Read an Excerpt
This is a true story. It is the summer of 1983. Major General Albert Stubblebine III is sitting behind his desk in Arlington, Virginia, and he is staring at his wall, upon which hang his numerous military awards. They detail a long and distinguished career. He is the United States Army’s chief of intelligence, with sixteen thousand soldiers under his command. He controls the army’s signals intelligence, their photographic and technical intelligence, their numerous covert counterintelligence units, and their secret military spying units, which are scattered throughout the world. He would be in charge of the prisoner-of-war interrogations too, except this is 1983, and the war is cold, not hot.
He looks past his awards to the wall itself. There is something he feels he needs to do even though the thought of it frightens him. He thinks about the choice he has to make. He can stay in his office or he can go into the next office. That is his choice. And he has made it.
He is going into the next office.
General Stubblebine looks a lot like Lee Marvin. In fact, it is widely rumored throughout military intelligence that he is Lee Marvin’s identical twin. His face is craggy and unusually still, like an aerial photograph of some mountainous terrain taken from one of his spy planes. His eyes, forever darting around and full of kindness, seem to do the work for his whole face.
In fact he is not related to Lee Marvin at all. He likes the rumor because mystique can be beneficial to a career in intelligence. His job is to assess the intelligence gathered by his soldiers and pass his evaluations on to the deputy director of the CIA and the chief of staff for the army, who in turn pass it up to the White House. He commands soldiers in Panama, Japan, Hawaii, and across Europe. His responsibilities being what they are, he knows he ought to have his own man at his side in case anything goes wrong during his journey into the next office.
Even so, he doesn’t call for his assistant, Command Sergeant George Howell. This is something he feels he must do alone.
Am I ready? he thinks. Yes, I am ready.
He stands up, moves out from behind his desk, and begins to walk.
I mean, he thinks, what is the atom mostly made up of anyway? Space!
He quickens his pace.
What am I mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms!
He is almost at a jog now.
What is the wall mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms! All I have to do is merge the spaces. The wall is an illusion. What is destiny? Am I destined to stay in this room? Ha, no!
Then General Stubblebine bangs his nose hard on the wall of his office.
Damn, he thinks.
General Stubblebine is confounded by his continual failure to walk through his wall. What’s wrong with him that he can’t do it? Maybe there is simply too much in his in-tray for him to give it the requisite level of concentration. There is no doubt in his mind that the ability to pass through objects will one day be a common tool in the intelligence-gathering arsenal. And when that happens, well, is it too naive to believe it would herald the dawning of a world without war? Who would want to screw around with an army that could do that? General Stubblebine, like many of his contemporaries, is still extremely bruised by his memories of Vietnam.
These powers are attainable, so the only question is, by whom? Who in the military is already geared toward this kind of thing? Which section of the army is trained to operate at the peak of their physical and mental capabilities?
And then the answer comes to him.
This is why, in the late summer of 1983, General Stub-blebine flies down to Fort Bragg, in North Carolina.
Fort Bragg is vast—a town guarded by armed soldiers, with a mall, a cinema, restaurants, golf courses, hotels, swimming pools, riding stables, and accommodations for forty-five thousand soldiers and their families. The general drives past these places on his way to the Special Forces Command Center. This is not the kind of thing you take into the mess hall. This is for Special Forces and nobody else. Still, he’s afraid. What is he about to unleash?
In the Special Forces Command Center, the general decides to start soft. “I’m coming down here with an idea,” he begins.
The Special Forces commanders nod.
“If you have a unit operating outside the protection of mainline units, what happens if somebody gets hurt?” he says. “What happens if somebody gets wounded? How do you deal with that?”
He surveys the blank faces around the room.
“Psychic healing!” he says.
There is a silence.
“This is what we’re talking about,” says the general, pointing to his head. “If you use your mind to heal, you can probably come out with your whole team alive and intact. You won’t have to leave anyone behind.” He pauses, then adds, “Protect the unit structure by hands-off and hands-on healing!”
The Special Forces commanders don’t look particularly interested in psychic healing.
“Okay,” says General Stubblebine. The reception he’s getting is really quite chilly. “Wouldn’t it be a neat idea if you could teach somebody to do this?”
General Stubblebine rifles through his bag and produces, with a flourish, bent cutlery.
“What if you could do this?” says General Stubblebine. “Would you be interested?”
There is a silence.
General Stubblebine finds himself beginning to stammer a little. They’re looking at me as if I’m nuts, he thinks. I am not presenting this correctly.
He glances anxiously at the clock.
“Let’s talk about time!” he says. “What would happen if time is not an instant? What if time has an X-axis, a Y-axis, and a Z-axis? What if time is not a point but a space? At any particular time we can be anywhere in that space! Is the space confined to the ceiling of this room, or is the space twenty million miles?” The general laughs. “Physicists go nuts when I say this!”
Silence. He tries again.
“Animals!” says General Stubblebine.
The Special Forces commanders glance at one another.
“Stopping the hearts of animals,” he continues. “Bursting the hearts of animals. This is the idea I’m coming in with. You have access to animals, right?”
“Uh,” say Special Forces. “Not really …”
General Stubblebine’s trip to Fort Bragg was a disaster. It still makes him blush to recall it. He ended up taking early retirement in 1984. Now, the official history of army intelligence, as outlined in their press pack, basically skips the Stub-blebine years, 1981–84, almost as if they didn’t exist.
In fact, everything you have read so far has for the past two decades been a military intelligence secret. General Stub-blebine’s doomed attempt to walk through his wall and his seemingly futile journey to Fort Bragg remained undisclosed right up until the moment that he told me about them in room 403 of the Tarrytown Hilton, just north of New York City, on a cold winter’s day two years into the War on Terror.
“To tell you the truth, Jon,” he said, “I’ve pretty much blocked the rest of the conversation I had with Special Forces out of my head. Whoa, yeah. I’ve scrubbed it from my mind! I walked away. I left with my tail between my legs.”
He paused, and looked at the wall.
“You know,” he said, “I really thought they were great ideas. I still do. I just haven’t figured out how my space can fit through that space. I simply kept bumping my nose. I couldn’t … No. Couldn’t is the wrong word. I never got myself to the right state of mind.” He sighed. “If you really want to know, it’s a disappointment. Same with the levitation.”
Some nights, in Arlington, Virginia, after the general’s first wife, Geraldine, had gone to bed, he would lie down on his living-room carpet and try to levitate.
“And I failed totally. I could not get my fat ass off the ground, excuse my language. But I still think they were great ideas. And do you know why?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you cannot afford to get stale in the intelligence world,” he said. “You cannot afford to miss something. You don’t believe that? Take a look at terrorists who went to flying schools to learn how to take off but not how to land. And where did that information get lost? You cannot afford to miss something when you’re talking about the intelligence world.”
There was something about the general’s trip to Fort Bragg that neither of us knew the day we met. It was a piece of information that would soon lead me into what must be among the most whacked-out corners of George W. Bush’s War on Terror.
What the general didn’t know—what Special Forces kept secret from him—was that they actually considered his ideas to be excellent ones. Furthermore, as he proposed his clandestine animal-heart-bursting program and they told him that they didn’t have access to animals, they were concealing the fact that there were a hundred goats in a shed just a few yards down the road.
The existence of these hundred goats was known only to a select few Special Forces insiders. The covert nature of the goats was helped by the fact that they had been de-bleated; they were just standing there, their mouths opening and closing, with no bleat coming out. Many of them also had their legs bandaged in plaster.
This is the story of those goats.
© 2004 Jon Ronson