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The man who didn't really stare at goats


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POSTED: Sunday, November 15, 2009

The American army's battered disillusionment with Vietnam was still some years away when Lt. Jim Channon arrived there in the mid-1960s. Almost immediately there was a firefight involving dozens of GIs blazing away at a single Vietcong ... and missing. Missing wildly, too.

“;We discovered that most soldiers simply don't want to shoot somebody,”; recalled Channon. “;So they shot high most times.”;

The result was poor fire discipline, collateral damage and unintended casualties. And inefficiency. So Channon began to lead his men in nonverbal ways, becoming so in tune with the environment that their senses began to reach out into the tree line, like a skilled hunter.

“;Some of our guys became really good at it, as if they could see around corners,”; said Channon by phone from the Big Island. “;Some became skilled at other vibes, like picking up simple malevolence in the air.”;

Channon's introduction to Vietnam is “;one of the really accurate scenes”; in the new film “;The Men Who Stare at Goats,”; except that his name has been changed to Bill Django in the role played by Jeff Bridges.

Channon, now retired from the Army—although still on a kind of lecture retainer with them—lives in Hawi and took a bunch of buddies on a school bus to see the film. Hilarity ensued.

It's what happens after Vietnam where the film gets its frisson. Channon/Django in the 1970s was a California-based public-information officer and, “;bored as hell,”; began delving into the human-potential movement, trying everything from the mildly odd to the way-out-there wacky.

All of it taught him something about what it meant to a human being. Could these exercises help his fellow soldiers become more motivated and focused? “;I cruised them all, looking for excellence,”; he said.

He could not have chosen a better time. After Vietnam the Army reassessed its mission and became an open, creative organization, willing to try new things. Within reason.

When Channon staged a touchy-feely sensitivity consciousness-raising encounter for his fellow troops, he was hustled to the commanders' office the next morning. He waited outside the door and, hearing “;raucous voices”; raised within, mused on states of being actually being forms of swirling energy.

Channon was quick-marched into the commander's office. He figured he was fired. Instead, he was ordered to “;think the unthinkable,”; inducted into a mythical unit dubbed the “;First Earth Battalion”; and ordered to create a field manual codifying his human-potential experiments.

“;Oh boy!”; was his reaction. “;They've opened the box and lit the fuse!”;

THE BACK-STORY of “;The Men Who Stare at Goats”; is Channon/Django's mission to create a new kind of “;warrior monk”; combining the army's sense of mission and discipline with a keen sense of environmental consequence and mental training. Some of what Channon and his men conjured up is parodied in the film.

No, Channon did not stare at goats, but he knows soldiers who did. Other experiments became part of the army's psychic fabric, such as research into nonlethal weapons and the slogans “;Be All You Can Be”; and “;An Army of One,”; which are, frankly, rather Zen.

The movie uses the term “;Jedi warrior”; a lot, although the mystical concept didn't exist when Channon started the FEB.

“;We needed a super-soldier, by whatever means,”; said Channon. “;At that time the main enemy was the Soviet, and if they came pouring through the Fulda Gap, they had more tanks than we had soldiers. We needed any edge we could get.”;

This included research into the paranormal, including “;remote viewing,”; during which the subject's consciousness leaves his body to make a recon patrol elsewhere.

“;At the time, of course, what we'd like to have seen were the maps on the Kremlin wall!”; said Channon. He soon realized that the simplest form of remote viewing is having a disciplined imagination, determining everything that could happen to you a thousand yards ahead in the jungle. War-gaming helps refine the skill.

“;I saw it in Vietnam; some of the guys were really good at it,”; said Channon. “;You let your feet walk for you, your mind was up ahead, around the bend in the trail. Any good hunter knows it. It's situational awareness.”; He says he's known soldiers whose remote-viewing skills were remarkable, to the point of near magic.

Channon's own mystic power lay in his artistic skills. Able to clearly visualize situations in multiple dimensions, Channon boils it all down to breathtakingly complex illustrations that are easy to follow. His second career as a futurist often calls for him to do such detailed work.

OK, you're getting the point that Channon was unconventional in his approach to soldiering. In the movie, Django has a sloppy decline and is booted out of the Army, a plot point that puzzled Channon until he realized that the screenwriter was just setting up an artificial conflict in the third act.

ALTHOUGH CHANNON retired normally from the Army, he's still on call to the Pentagon, which has him leading seminars for groups for soldiers.

“;My orders are to 'clean off their hard drives,'”; explained Channon, “;to think in unconventional ways. Conflict today is completely unconventional, and you have to be mentally flexible. Thinking deeply together is so against the stereotype of the Army, but the Army wants me to help package these skills. We're going to need them.”;

Channon, a military brat whose father was an artilleryman, still believes the military is the best choice for preserving the planet and promoting peace. The current conflict, however, “;doesn't allow the army to slow down and take a breath. After you've been in a situation where mortars go off randomly around you, you never really go off alert, never stop taking care of those around you. You never shake off the duty monster.

“;And yes, the Army is the best service for this. The Army deals with a lot more chaos than the other services.”;

And how did his military buddies react to “;The Men Who Stare at Goats”; during the long ride home in the school bus?

“;Well,”; laughed Channon, “;there's nothing more honorable among studly men than a good roast!”;