One of the drawbacks with war is that it can be awfully violent. And that’s how people get hurt.
Take the wartime experience of Army officer Bill Django. He parachuted into Vietnam one day with a squadron of greenhorns and before the guy had been on the ground for five minutes, blam! He gets shot in the chest. His unit was at least partly to blame: Instead of shooting a Vietcong fighter when they had the chance, the American soldiers fired over the guy’s head—not wanting to hurt him.
The experience wasn’t a total loss, though. During his near-death experience, Django sees a vision—an ethereal face wreathed in a mane of clouds.
“The gentleness is the strength,” the face tells him.
The vision inspired Django to create a quasi-legitimate organization within the army called the First Earth Battalion—a unit filled with psychically gifted soldiers. Its “warrior monks” traveled astrally, manipulated objects with their minds and danced with childlike exuberance. It was to be the future of warfare. It was to lead to a new age of psionics-wielding superspies capable of squelching conflict before it started. It was to be—
Oh, never mind. The government cut off funding before I could finish the sentence.
Fast-forward about 15 years. Bob Wilton, a down-on-his-luck reporter, decides to get over personal heartache by covering the Iraq War. Just one problem: No one will actually let him into the country. So he sits in Kuwait City, cooling his jets by the pool, listening enviously as other journalists swap war stories while he doodles in his notepad.
One night, out of desperation or boredom, Bob strikes up a conversation with a guy named Skip—supposedly a contractor heading into Iraq to do some business. But when Bob catches a glimpse of Skip’s nametag, he sees that it reads “Lyn Cassady.” The name is somehow familiar to Bob. Isn’t it connected to a story some crackpot told? About how they were both, like, “psychic spies” for some hush-hush government program?
Bob mentions the crackpot’s name and before you can bend a spoon with a flick of your brain, Skip skitters away from the table, leading Bob back to his hotel room. There, Skip makes a stunning revelation: He is a top-secret, psychic supersoldier, able to cook food with what looks like a traffic cone, maim enemies with an odd piece of plastic, manipulate people’s minds and, should the urge take him, walk through walls.
“You’ve got superpowers?” Bob asks, by way of confirmation.
“That’s correct,” Skip says. And he says it with such conviction you almost believe him.
Bill Django formed the First Earth Battalion with the best of intentions: He wanted to make the Army both more effective and less combative, and he believed that his off-kilter soldiers were the key. He envisioned they’d be sent to hot spots around the globe where they’d change the psychic energy through a host of superpsychic means.
“We’re a force of peace, not war,” Skip explains to Bob. Because Skip still believes in its ideals and considers himself a soldier—even though he left the battalion itself when the leadership made him kill a goat with his brain. (See, now you’re beginning to understand the movie’s title a little better.) He’s a compassionate, confident soul who does his best to protect Bob, accomplish his loosely defined “mission” and present himself as a model American to the friendly Iraqis he runs across. Granted, he runs over one accidentally, but he apologized for that.
The First Earth Battalion is predicated on a great deal of vaguely spiritual, new age philosophy—so much so that one of the battalion’s daily rituals appears to be paying homage to the Earth Mother: “I pray my boots will always kiss your face,” goes the incantation. One soldier performs a Sioux dance to the sun, and the battalion’s symbol is the mystical eye-in-pyramid you can see on the back of every U.S. dollar bill.
Skip seems to believe in destiny, telling Bob that Gandhi never would’ve become a stock car driver—even if that’s what he really, really wanted to do. The First Earth Battalion’s manual lists Jesus Christ, Lao Tse Tung (the father of Taoism) and Walt Disney as the world’s greatest spiritual leaders.
With derision, Skip mentions that one of his comrades focused his psychic energy by reciting Bible verses.
While researching techniques for the new battalion, Django takes part in some nude hot tub parties. (The camera spies a woman’s exposed breasts.) A naked soldier, high on LSD, walks through portions of Fort Bragg. (His backside is visible.) Skip and Bob stagger around in posterior-revealing hospital gowns.
Someone mentions that al-Qaeda has been experimenting with psychic warfare techniques, dropping leaflets over American positions that were intended to convince soldiers that their wives were “having sex with Bart Simpson and Burt Reynolds.” Bob’s wife leaves him for his editor. During an official inquiry into the First Earth Battalion, someone suggests that government money was spent procuring prostitutes—an allegation Django denies.
Despite Skip’s insistence that the First Earth Battalion was a peaceful force, the guy can be a pretty formidable opponent.
He demonstrates the use of a special First Earth instrument of terror—a small weapon that looks like a cross between a spatula and a bit of modern art—using it to slice, poke, slash, bruise and otherwise hurt Bob. He later throws Bob to the ground, demonstrating what would happen if someone tried to choke him. When Bob and Skip are captured by Iraqi thugs, Skip flies into action, using supersecret knife-fighting techniques (without the knife, oddly) so they can escape. He talks about stabbing someone in the neck with a pen and, as I’ve mentioned, mistakenly runs over a fleeing Iraqi civilian.
He can apparently stop a goat’s heart by merely concentrating on making it happen—an act for which he feels great remorse. We see the goat chewing, stop for a moment and then fall limply to the ground. Other “animal atrocities” involve hamsters and kittens.
But as dangerous as Skip may be, he’s no match for the “dim mach,” or death touch, as it’s sometimes called. One of Skip’s rivals hit him with the death touch several years ago, and he believes it gave him cancer.
A soldier earns a measure of renown for being able to lift sandbags tied to his testicles. (We see the sandbags and the accompanying grimace.) Bob and his editor physically fight over Bob’s wife. A man has a massive coronary at work: We watch him keel over, hitting his head on his desk.
A car runs over an explosive device and flips. Django gets shot during a battle. A soldier commits suicide. Another man threatens to do so. A pair of rival Blackwater-style security squadrons engage in a massive shootout—which, we learn later, results in around a dozen casualties, mostly Iraqi bystanders.
Close to 30 f-words and 15 s-words. Jesus’ name is abused more than a dozen times. God’s name is misused a few times, once with the word “d‑‑n.” Milder profanities include “h‑‑‑,” “b‑‑tard” and “b‑‑ch.”
The First Earth Battalion relies in part on the liberal use of drugs to further its goals. New recruits are put on a regimen of amphetamines. And when one ambitious First Earther decides LSD might be a key ingredient to boost his psychic abilities, he tests the drug on a human volunteer with disastrous consequences: The drugged up soldier goes crazy and strides out naked to Fort Bragg’s marching grounds, firing a pistol indiscriminately. When Django tries to get the guy to give up his gun, the man instead points it at his own head and pulls the trigger, killing himself. During a subsequent hearing, someone asserts that Django used government funds to buy drugs for him and his men. Django does not deny it.
Skip perhaps never shook the drug habit from his First Earth days. Or maybe much of what we see him take are drugs meant to battle the cancer ravaging his body. The reality’s a bit unclear, and it’s further muddied by him telling Bob they’re steroids.
Oxymoronically, Skip tells Bob that drinking helped focus his mind when he was called on to do psychic work. Other characters smoke cigars and drink wine and liquor.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a rare comedy with, um, high ambition—in two senses of the word.
The quirky premise (which we’re told is based at least partly in fact) seems a rich mine for satire, spoof and slapstick. And, at times, it pays off. But ultimately the film leads us to a realm perhaps not entirely unexpected: The well-worn druggie comedy.
Stumbling upon a secret psychic military base in the middle of Iraq, Bob and Skip reunite with Django—now a dispirited government lackey in uncomfortable cahoots with the “dark side” of psychic research. The base is all about defeating the “enemy” with psychic abilities—including psychological warfare. Prisoners are forced to listen to Barney (the purple dinosaur) sing children’s songs over and over again. And dozens of goats are kept on hand, fodder, apparently, for the same heart-stopping research Skip participated in before he quit.
Seeing such psychic depravity at play, Django and Bob hatch a plan: They spike the base’s eggs and water with LSD, thereby making everyone high and allowing the goats—and prisoners—to escape.
Yay! The evil psychic military apparatus has been defeated! Those ’60s drug users really were right! Drug use makes everything better!
Well, except that both the goats and prisoners have nowhere to escape to but into the desert—by definition, a waterless expanse in which both people and goats typically die in short order unless they stumble across, say, a secret military base in the middle of it. In fact, Skip and Bob nearly died in that same desert a day or two before. Frankly, if I was one of the prisoners released, I’d take my chances with Barney.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that Django saw firsthand how crazy LSD can make a man. So why would he want to feed it to a whole bunch of soldiers—armed with not just pistols, but M-16s and tanks and perhaps nuclear bombs?
Django and Bob were, alas, not thinking very clearly when they hatched this “happy ending” plot, and the same can be said for this film. The Men Who Stare at Goats, ethically speaking, winds up being pretty baaaaaaad.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.