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“If You Want to Change the World, Change the Armies.”

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I finally saw The Men Who Stare at Goats this weekend. A significant number of reviews from last year when it came out reference the epigram to the film, “More of this stuff is true than you think.” However in my mind, the most important quote in the film is the one in the title of this post.

If you try to read this film through any other lens – pacifism, war reporting, truth v. fiction re. the paranormal – it doesn’t work very well. That’s why a lot of reviewers either read the film as inept satire or as failed story-telling. But they don’t look closely at the two central questions driving the story: what constitutes just warriorhood, and can you incorporate an expansive view of just warriohood (one which includes respect for the planet) more fully into existing military institutions? In other words, how do you change armies in order to change (and maybe save) the world?

The first of these two themes is brought into sharp relief by the Jedi subtext associated with the New Earth Army. You can read its central feature as the use of psychic warfare or “Jedi mind-trick” mythology, but the Jedi language is also about something deeper: the just use of limited force in the service of peace, justice and (now) environmental security.

Read through this lens (as opposed to some decisive statement about the possibility of psychic warfare), the ending is much more satisfactory than many reviewers claim. To be a “super-soldier” is to walk the path of the just warrior, to be on the side of the innocent and vulnerable, and to be at one with the universe of which we are part.

And how do you change armies to this effect? For part of the genius of the story is in drawing out the contrast between these ideals and existing military culture. The film is a bit agnostic on this second point. So is the actual history on which it is based, which you can learn about by reading the book or watching the documentary. I leave it to readers to offer their thoughts about the take-home message there.

Lt. Col. James Channon, on whose career Jeff Bridges’ character in Goats is based, remains optimistic.

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  • Teri

    The link for the book is not working

  • P

    I understood the film differently; I saw a call-to-arms addressed to military whistle-blowers and investigative journalists willing to conduct meaningful research into military policy, conduct, culture, etc and to bring the results of such investigations to the public in pursuit of effectuating change–or, at least, making available important information which ordinarily remains secret or otherwise mystified. Hence McGregor’s final lines to the effect of “we need more Jedis,” and his concurrent success in passing through his office wall after putting his investigations and conclusions down on paper for dissemination. In this light, I found the movie carried a less-interesting and less-poignant theme than I’d hoped for, but still provided a cute, entertaining reminder of the importance of questioning, investigating, learning, and bringing important information forward to the public in an age of (often bizarre and horrendous) military and governmental secrecy and irresponsibility.

    • Warren Terra

      Of course, there is an open question of whether McGregor actually passes through the wall at the end of the film, or whether he has simply completed his journey to complete acceptance of the infectious madness offered by Clooney and Bridges and therefore wrongly believed that he’s passed through the wall and isn’t instead unconscious at the base of the wall he just collided with. Remember we’re seeing events from his point of view, and it’s not like anyone in the film is necessarily reliable.

      Keep in mind, while the New Earth Army was somewhat beautiful in their beliefs and goals and their search for national defense that didn’t hurt people, they were also completely nuts. A significant part of the investigative work that you rightly call for is into the sort of reality-denying nonsense that leads to cozening the New Earth Army, along with the far more dangerous reality-denying practice sthat underly our military’s spending untold billions on the pipe dreams offered by military contractors and theorists – various exploits of Edward Teller in his later days and much of the “Star Wars” program come immediately to mind. Not to mention Saddam’s fantasy WMDs, of course.

      • P

        Exactly.

  • Warren Terra

    I found the film to be enjoyable but mostly nonsense, and about equal in its indictment of the (beautiful) madness of the protagonists and the (brutal) madness of both their enablers and their persecutors among the military. Well, not equal, really – the killers were obviously worse. But neither side was fully likeable, or fully plausible (even the things that were based in any number of real events, like the trigger-happy mercenaries, had their plausibility diminished by the parade of absurdities that preceded and followed them).

    Mostly, I found that the actual insanity and absurdity of things that apparently did happen got lost and buried beneath the veneer of invented and charming madness, nonsense, and happenstance that were laid on by the writers and actors. I found myself wishing that instead of watching the film for an hour or two I’d spent an hour or two listening to Jon Ronson describing his experiences and his discoveries, the stuff he put in his nonfiction book that was heavily adapted for the film. For those not familiar with him, Ronson is a sort of one-man “This American Life”, except he’s British, and he produces about half a dozen half-hour documentaries for BBC Radio 4 every year that are worth listening to if you can find them.

    Of course, I could always buy his book and read it – but it’ll probably take longer than an hour or two, I’d miss Ronson’s skill as an audio performer and narrator, and I’ve got an unbelievable pile of books I’ve been meaning to read.

  • Mike D.

    “If you try to read this film through any other lens…”

    Is this a phraseoid that absolutely had to be written?

    • The beglassed part of the population actually does read through lenses, you know…

  • Halloween Jack

    I would completely welcome our New Jedi Overlords if they would only admit that the Sith are not only not necessarily evil, but also kind of cool.

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