The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)


Well, it’s a very bad movie with a very good cast: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor. It satirizes Project STARGATE and other Intelligence Community and Defense Department research in the 1970s and 1980s, a central part of it at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and often called “remote viewing,” to explore potential National Security applications of “paranormal” and “psychic” powers. As some know, in the Cold War a major objective of this research was to see whether “remote viewing” could perform order-of-battle assessments, change-detection and other reconnaissance missions: cheap and mysterious reconnaissance for which the monitoring vehicle was a Persian rug surrounded by candles. And well, very probably there were other research objectives. (I wouldn’t know or care. After all, Uri Geller was involved.)

“Remote viewing” is whispered by Clooney early in the movie as being the Grail.

The Men Who Stare at Goats¬†fictitiously recruits and reassembles into a team under high levels of classification the leading such researchers of the Cold War, some of them aging hippies, and tries desperately to dramatize seriocomically an imputed latter-day “dark side” of that research “without all the hippie stuff” in which it is redirected to the interrogation of enemy POWs in the Iraq War. The POWs are undergoing pretty much what Harry Palmer undergoes in that psychedelic torture chamber in The IPCRESS File. (Attention, Sources and Influences Department.) Goats isn’t very funny, not because the paranormal nonsense isn’t worthy of satire, but because the screenplay generally doesn’t make any sense. To achieve schlock shock, the filmmakers must claim that supposed IPCRESS interrogation in Iraq is a logical evil follow-on to Uri Geller and STARGATE.

It’s a tortuous stretch.

Besides, the paranormal research during the Cold War was (a) silly; (b) a funding drop in the bucket (though Senator Proxmire would have been unhappy [and, for all I know, was]); and (c) probably not any sillier than some other goofy ideas of the time (though as a taxpayer, especially in these times, you’d just as soon it hadn’t had a dime spent on it: the money wasted is bad enough, and now comes yet another reminder that that damned Barnum is just too honest–he can sure spoil a picnic; but we’ve got SETI now, so let us cast no stones).

Yes, the object of satire in The Men Who Stare at Goats was discredited a long time ago. A very quick and bright psychologist, David Marks, wrote in those bygone years in reference to the SRI paranormal research (and other such research) in his demolishing book, The Psychology of the Psychic, these passages:

“Remote viewing is nothing more than a self-fulfilling delusion.”

“(Uri) Geller has no psychic ability whatsoever. However, he’s a very clever, well-practiced magician.”

For example, Marks kept his eye on Geller’s thumb, despite Geller’s masterful misdirection, as the fork prongs were bent in the SRI lab to the apparent amazement of the two principal SRI project leaders.

Martin Gardner, who for years wrote the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, wrote the forward to Marks’s book and said:

“For every person who reads this valuable book there are hundreds of naive souls who would prefer to have their spines tingled by a sensational but worthless potboiler by some hack journalist of the paranormal. You who now read these sentences join a small but wiser minority.”

But Marks came along late; he was called in to put the poor nag out of its misery. You hardly had to be a medical practitioner to know the ailment was terminal. It was a mercy killing.

So it must have been some 40-plus years since I, a mere lad working on the lower rungs at a think tank on a project to research arms control verification, found myself in a car returning to that work from an unbeatable lunch at a legendary Chinese restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area to be faced with just what to do about monitoring mutual-and-balanced force reductions in a sad neighborhood in the dread Old World, a problem challenging that morning (and many before), when, for reasons I can’t recall confidently, I found myself joined by another young passenger who hadn’t come to the restaurant with myself and friends (I think someone had had to leave lunch early, hence our hitchhiker), and that’s where I had a grief encounter with one of the future co-directors of the SRI research into the paranormal. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two before he and I and one or two of the others were in a near-shouting joust. It was about types and distances of vision. He said there were a lot more than we said there were.

Besides the paranormal dead end, he went on eventually to do some very good things as a physicist, most importantly, I’m sure, in devising certain means to improve airline flight safety.

Herewith a notice, found these many years later on Google, that the idea of remote viewing lives on:

“…Aug 23-27, 2010: ‘An Experimental Workshop in Nonlocal Consciousness, Spiritual Epiphany, and the Ahhah! Moment: Learning Remote Viewing, and the Intuitive Diagnosis.’… If you are interested in nonlocal consciousness, that part of us beyond space-time, called variously spiritual and psychic, you have probably heard of remote viewing. You know that what began as a laboratory protocol, created by a small group of scientists, has become part modern martial art, part awakening path, and part social movement. Why has this happened?'”

Well, I believe it’s a short fall to the bottom of that question.

Can you get Barnum on the line? See if you can get Gardner, too.