Men Who Stare at Goats (…Who are the Brain Police?)

Posted on February 3, 2011


The following passage, quoted by Jon Ronson in The Men Who Stare at Goats (coming to him), was written by Mark Bowden – author of Black Hawk Down – in October 2003, after interviewing CIA interrogators operating in the Middle East:

On what may or may not have been March 1 [2003] the notorious terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was roughly awakened by a raiding party of Pakistani and American commandos… Here was the biggest catch yet in the war on terror. Sheikh Mohammed is considered the architect of two attempts on the World Trade Center: the one that failed, in 1993, and the one that succeeded so catastrophically, eight years later… He was flown to an “undisclosed location” (a place the CIA calls “Hotel California”) – presumably a facility in another cooperative nation, or perhaps a specially designed prison aboard an aircraft carrier.

It doesn’t’ much matter where, because the place would not have been familiar or identifiable to him. Place and time, the anchors of sanity, were about to come unmoored. He might as well have been entering a new dimension, a strange new world where his every word, move, and sensation would be monitored and measured; where things might be as they seemed but might not; where there would be no such thing as day or night, or normal patterns of eating and drinking, wakefulness and sleep; where hot and cold, wet and dry, clean and dirty, truth and lies, would all be tangled and distorted.

The space would be filled night and day with harsh light and noise. Questioning would be intense – sometimes loud and rough, sometimes quiet and friendly, with no apparent reason for either. The session might last for days, with interrogators taking turns, or it might last only a few minutes. On occasion he might be given a drug to elevate his mood prior to interrogation; marijuana, heroin, and sodium pentothal have been shown to overcome a reluctance to speak. These drugs could be administered surreptitiously with food or drink, and given the bleakness of his existence, they might even offer a brief period of relief and pleasure, thereby creating a whole new category of longing – and new leverage for his interrogators.

Since then the CIA has confessed to “waterboarding” Sheikh Mohammed 183 times while in “secret custody” in 2002 and 2003. Two videotapes of the interrogations were destroyed by the CIA in 2005, according to Human Rights Watch, “[in part] because officers were concerned that the video could expose agency officials to legal or security risks”.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Ever wondered what the darkest hours of the human soul feels like, what it feels like to be exposed to this kind of barrage of mental and physical torture, unidentifiable voices drifting around your racked brain, violent one minute (or hour?) and then coming on all sweet, until broken down into an unperson to within an inch of your sorry dissident life? Imagine being inside the head of Sheikh Mohammed. Or just read 1984.

Sheikh Mohammed is a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist allegedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in events such as 9/11 and the Bali bombings. At first glance then he doesn’t seem like much of a Winston Smith, the Everyman hero of George Orwell’s novel who resists Big Brother’s totalitarianism only to be brutally quashed by the system. Smith dies for a love made political by a system that outlaws free thought and activity, seeks to occupy the individual mind, waging perpetual war on it along with everything else around it.

1984 is, of course, magnificent. Not only does it show Orwell’s dread imagination, his absolute language – “a boot stamping on a face forever” – and the notional gifts of newspeak and doublethink; it also presents totalitarianism in its rawest form. But somewhere down the line, someone missed the point. Newspapers are all too happy to refer to Orwell when discussing recent infringements on civil liberties, it’s their go-to text after all!, with the usual  “dour warning to us all”-“may we never see it again”-“Hitler and Stalin no more” guff. How many of them must have congratulated themselves and their diligent leaders when 1984 passed by without anti-democratic upheaval or fascistic incident. Apparently so long as men in brown shirts aren’t marching down the street, or our own ideas of bourgeois individualism aren’t being immediately threatened, then we will never see the likes of 1984 again. We don’t live in a totalitarian world, I mean, nobody’s dying are they?

The problem is, people are dying, and every day. Sheikh Mohammed isn’t dead yet (if found guilty of his alleged charges, he will be punished with death), but I bet part of him wishes he was. We won’t see a Big Brother government in the West because totalitarianism has changed face.

He bloody is like

Orwell’s totalitarian imagination is distinctly Soviet, albeit with a science fiction twist with telescreens and surveillance drones. But the torture Winston suffers in the Ministry of Love and in Room 101 is resolutely modern – fierce physical abuse, then electroshock and mind-bending cocktails of drugs and psychology. Sheikh Mohammed surely encountered all of this in his very own flying invisible Room 101. But after 1984, totalitarian power got wise. It shaved its nose to save its face, and took the lot with it.

Most of all, it got American.

The Second World War notoriously changed the world order. The Nazis got a good lickin’ and the Soviets and Americans came up trumps for it. The Cold War started and so did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Along with a long (often unacknowledged) history of American “exceptionalism”, crude imperialism masquerading as humanitarianism, there’s not much else you really need to know. With the CIA, and a host of rather less secretive economic policies, began the grand American campaign to make the world in its own image. Like a god high on its own warmongering, interrogative LSD and bloodlust, it has forcefully deposed 50 governments and crushed around 30 liberation movements across the world.

If Iraq wasn’t the icing on the bloodied cake, there’s Pinochet (and our former PM thanking him “for bringing democracy to Chile”, at the pithy expense of at least 6000 lives), the blood-matted and burned hands of Victor Jara in Santiago’s El Estadio Chile, killed by murder squads for singing troublesome folk songs; drug trafficking to support the arms trade of perpetual war; MK-Ultra [hyperlink: Wikipedia]; countless, countless deaths of innocent civilians, enemies or those guilty of the crime of leftism; and a list of crimes so abhorrent that it puts almost any world dictator to shame. “Though they murdered six million/ In the ovens they fried”, but did Hitler and the Germans have America on their side?

Operation Paperclip: 104 former-Nazi rocket scientists at Fort Bliss, TX; men who worked on V2-Rocket technology during the war. Some of these men were also involved in human experiments on Jewish guinea pigs in concentration camps, and employed Jewish slave labour at V2 facilities in Germany

And yet few people in the media seem all that bothered. As Harold Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech in 2005:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

But how?

After all this, surely the question being asked would surely be: “How is America’s list of atrocities and international conduct since 1945 (and certainly before that) not better known? Better known, or acted on?” The information is readily available. You can find it almost comically juxtaposed between World War Two and Flags of Africa on Wikipedia. Stephen Merchant’s even narrated a television history of the CIA’s international exploits before. Stephen Merchant, with his soft Midlands twang, expert writer of British tragicomedy, telling of attempts on Castro’s life and oh wait did you know they put poison in his cigars heigh-ho? The absurdity is just too good.

But the problem does not immediately lie in apathy or ignorance. Of course there should be more of an impetus in the media to make readers aware of the past. But some of these pithy journalists and television producers seem to treat the mad-cap exploits of the CIA as some kind of black joke. It’s funny how much they take the piss, isn’t it? But who’s laughing? It’s the kind of “witty” joke that keeps on giving. We become so comfortably desensitised to the facts that they no longer matter at all.

But when these journalists aren’t giving us all a good laugh, they appear to employ some kind of weird historical disconnect between (let’s say) arming the Contras and Abu Ghraib. Donald Rumsfeld said events at Abu Ghraib were “un-American. And […] inconsistent with the values of our nation”. You believe that, write it in your newspaper, your readers believe it. Everyone’s happy. But consider Rumsfeld’s comment alongside the Contras in Nicaragua and you soon get the different, truer picture. America funded the Contras as a corrective force against the democratically elected (and fatally, democratic) government of the Sandinistas. The Sandinistas had deposed the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and introduced unprecedented social policies; providing free health care and education to the Nicaraguan people. But rather than go into the history, I’ll quote another passage (and another from Pinter’s Nobel speech) to illustrate the point.

Here Pinter recalls a meeting in the US Embassy in London in the late-80s, when a Father John Metcalf spoke up against the leader of the US representation there, Raymond Seitz (later ambassador). According to Pinter, Metcalf said the following:

Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.

Ronald Reagan said around the same time that these very same Contras were “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers”.

I’d more than hesitate to line up with the blind and sacrosanct treatment of those much-misrepresented men of the Enlightenment. The Founding Fathers have come to be regarded as unreservedly good as Winston Churchill is in this country, a quick exemplum of honest and democratic leadership that Bill O’Reilly and the other D-Day-nik historians smile upon and now their readers and viewers agree. God we love our country. But there seems to be some kind of problem. A niggling, irritating little problem – may be – in even daring to be so far-gone west as to favourably compare the men who founded the principles of, and produced, the constitution of the United States with the right-wing Contra death squads of Nicaragua. This isn’t one of those little mistakes your speech-writer gets sacked for. Like Pinter said, it is “brilliant, even witty” to claim to be one thing, then be another – even more so to actually tell the world and not have to worry about any kind of repercussion because you know you’re so bloody untouchable.

Because if that was the case then the tortures at Abu Ghraib weren’t “un-American”, they weren’t “American” enough.

But this won’t stand anymore.

The real problem facing us here is totalitarianism. The “invisible government” of the new totalitarianism is difficult to challenge precisely because it is faceless. How do we oppose the CIA when their operatives are safely pixelated or code-named into secrecy and out of harm’s way? When Julian Assange tells that, through the documentary evidence acquired by Wikileaks, he is witnessing a complex and sophisticated system linking Western military-industrial complexes with foreign dictatorships, arms dealers and bank accounts in Columbia and beyond, where do we begin? Is there any change we can believe in? After all, one of the more enduring disappointments of Obama is that he, the first African-American President of the United States, the first president with a black face, has himself become faceless, melted amidst the mechanical blood and whitened raw sinew of Western democratic oppression.

There’s the mammoth task of combating the incredibly sophisticated and well-oiled American propaganda machine, which extends far beyond the Pentagon and into our homes and newspapers and heads. This does not just mean resistance, but an end to the journalistic complicity in government policy that often prevails in Western news reporting, as John Pilger brilliantly laid out in his recent ITV documentary, The War You Don’t See.

Cynicism and intellectual interrogation should face every body count, press release and military announcement. Don’t be fooled. Your government is not acting in your best interests. It does not have a long history of democratic values and tradition. And it does not want you to know this.

So where do we begin? WikiLeaks can help, so can journalists. With this knowledge will come other, better things.

Postcript: Men Who Actually Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats, the film “inspired” by (and largely ripped from) Jon Ronson’s book of the same title, was released in 2009. It boasted a big cast (Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Ewan McGregor), its patrons included BBC Films, and it was nominated for the Empire Awards’ Best Comedy award in 2010. The film also happens to be dogshit, and I’m yet to speak to someone who disagrees.


The film focuses on the “stupidity” of the First Earth Battalion, a secretive Psy-Ops group that gained some recognition in the American intelligence underground in the years following Vietnam. It presents the Battalion as a group of wistful and humorously misguided Vietnam vets and military-industrial complex “hippies”, New Age interventionists armed with “sparkly eyes” and the ability to “burst clouds”. Jeff Bridges, playing a corresponding composite-character version of Jim Channon, First Earth’s founder, is well done – I’m a sucker for the old fella after all (Bridges, not Channon) – but after reading Ronson’s book, you come to realise the film itself isn’t so well done after all.

There is some truth to how the film presents the First Earth Battalion. Men did “burst clouds” to keep in psychic shape, and Guy Savelli, now a martial arts teacher in Florida, claims to have once stopped the heart of a live goat by staring at it. All fun and games with those cheeky Americans ey?

The film actually does a half-decent job at making a joke of it all, and hints at the darker, more modern applications. But when you read Ronson’s book and realise how much darker these more modern applications are then you’re left wondering what the filmmakers (director, Grant Heslov; writer, Peter Straughan) were really hoping to achieve.

Consider this. Jamal al-Harith, from Manchester, visited Quetta in Pakistan in October 2001. Quetta is near the Afghanistan border, and when the American bombing started, al-Harith tried to flee for Turkey, only to find himself in Afghanistan. Supporters of the Taliban had arrested him as a suspected British spy and threw him in prison. By the by, al-Harith was freed and waiting in Kandahar for the British Embassy to organise his journey home to Manchester, when the Americans “kidnapped” him and sent him to Guantanamo Bay. He needed “administrative processing”, apparently.

Al-Harith was incarcerated in Cuba for two years. During that time he suffered some of the neo-medieval horror stories you’d expect – “He said they beat him with batons, pepper-sprayed him and kept him inside a cage that was open to the elements” – but he also witnessed rather more niche abuses of power. Supposedly prostitutes were brought in from the US to, well, fuck about with Muslim men being detained there. What was the aim? Sexual temptation? A crisis of religious conscience? “Just messing about with their genitals”, said Jamal.

But alongside this, al-Harith encountered a far more invisible kind of torture, so invisible that it is still unclear what the Americans were actually doing to him.

Industrial noise and various types of music have been a fixture of Western war, torture and interrogation for years now. There was the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ in Vietnam, used as both a call to arms and a real freak-out to drop on the Vietnamese below, along with all the napalm and Agent Orange. Barney the Dinosaur’s ‘I Love You’ was also used in interrogation/torture in Iraq after the invasion. But not for Jamal. As Ronson plainly recounts: “A Military Intelligence officer brought a ghetto blaster into his room. He put it on the floor in the corner. He said, ‘Here’s a great girl-band doing Fleetwood Mac songs’”. And so it was for Jamal. If he didn’t love America now, he would never love America again, I suppose.

The theory is that this here intelligence officer was exposing al-Harith to subliminal (or “silent”) sounds; orders, commands and statements somehow layered beneath seemingly inoffensive music. If this is true, (we already know the Soviets used similar techniques to prepare their soldiers for battle in Afghanistan in the Eighties: “Don’t wah-wah get drunk bumpty-bum before battle”), then where are we up to?

Not a million miles from 1984 it seems. This is subliminal sound. It is not just the power of suggestion in an advertisement for a cleaning product, or the propagandist case for bomb-dropping; but the psychological manipulation of free thought. I don’t suppose it really matters whether it works or not, it’s enough to know that the American military is using it. Telescreens and thought-crimes seem that little bit closer now, don’t they? – because they’re already here.

Posted in: Politics