Goat Song

One of the most interesting journalists working today is Jon Ronson, whose book Them and TV series The Secret Rulers of the World brought readers and viewers close-up with some of the most manically ingenious and alarming conspiracy-mongers and fanatics around today. Now his original and consistently left-field analysis turns to prisoner abuse in Iraq. This is from The Men Who Stare at Goats, as extracted in The Guardian in two parts (one, two):

And so, in 1977, [Lieutenant Colonel] Jim [Channon] wrote to the vice chief of staff for the army in the Pentagon, saying he wanted the army to learn how to be more cunning. He wanted to go on a fact-finding mission. The Pentagon agreed to pay Jim’s salary and expenses.

…He returned from his journey in 1979 and produced what he called First Earth Battalion Operations Manual [see here]…The new battlefield uniform would include pouches for ginseng regulators, divining tools, foodstuffs to enhance night vision and a loudspeaker that would automatically emit “indigenous music and words of peace”.

There was, Jim accepted, a possibility that these measures might not be enough to pacify an enemy. In that eventuality, the loudspeakers attached to the uniforms would be switched to broadcast “discordant sounds”. Bigger loudspeakers would be mounted on military vehicles, each playing acid rock music out of synch with the other to confuse the enemy…

It turned out that songs blasted at prisoners [at al-Qa’im] included the soundtrack to the movie XXX; a song that went “Burn Motherfucker Burn”; and, rather more surprisingly, the I Love You song from Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s show, along with songs from Sesame Street…I had no doubt that the notion of using music as a form of mental torture had been popularised and perfected within the military as a distortion of Jim’s manual…

“So the idea of blasting prisoners with loud music,” I said, “definitely originated with the First Earth Battalion?”

“Definitely,” said [Major General Albert Stubblebine III, a parapsychology enthusiast and one-time commander of the Military Intelligence unit Lynndie England claimed to have been taking orders from]. “No question. So did the frequencies.” Frequencies, he said, dis-equilibrate people. “There’s all kinds of things you can do with the frequencies. Jesus, you can take a frequency and make a guy have diarrhoea, make a guy sick to the stomach. I don’t understand why they even had to do this crap you saw in the photographs. They should have just blasted them with frequencies!”

Ronson discusses the possible part played by PsyOps at Abu Ghraib, and concludes:

…Perhaps this is the way it happened: in the late 1970s Jim Channon, traumatised from Vietnam, sought solace in the emerging human potential movement of California. He took his ideas back into the army and they struck a chord with the top brass who had never before seen themselves as New Age, but in their post-Vietnam funk it all made sense to them. Then, over the decades that followed, the army, being what it is, recovered its strength and saw that some of the ideas contained within Jim’s manual could be used to shatter people rather than heal them. Those are the ideas that live on in the war on terror

OK, but it would have been more impressive had Ronson’s sources not mostly been obvious crackpots (an impression strengthened by internet searches) or people trying to evade responsbility. There is an interesting interview with a pseudonymous ex-night guard from Abu Ghraib, now under threat of court martial:

You ever see The Shining?…Abu Ghraib was like the Overlook Hotel…It was haunted…It got so dark at night. So dark. Under Saddam, people were dissolved in acid there. Women raped by dogs. Brains splattered all over the walls. This was worse than the Overlook Hotel because it was real. It was like the building wanted to be back in business…Yeah, the beast in man really came out at Abu Ghraib…There was a darkness about the place.

Perhaps, but I suppose someone trying simultaneously to rationalise and mystify their involvement in war crimes would say that, wouldn’t they?