Staring at Goats: The Rest of the Story
By: John B. Alexander
There has been substantial derision associated with the book, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and the movie of the same name. However, information has recently come to light that suggests that the basic concept that led to the ignoble title was derived from a painful lesson in the U.S. Army Special Forces history. Specifically, it stems from the capture, and lengthy captivity, of then-Lieutenant James “Nick” Rowe in South Vietnam. For those who may not be familiar with him, Rowe is still considered a hero in Special Forces. Unfortunately, despite his legendary actions as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam, he was assassinated by communist insurgents in Quezon City, in the Philippines on 21 April 1989. Almost presciently, now-Colonel Rowe had reported that he was second or third on the terrorist’s target list.
The basics of his capture and imprisonment are known. On 29 October 1963, LT Rowe, along with Captain Rocky Versace and team medic, Sergeant First Class Dan Pitzer, was taken as a POW near the village of Le Coeur in An Xuyen Province while advising a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) unit. The team members were separated and later, in 1965, Rocky Versace was executed by the Viet Cong. He was last heard singing God Bless America at the top of his voice. It was based on reports of his continued resistance, that Versace was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2002.
Then, in December 1968, 62 months after falling into the hands of the Viet Cong, Rowe was rescued during an American air cavalry raid in the U-Minh Forest also known as the “forest of darkness.” The years in captivity were extremely harsh for Rowe. He repeatedly attempted to escape and was frequently subjected to torture and physical deprivation. Like Versace, he was also threatened with execution on several occasions. As the VC had grown tired of his continued resistance, Rowe was finally scheduled for execution at the end of December, just a few days after his fortuitous rescue. Even that event proved to be a close call as Rowe was nearly shot by the helicopter crews. Though clad in black pajamas, he was recognized as an American by his beard and scooped up.
Throughout his years in detention Rowe maintained a constant vigil and mental awareness of his surroundings. Though physically weakened, he tried many methods to gain an upper hand. For a long time he convinced the Viet Cong that he was an engineer who happened to be the war zone. Rowe was concealing the fact that he was a Special Forces intelligence officer and had access to information about camps across the Mekong Delta. It was only after some American peace-advocates went to North Vietnam and provided a complete list of names and units that his captors learned his true identity and that they had been fooled. Rowe paid a high price for that revelation, but he had successfully evaded being forced to provide useful information to the enemy. By the time the Viet Cong understood his importance, the information he had was too dated to be actionable.
After his recovery from serious diseases and extensive injuries, Rowe left the Army. Then, in 1981 he was recalled to active duty and went to Ft. Bragg where he became the director the Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) course.* The intent of that course was to prepare members of special operations forces, and other personnel conducting high risk missions, to be better prepared for the eventuality of being cut off from friendly forces or worse yet, captured. Obviously, it was Colonel Rowe’s personal experience in captivity that caused the senior leadership of the U.S. Army Special Forces to place him in that position of high responsibility.
Enter the goats. As mentioned, during his captivity Rowe tried a wide variety of techniques to assist in escape. Being the director of SERE, he had considerable latitude in exploration of unique measures that might be helpful for the students. Drawing on his background Rowe was determined to explore all options of techniques that might prove useful. To that end, he directed a senior NCO assigned to the school to track down information about dim mak, a relatively obscure martial arts skill known in English as the death touch. Dim mak defies conventional physiology. It is not a hard blow to a vital organ. Rather, it involves a relatively light strike that is designed to interrupt the flow of chi (or ki in the Japanese tradition) in such a manner that death follows several hours later. According to Chinese medicine philosophy, this life force, or chi, flows along meridians throughout the body and moderates all human functioning. This concept of chi is the basis for the Eastern medical practice of acupuncture, and while easily observable it is not commonly accepted by Western medicine practitioners.
Rowe was painfully aware of the physical degradation that follows captivity. He reasoned that almost all traditional martial arts techniques require too much physical exertion for most prisoners to execute effectively. His interests therefore, were in locating and pursuing techniques that could be employed by POWs while requiring minimum output of physical energy. (Are we still laughing?)
The NCO went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and worked with members of the combative skills course. There he was told about a civilian instructor by the name of Guy Savelli who professed some of these very advanced skills.
Savelli was contacted, his capabilities verified, and then he was brought to Ft. Bragg where he taught several students. As I told Jon Ronson when the book first came out, “He hit the goat.” At that time I thought it was Savelli who had executed the blow to the goat in question. In fact, it was this same senior NCO who had been trained by Savelli who hit the goat leading directly to its death several hours after that. It was the moderate physical energy expended combined with the delay in time of death that was the sought after outcome. It worked.
As I recorded in my first book, The Warrior’s Edge, I have seen the photos taken of the necropsy that show most remarkable physical damage to the goat. Specifically, there was a path of energy, not unlike what a bullet would produce while transiting a body, which ran across the chest cavity. The difference was that there was no wound of entrance or wound of exit. The NCO has recently confirmed those observations as well. That experiment may be the first tangible, albeit elusive, evidence that dim mak can produce physical results (death). Like this NCO, I trained with Savelli, but for a shorter period of time. That experience left little doubt that Savelli had mastered some very advanced martial arts skills and could teach them to others.
Rowe was not prepared to limit his inquiry to the physical impact of dim mak. Based on his extensive experience with his Viet Cong captors, he believed that they could be mentally influenced. The first objectives were relatively simple. Could a guard be made to look in a certain direction? Could the prisoner cause the guard to walk in a specified direction, or pause for a longer period of time? What were the limits of influence that could be applied by a prisoner?
While the answers to these questions remain obscured, there is some literature, mostly anecdotal, that supports the notion that remote influence is a distinct possibility. During my training in the Washington area, Savelli described to us a technique he called the mind stops. In it, he claimed that he could confront an adversary, and then he would maneuver himself behind that person without them being aware of his movement. This capability is not unique and has been reported by other researchers. One fairly well documented case is that of Wolf Messing, a German Jew who fled to the USSR at the beginning stages of World War II. His unusual mental skills attracted the attention of Stalin who arranged for a series of tests. During one dramatic demonstration he was able to pass by attentive guards and enter Stalin’s well-protected house. When questioned, the guards claimed that they had witnessed Lavrenti Beria, dreaded head of the NKVD, enter the premises, not Messing.
Another, more extreme, form of remote mental influence was reported by KGB defector, Major Nikolai Kokolov. Among other topics Kokolov reported on the extent of psychic research being conducted during the Cold War. In debriefings, he described the Soviet use of mental influencing to actually fracture the spinal columns of test subjects. Current readers may not be aware that lethal experimentation on humans was conducted in several subject areas. By the time he took over leadership of SERE, COL Rowe had access to that intelligence information as well as his personal experience with similar techniques to draw upon.
It is worth noting that beyond the anecdotes, there is scientific research has been conducted in the area of remote influencing. In its most basic form, prayer is a method of invoking remote intervention in one’s life, and there are many studies demonstrating the success of those techniques. Those are beyond the scope of this piece, but worth exploring to interested readers.
In addition to esoteric mental influence techniques, the SERE instructors explored more mundane and pragmatic approaches as well. Of particular interest were martial arts techniques in which the initial movements appeared normal and non-threatening. As an example, simply brushing one’s hair aside in a seemingly harmless manner may allow the prisoner to move their hand within a few inches of a guard’s eyes. Under other conditions, allowing a prisoner’s hand close to vital organs would be perceived as a potential attack, and would likely cause a severe response by the guard.
Camouflaging intent of aggression is not new. In fact, there is an entire martial arts form that was founded on the concept of masquerading offensive movements, thus allowing practice to occur uninhibited. Capoeira is a Brazilian fighting art form that was developed by the African slaves as they prepared for conflict with their owners. The graceful and intricate movements were portrayed as a harmless folk dance. In reality, the moves were designed to enhance the fighting skills of the practitioners. The history dates back at least two centuries, and Capoeira can be observed in many Brazilian cities today.
As renowned commentator Paul Harvey used to proclaim, “And know you know the rest of the story.” Therefore, taken in context, staring at goats, or hitting them, makes more sense than what one might initially believe. Instead of being overly concerned about a foreigner’s attempt at humor via gross distortion of truth, maybe we should embrace this opportunity to explain the perfectly logical origins that form the basis of those experiments. That includes acknowledging visionary contributions of one of our heroes and fallen comrade, Colonel Nick Rowe!
• The site, located at Camp Mackall, NC, is now officially the Colonel James “Nick” Rowe SERE Training Center
• Note: SFC Pitzer was released by the Viet Cong in 1967. This action was in response to American protestor visits. Pitzer was a medic, and the other two POWs released were black soldiers as the VC played the race card.
• Like many SOF personnel, the NCO involved with the SERE training described wishes to remain anonymous. While retired from the U.S. Army, he continues to work in a sensitive position serving the interests of his country.