Battlefield Beyond

It's Strange But True. Maryland Played A Role In The Events That Inspired The Military Satire 'Men Who Stare At Goats'

November 01, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

The makers of "The Men Who Stare At Goats" have planted this epigraph before the movie: "More of this is true than you would believe." But I heard one young man emerging from a preview saying, "I don't think any of this is true."

After all, who in their right mind would buy a story about a visionary Army officer embracing Eastern martial arts and West Coast encounter sessions, then recruiting new American fighting men who would "fall in love with everyone," "sense plant auras," "attain the power to pass through objects such as walls," "have out-of-body experiences" and "be able to hear and see other people's thoughts"?

And who could accept that this battalion employed psychic powers to locate a hostage halfway around the world - and to stop the heart of a goat?

But that visionary, Bill Django, played by Jeff Bridges, is based on a real man, Jim Channon, who did his military-intelligence training at Fort Holabird in Baltimore County (and lived at the Colony in Towson when he was doing it). In the 1970s and 1980s, he did engage commanding officers and fellow members of the think tank Task Force Delta in his dream of transforming the military into a holistic band of brothers. They rewarded him by reading him official orders to become commander of the First Earth Battalion.

Of course, this battalion (in the film, the New Earth Army) was a mind-expanding network, not a formal fighting group, with no set address except Task Force Delta and maybe Mother Earth. Its members were among the first on the planet to keep in touch through e-mail

And many of the exploits that the filmmakers ascribe to Channon's troops were done just a few miles from Baltimore, at Fort Meade. The site was two crumbling barracks belonging to a Defense Intelligence Agency unit devoted to "remote viewing" - the term for envisioning an unseen target using extra-sensory perception. Dale Graff, a sometime-Marylander who now lives in Hamburg, Pa., directed the program and gave it an enduring name: "Stargate."

Channon's goal was to re-imagine the American soldier as a "warrior monk" - equally deft at war and peace, destruction and healing. Graff aimed to pursue untapped powers of perception while locating Cold War targets or drug smugglers through Stargate members' super-intuitions.

Both men have healthy appetites for humor and similar mixed feelings for the movie. On the phone from Hawaii, Channon says it's only "one-third accurate." But he salutes the moviemakers because "it's really hard in the modern world of the trivia hairball to get anything important out to the public ... and they have made it so the paranormal doesn't seem like witchcraft."

As a man with a talent for seeing a few days into the future, Graff, a subtle joker, wrote these words before he saw the movie: "I laughed at the ridiculous antics of the characters. ... [But] while we laugh, are we not also acknowledging something hidden within ourselves that can be uncovered?" Afterward, he considered his pre-review pretty accurate.

The film's surefire, black-comic attention-getter is the scene of a New Earth soldier named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), under duress, focusing a high-energy glare on a still, silent goat - and killing it.

But the best sources believe that in real life, no kind of psychic projection leveled the animal. John Alexander, Channon's close friend and one of the models for Clooney's character, says that what felled the goat was "dim mak, a relatively obscure martial arts skill known in English as the death touch." On the phone from Las Vegas, where he lives, Alexander asks, "Have you ever seen a bullet wound in a body? You see not just a hole but a path of radiating energy. I saw the photos of the necropsy of that goat. And there was a similar path of energy across the chest - except there was no exit or entrance wound."

Alexander objects to the way Jon Ronson's book and Peter Straughan's screenplay erroneously connect this action to Channon's group and obscure the serious point behind the episode. An American army hero named Col. Nick Rowe explored the death touch - a light touch, not a heavy blow - as a method that hostages or POWs could use after days or weeks of physical weakening in captivity.

But Channon and Graff praise the movie for continually pushing its audience to think outside the banker's box of the traditional military-industrial complex.

Graff might practice precognition, but when he watched the film last week in Baltimore, he felt something else: "deja vu." Graff says the film gets several anecdotes dead right. The psychic who stops a hamster dead in its tracks - or, rather, stops it dead before it even hits the tracks of its rotating wheel?

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