Caution: Major spoilers ahead.
While The Men Who Stare at Goats is by no means an animal rights or overtly anti-vivisection movie, it does (happily!) have a few animal-friendly moments.
Based on a 2004 book of the same name by journalist Jon Ronson, the film is a dramatized account of Ronson’s investigation into “psychic” warfare experiments conducted by the U.S. military in the ’70s and ’80s. Ostensibly a story for the skeptic set (indeed, that’s why the husband and I saw it in the theater), the film also at turns sentimentalizes the “free love,” hippie sensibilities and mysticism of the ’60s and ’70s. (Indeed, it concludes on a disappointingly “anything is possible if you believe” note.)
Anyhow, along with all the “flower power” comes not a little tree- and animal-hugging. Goat-hugging, to be more specific: because the army’s more “practical” experiments involve trauma training carried out on live animals, the medical school’s in-house goats also play a role in the aforementioned psychic experimentation – the purposes of which isn’t nearly as sadistic as the trailers let on.
Lest I get ahead of myself, here’s a brief synopsis, via Wiki:
The film follows Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), who one day interviews Gus Lacey, a man who claims to have psychic abilities. Bob shrugs Lacey off as crazy. Soon after, Bob’s wife leaves him for his one-armed editor. Bob, out of anger, flies to Kuwait to investigate the Iraq War. However, he stumbles onto the story of a lifetime when he meets Special Forces operator, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Lyn reveals that he was part of an American army unit training psychic spies (or “Jedi Warriors”), trained to develop a range of parapsychological skills including invisibility, remote viewing, cloud bursting, walking through walls, and intuition.
The founder of this unit, Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), traveled across America in the 1970s for six years exploring a range of New Age movements (including the Human potential movement), because of a vision he received after getting shot during the Vietnam War, and used these experiences to found the New Earth Army. In the 1980s, two of Django’s best recruits were Lyn Cassady and Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), who developed a lifelong rivalry because of their opposing views of how to implement the New Earth Army philosophy; Lyn wanted to emphasize the positive side of the teachings, whereas Larry was more interested in the dark side of the philosophy.
In the early 2000s Bob and Lyn embark on a new mission in Iraq, where they are kidnapped by a criminal gang. They escape with fellow kidnapping victim Mahmud Daash (Waleed Zuaiter) and get rescued by a private security firm led by Todd Nixon (Robert Patrick), but get caught up in a firefight between Todd’s security firm and a rival security firm; this would later be known as the “Battle of Ramadi.” Mahmud, Bob and Lyn escape from the firefight and go to Mahmud’s house, which has been shot up by soldiers. From there Bob and Lyn leave to continue on Lyn’s vague mission involving a vision he had of Bill Django.
Here it’s worth noting that Cassady recounts the story of Django and the New Earth Army as his Iraqi adventure with Wilton unfolds in parallel. Both tales begin on a light, humorous note, eventually taking turns for the worse. While the trailers and media interviews done in promotion of the movie tend to emphasize the New Earth Army’s more nefarious projects, Django began the program with the best of intentions: namely, achieving world peace through love and understanding. A laudable goal, to be sure – even if its implementation proved somewhat ridiculous.
However, Hooper eventually betrays Django, assuming control of the New Earth Army in order to corrupt it. (Think of Django as Obi-Wan Kenobi to Cassady’s Luke Sywalker and Hooper’s Darth Vader.) The peace, love and understanding of Django’s ’60s and ’70s give way to the greed, militarization and subjugation of – what? The Reagen ’80s? The Clinton ’90s? The Bush ’00s? All of the above? Take your pick! (The Men Who Stare at Goats is, if not anti-war, at least anti-torture.)
Point being, the original recruits to the New Earthy Army enlisted in order to make love – not war. Whereas the The Men Who Stare at Goats advertising blitz paints the New Earth Army soldiers as hyper-masculine parodies of military men, bent on defeating – nay, annihilating! – the enemy through mind control and super-scary bio-psychic combat, the program’s impetus was the polar opposite of this. The operation’s very name – the New Earth Army – is indicative of this “higher calling.”
The struggle between the Light and Dark sides is perhaps most eloquently played out on the body of a goat. After Django’s departure from the military, Hooper is placed in command of the New Earth Army. Under Hooper’s orders, Cassady reluctantly “stares” one of the goats from the trauma lab “to death” – supposedly, he makes her heart explode with his mind. (Groovy, man!) In retelling his story to Wilton, Cassady points to the goat’s needless death as the moment the New Earth Army fell to the Dark Side. Memories of “murdering” the goat evoke feelings of shame and guilt in Cassady. The goat didn’t need to die; she was an innocent. In killing her, Cassady abused his power and violated the tenants of the New Earth Army.
I filed this post under “Intersections” because of the linkages drawn here: the goat’s murder sets off a chain reaction that leads to the abuse, oppression and torture of countless “others” – many of them human. Violence begets violence.
This is only one of two goat-hugging scenes, however. As you were, Wiki:
After their car hits an IED, Bob and Lyn wander in the desert where Lyn reveals a terrible secret to Bob: Lyn was asked to stop a goat’s heart to test the limit of his mental abilities. Lyn had decided against it, but was compelled to try to accomplish the feat and stared at the goat intently. Lyn managed to stop the goat’s heart, but felt that what he did was inhumane and against the entire purpose of the New Earth Army. Lyn left the Army, believing that he and the other New Earth soldiers were cursed and his powers were gone because of that fateful episode. After spending a few days in the desert, Bob and Lyn get rescued and rehabilitated at a camp run by PSIC, a private research firm engaged in psychological and psychic experiments on a herd of goats and some captured locals. To Lyn’s dismay, Larry Hooper runs the firm and employs a now depressed and alcoholic Django.
Bob spends time with Django and learns the ways of the New Earth Army and together they spike the water and food of the base with LSD and free both the goats and captured locals. Following this, Lyn and Django fly off in a Bell JetRanger helicopter, but not before trusting Bob with the duty of making sure his story reaches the public. Bob reveals that neither Lyn nor Django were ever heard from again, believed to have crashed their helicopter.
The audience realizes that Hooper has graduated to human test subjects when Wilton stumbles upon back rooms filled with imprisoned Middle Eastern men. (Unlike the Wiki reviewer, I read them as suspected “terrorists” whose torture was sanctioned by the U.S. military, as opposed to kidnapped locals. Not this this is any better, mind you.) Inside the tiny, barren cells, the men are exposed to a seemingly never-ending loop of violent audiovisual imagery; the experiments appear to involve sleep deprivation and/or sensory over-stimulation of some sort. (Similar to the brainwashing/torture Benjamin Linus visited upon his daughter’s boyfriend Karl in Lost; see Season 3, Episode 7 – Not in Portland. February, you cannot get here soon enough!)
Naturally, both Wilton and Cassady are horrified at this turn of events, not to mention Django’s cooptation by the enemy. High on LSD, they free Hooper’s prisoners – humans and nonhumans alike. While this scene is a bit melodramatic, I couldn’t help but get a little choked up at the liberation of the goats. Sure, the goats were perhaps an afterthought – but at least they were, in the end, deserving of moral consideration.
Before closing this review out, I should add that the animal labs are one aspect of the story that isn’t made up. The U.S. military has a long history of vivisecting nonhuman animals; they still do so, in fact.
As much as I hate linking to PETA:
Every year, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) conducts trauma and chemical-casualty training exercises in which animals are used as “stand-ins” for wounded soldiers. Medical officers at military installations across the nation critically injure thousands of live animals before killing them. In trauma training exercises, live pigs are shot, stabbed, and set on fire and live goats have their legs broken with bolt cutters and cut off with shears. During chemical-casualty training exercises, live monkeys are poisoned with harmful chemicals. These animals are also often forced to suffer through hellish conditions as they are transported to facilities for this training.
The DoD is putting soldiers’ lives at risk by using animals in these experiments. The anatomies and physiologies of pigs, goats, and monkeys are drastically different than those of humans; therefore, these animals will respond differently to treatments than humans would.
There are numerous non-animal training methods available, including rotations in civilian trauma centers; the Combat Trauma Patient Simulation system (CTPS); the Simulab Corporation’s TraumaMan system; and Dr. Emad Aboud’s “living” cadaver model, which Dr. Aboud has personally demonstrated for the Army.
Neither the Air Force Expeditionary Medical Skills Institute’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills nor the Navy Trauma Training Center use animals for trauma training—more proof that it is not necessary to use animals in order to teach these treatment skills.
While pigs seem to be the most common victims today, they’re merely the “new goats”; in this vein, then, The Men Who Stare at Goats is spot-on. When we’re first introduced to the goats, a soldier from the animals lab says ruefully, “We used to use dogs, but you try shooting a dog while he’s licking your hand.” Cut to crazy adorable footage of an oversized puppy giving doggy kisses to a manly man soldier wielding a comically large (in comparison to the pup) gun, his eyes welling with tears. The audience is meant to laugh, but the fact remains: pigs are as intelligent as dogs (if not more so), and are quite dog-like in their behavior (as anyone who’s been following the happy tails of Izzy and Morty knows). Besides, be she dog, pig, goat, cow, chicken or girl, all animals are alike in every way that matters: all share the ability to think, feel, bond, relate – and suffer. Trauma training on a pig is no better and no worse than that on a goat, puppy or person.
For more on the military’s use and abuse on nonhuman animals – including opportunities to take action – see:
PETA: Trauma Training 101, including this action alert: Tell Congress to End Military Trauma Training on Animals
The Petition Site: Ban Military Trauma Exercises on Animals
Finally – and just because, as y’all no doubt are already aware, I have a raging hard-on for everything The Colbert Report – here are a few segments Stephen did on the (fluffyfunpsychic) goat labs back in September.
Videos in this post
‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ Trailer HD
The story of a secret unit within the US Army called the First Earth Battalion, whose paranormal military ideas mutated over the decades to influence interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay.
The Colbert Report, Thursday, September 17, 2009 – Goat Lab
Stephen resurrects the U.S. military technique of staring at a goat to make its heart explode. (03:35)
The Colbert Report, Thursday, September 17, 2009 – Goat Lab – Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson explains why the U.S. military trained soldiers to use sparkly eyes on the enemy and kill goats with their minds. (04:24)
Tagged: animals animal rights animal welfare action alerts vivisection animal experimentation animal labs animal research animal testing trauma labs goats pigs dogs monkeys dod the men who stare at goats george clooney trailer video the colbert report stephen colbert comedy central the military the army peta hsus kinship circle jon ronson flower power the ’60s mind control psychic warfare review pop culture movies