco (rating: 90) and The Gamble (rating: 80). Rather, it's an examination of representative absurdity: Eric Brooks' lifelong struggle to understand the role of CIA torturers in his father's death, the role of a military "remote viewer" in the Hale-Bopp spaceship hoax that inspired the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, and the way that the Army's explorations of subliminal messaging may have resulted in the use of Matchbox 20 in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

The book has a difficult and strange rope to walk, marrying the hippie sensibility of the 1960s, which inspired much of the Army's exploration into nonlethal technologies, with the George W. Bush presidency we remember well and the War on Terror in which we presently live. Few War on Terror books are light comic romps, for understandable reasons, but the incongruity at this book's core is frequently hilarious -- even while it's depressing, both that the Army is crazy enough to pursue New Age mysticism, and that the only reason it's doing so is to improve its torture techniques.

The Men Who Stare At Goats isn't a replacement for all the Serious Books that you should probably read -- by Wright and Ricks and Coll and the 9/11 Commission and everyone else -- in order to be an informed citizen in the final days of the '00s. But it's a welcome palliative.

Rating: 79

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.