Goats in the Machine

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The new film, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is based on the book by Jon Ronson detailing a weird military research project involving psychic warriors, LSD, astral projection and the like. But while the movie might be fiction — and highly amusing fiction at that, thanks to stellar performances by the cast — there really is a historical record of both the Army and the CIA experimenting with LSD and other hallucinogens as possible “incapacitating chemical agents.”

Wired‘s Danger Room blog has taken advantage of the film’s opening to shed some light on this part of US military history that has long been shrouded in secrecy. Most notably, it points to a firsthand account of the experiments by Dr. James Ketchum, a psychiatrist, called Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten. (A 2007 Wired review is here.)

The Army scientists first tried something called “red oil” — a “concentrated distillation of marijuana” — but soon found better success with more powerful psychoactive drugs like LSD. And at one point the CIA was convinced LSD was a kind of truth serum. While subjects supposedly volunteered for the trials, the CIA did find it necessary at one point to send out a memo warning the scientists to stop spiking the punch bowls at office Christmas parties with hallucinogens. We would love to see archival footage of those parties.

While the Army, at least, has copped to the testing, it doesn’t seem like the research yielded a weapon that was actually deployed, although artillery rounds filled with powdered quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) were stockpiled that left subjects impaired in a “sleeplike state” for days on end. The National Academy of Sciences produced a follow-up report in 1981 that concluded the volunteers suffered no long-term effects from the tests.

LSD research is back, too, only this time as a drug for treating post traumatic stress disorder. No word on whether the treatment involves staring at goats.



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