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From New Age to Abu Ghraib

Lock and load your incense burners—a recent book unveils how the U.S. military has been taking cues from the human potential movement since the 1970s
by Maura R. O'Connor

Since its dawning nearly forty years ago, the New Age movement has manifested itself in all sorts of unusual ways, but none perhaps as bizarre and counterintuitive as the First Earth Battalion. Conceived in 1977 by a young Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, the First Earth Battalion was to become America’s second army—this one a peace-loving group of spiritually enlightened soldiers equipped with the best in technology and psychic powers. A few years earlier, Lt. Colonel Jim Channon had returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam depressed and acutely aware of the failures of the American military. “We suffered in Vietnam from not being cunning,” he told an interviewer. “We just presented ourselves in our righteousness, and we got our butts shot off.” Channon wrote to the vice chief of staff at the Pentagon asking permission to go on a “fact-finding mission,” and after clearance was granted, he began his research for the battalion. Traveling to the West Coast, he spent two years visiting over one hundred fifty New Age groups, futurists, psychotherapists, theologians, martial arts masters, and a “wide array of practitioners both Western and Eastern, ancient and modern, and orthodox and mystic.” Upon his return in 1979, Channon presented the results of his research to the Pentagon in the form of a 125-page manual replete with instructions, blueprints, diagrams, and illustrations for a new military, one that would absorb and implement every conceivable New Age technique and belief on a planetary scale. “It is America’s role,” he wrote, “to lead the world to paradise.”

The First Earth Battalion would be composed not of soldiers but of “aquarian warriors” and “evolutionaries.” “I see them,” Channon wrote, “as those who have soldier spirit within them. I see them come together in the name of people and planet to create a new environment of support for the earth mother. Their mission is to protect the possible and nurture the potential.” The First Earth Battalion would also include “guerilla gurus” to conduct “high consciousness commando raids” and would be capable of using “omni-directional thought” to implement “non-destructive methods of control” over the enemy. Intuition would be consulted first and foremost by battalion soldiers. A chapter on ethical combat describes uniforms that are colorful and functional so that the “individual will shine through the uniformity” and includes drawings of techno-savvy battle gear with pockets for “natural foods,” “ginseng regulators,” and “divining tools.” Alternating between military-speak and spiritual metaphysics, Channon’s manual predicts that the military will move out of its “cultural trance” in order to allow soldiers to “release . . . the force inside . . . for no other descriptions matter in the end. The Earth Battalion honors all paths to enlightenment.”

If you’re having a hard time taking Channon’s vision seriously, it may shock you to find out that the Pentagon did. In his recent book The Men Who Stare at Goats, British author Jon Ronson details how the principles and ideas of the First Earth Battalion—specifically psychic powers and nonlethal weaponry—were tested and implemented in oftentimes incredible ways within weeks of Channon’s initial presentation to top officials at the Pentagon. (Note the name of the book. According to Ronson, the military has had its own goat lab at Fort Bragg for the past twenty-five years where select soldiers have attempted to kill goats by staring at them. Reportedly, it has worked only once.) In his witty voice, Ronson also manages to ingeniously map how these ideas are at work today, albeit in very different guises from those that Jim Channon envisioned. The First Earth Battalion “struck a cord 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,” Ronson writes. “But 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.”

Among the techniques cited by Ronson that are currently being funded and researched by the military are acoustic weapons designed to create “nausea, loss of bowel, disorientation, vomiting”; Special Ops “psychic assassins”; and the Prophet Hologram. The Prophet Hologram is a “projection of the image of an ancient god over an enemy capital whose public communications have been seized and used against it in a massive psychological operation.” Perhaps Ronson’s most interesting insights concern the nonlethal methods of thought control and manipulation that he speculates have been tested in Guantanamo Bay as “Experimental Lab Mark I” and “were exported to Abu Ghraib.” It’s a strange but fascinating tale—from the human potential movement to some of the darkest moments in American military history taking place in the interrogation rooms of Iraq. And if you still can’t fathom the connection between the New Age and the U.S. military, just consider a recent BBC report citing U.S. Army research and development of a “Gay Bomb” in the early 1990s. “The plan for a so-called ‘love bomb,’” the BBC reported, “envisaged an aphrodisiac chemical that would provoke widespread homosexual behaviour among troops causing what the military called a ‘distasteful but completely non-lethal’ blow to morale.”


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