THE TRUE STORY OF 
THE FIRST EARTH BATTALION


© 2009  Text:   Susanne Sims  
Photos:  Monica Schwartz, Jim Channon Archives

Why did four of the brightest actors in Hollywood team up to make a movie about a small, activist band of Army officers?  Was it their fascination with the audacity and spirit of these military men who wanted to make a difference in the world?  Or was it George Clooney, known for his edgy and provocative films, who just had to tell the world the unbelievable tale about a very creative period in the U.S. Army’s history?

Whatever their reasons, the story originates with an outrageous, visionary character named Jim Channon who got the ball rolling some 35 years ago when he dared to dream about a mythical military force called the First Earth Battalion and how it could save the world. 

Now 70, Channon is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and a corporate strategic designer who bears a striking resemblance to his granddaddy of four generations ago – that wily tactician and Southern gentleman General Robert E. Lee.  Like his ancestor, Channon too made a name for himself as a change agent in the military, although his latest distinction comes in the form of being both the inspiration behind and the rib of ridicule in Clooney’s latest film, The Men Who Stare at Goats.


Strategic visionary artist, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon,
 sits beside with one of his signature graphic illustrations at his studio in Hawaii
© Photo by: www.mschwartzphoto.com

Today Channon lives on the remote Northwest coast of Hawaii’s Big Island where he spends his days tending several gardens on his three-acre homestead. “We’re getting about 45 percent of our food needs directly from the land.” He beams, quite happy with the progress. “It’s all part of a social experiment I call Life Force Living, the goal of which is to be self-sufficient and sustainable by 2012,” he says. When not planting trees, Jim delights in spending time in the virtual fantasy world he is building on Second Life where real estate doesn’t require weeding or watering.

It was Guardian journalist Jon Ronson who showed up on Channon’s doorstep five years ago as part of a BBC film crew sent from London to interview him for a series called Crazy Rulers of the World.  “Ronson appeared to me to be an apprentice member of the team who hung out mostly in the background. Then one day he dropped the Goats book on everyone. We were all surprised,” recalls Jim. 

The Men Who Stare at Goats became an international best seller.  Ronson is a highly acclaimed satirical writer who created a very clever and amusing account in which he speculates how The First Earth Battalion’s noble ideals may have turned dark in Iraq. Ronson chose the unusual title for his book because the Army once experimented with a goat lab at Fort Bragg, North Carolina where soldiers attempted to kill goats simply by staring at them from a distance. 

The book opens with an interview featuring Major General Albert "Bert" N. Stubblebine to whom he dedicates his book. Stubblebine was once Commanding General of the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command and is known for his interest in parapsychology. “Ronson’s haphazard account and inaccuracies infuriated Stubblebine who now refuses to speak to Jon,” Channon reveals.

Screenwriter Peter Straughan sent Ronson’s account further into outer space, spinning it into a spoof loaded with laughs and far-fetched plots about how remote viewing, experiments with psychedelics, meditation, yoga, and other new age technologies went awry in the Army.  

“People ask if I’m upset about myself or other members of the First Earth Battalion being portrayed as fools,” reveals Jim. (Actor Jeff Bridges plays Channon’s character Bill Django the leader of the New Earth Army.) “I guess it’s the ultimate roast,” he says admitting that he did manage to crack a smile between wincing, when  he was given a private screening of the movie in August. “What I’m mostly pleased about is that The First Earth Battalion’s shelf life has been extended into the future and that the real story now has a chance of getting out there. Anyone who wants to know what we were really doing can still find the original field manual on-line. It never was a secret,” he says. “The point was to make war dramatically less violent and to save the lives of more soldiers and civilians.” 

Channon wrote and illustrated Evolutionary Tactics published in 1978 by the U.S. Army, a handbook something akin to the Whole Earth Catalog. His imaginary millennium force was to be outfitted with natural foods, bio-feed back devices and packets of ginseng. Soldiers would develop martial arts intuition and telepathic skill into a set of evolutionary tactics and with the assistance of non-lethal weapons, this would allow them to successfully negotiate peaceful outcomes.   (Cover of Evolutionary Tactics)

During his own 319 days in combat while leading search and destroy operations in Vietnam, Channon lost only one man and never killed an innocent civilian.  To survive, he created what he believed was a near invisible platoon with extra-sensory paranormal sensitivities able to detect an enemy hiding in thick, triple canopy forests.  Returning home from this experience he was convinced that soldiers of the future would need better tools to deal with complex and kinetic urban warfare while operating in a manner that would minimize collateral damage. 


Channon with his troops in Vietnam, 1965

These new and improved humans possessing paranormal skills and psychic abilities would pledge their allegiance not just to America but to the environmental and social needs of the globe. They would blend the courage and nobility of the warrior with the spirituality of the monk in a practice Channon called the ‘combat of the collective conscience.’ Television cameras would broadcast conflicts to the world so that planetary citizens could influence the outcome. 

“We saw this happen in 1989 in Tiananmen Square,” he explains.  “Who could ever forget civilians standing toe to toe with tanks and how that influenced world opinion? 

Although officially retired from service in 1982, Channon still makes an occasional appearance at Fort Leavenworth to address a group of select military officers from eleven nations and all branches of the service. “My orders from the Chief of Staff are to clean off their hard drives,” says Channon, “and so I tell them what I believe their ultimate responsibility is – the recovery of the Earth's biosphere. The true battle in the future is not between nations. It’s about repairing the damage we're doing to our planet. We need a Marshall Plan for the earth." 

Channon envisions the militaries of the world uniting to administer first aid to an ailing planet in a scenario that looks something like this:  The Army will set about re-foresting, planting billions of trees while continuing to clean up the fresh water reserves. The Marines will be charged with protecting and restoring the dying coral reefs and coastal waterways. The Air Force will monitor carbon emissions, ozone depletion and air pollution while the Navy polices illegal dumping and over fishing of the seas. To abate rising sea levels and flooding of coastal cities due to melting polar ice, they will all team up to undertake one of the biggest plumbing feats in history – siphoning excess water from the seas and channeling it into the desert basins of the planet to create enormous salt water lakes.  

One has to wonder, will the average G.I. Joe or Josephine ever ascend to such heights?  "Most people's image of the military is sorely outdated," Channon believes. "Many officers usually have two or three advanced degrees, can speak another language, have lived in several foreign countries and can organize a rescue mission almost anywhere on the planet.  As we stretch the earth’s resources beyond capacity and it groans to support almost 7 billion of us, it’s likely that catastrophic suffering, war, and civil unrest are all in the cards.  And just who do you think will have to manage those consequences?"

One look at his current surroundings, an eco-homestead he calls Balian, and it’s abundantly clear that he never was your average Army grunt but a planetary citizen from birth. As the son of a military officer his childhood years were spent in Athens, Greece where he traveled by armored vehicle each day, sometimes through an on-going insurgency, to attend a proper British school where he learned French from an Irish woman. 

Channon at home in Hawaii 
with Chinese warrior monk statue
Just how did a creative soul like Jim function in such a highly regimented environment and survive Reveille at 5 a.m.?  Army Colonel John Alexander, the father of non-lethal weapons, details how Jim boosted the Army’s creativity. “They called him the ‘lightning rod’ because of his willingness to go beyond the norm,” he says. “Jim has an extraordinary ability to listen to people describe abstract concepts, then quickly transform those ideas into easily understandable graphics. In fact, some of the basic symbols and graphic designs used in the Army today originated with Jim over 25 years ago. His artistic ability and mental acuity were widely known by senior officers who often coveted his capabilities. Before General Max Thurman briefed the U.S. Army senior leadership, he would always ask, 'Where's Jimmy?'” 

 Channon recalls the military mindset of the 1970s."Remember, we were devastated by our painful exit from Vietnam, while advancing in our windshield was the prospect of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets.  Recruitment and morale were at an all time low. We needed to bring back a sense of honor and purpose to our troops and since our commanders couldn’t offer more pay or prestige, what they did offer was permission – permission to explore the 'Be All That You Can Be' philosophy, no holds barred.  We were encouraged to bring to bear any and all skills that would provide a tactical advantage, give the soldiers their wits back and help them work better in teams," he recalls.

(Pictured:  Channon in 1978 with his many notes on the human potential movement.  In the background, one of Channon’s oil paintings showing a soldier with child in Vietnam.)

In 1976, Channon received a fresh assignment as a public information officer in Hollywood, California; the move from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas straight into the hotbed of the West Coast’s New Age movement was akin to Dorothy discovering Oz. For the first time in years he had, like a good cell phone plan, evenings and weekends free. More than a few heads turned when the Lieutenant Colonial took to roller-skating along Venice Beach in his Army uniform. It was here that Channon launched his own self-directed, two-year mission into the worlds of the human potential movement and advanced human performance.

Only a few hours up the coast was Big Sur's Easlen Institute where he began soaking up new ideas while bathing in the center’s mineral hot springs with the likes of Aikido master George Leonard and mythology scholar Joseph Campbell.  Word spread quickly that there was a military man who was sincere about world peace, brotherhood and doing good.  Introductions and invitations poured in.  Aquarian Conspiracy author Marilyn Ferguson especially took a shine to this offbeat, charismatic character.  Jim was offered the spotlight at numerous gatherings, seminars and television shows where he shared the stage with Buckminster Fuller, Barbara Marx Hubbard and other maverick minds of the time. 

"I was a sponge and a good scout," he recalls. Channon joined a Urantia Book study group, became initiated in world of Tantra, practiced neuro linguistic programming (NLP) and experimented with everything from fire-walking to spoon bending.  Along the way, he realized that he wasn't only in it for the troops.  "I had some serious healing to do from my years of combat in Vietnam.  A group of Taoist monks got a hold of me and performed what can only described as an exorcism. Whatever they removed from my belly and psyche was pretty vile."  Jim credits the monks with his never having suffered from PTSD and his general good health, despite constant exposure to Agent Orange.

Channon practices meditation, a skill of the First Earth Battalion Warrior Monk, 1978.


Channon reasoned that the yoga, meditation, combat shiatsu other tools he was experimenting with could play a key role in surviving a nuclear attack and help to shake battlefield trauma.  “The more adept each soldier could be at maintaining a sense of centeredness and calm during the most dire of circumstances, the better.  And if communications are completely cut off, why not consider telepathy?" he asks.  

When he began reporting back on his unorthodox findings Channon did not produce the standard white paper nor give a routine debriefing. Instead, he staged a series of experiential, ceremonial events held at the Command and General Staff College, Force Com Headquarters and through Task Force Delta. In total, over 150 general officers, a similar number of colonels, civilian scientists and 1,000 field officers attended.

Jim went heavy on the theatrics, in a Cirque du Soleil meets Gomer Pyle style, dramatically opening one presentation in the dark, blasting the audience with Pink Floyd's The Wall while spray painting the word 'energy' on several white boards in bold, glow-in-the-dark colors.  At yet another event, with the room aglow in candlelight, a pyramid was erected in the center of the stage and a dollar bill set inside. Colonel Mike Malone, the think tank commander of Task Force Delta, performed a warrior dance based on the Korean martial art Taekwondo while Jim discussed the core values of the founding fathers and how to advance their ideals from nation to planet. 

Channon inspired his audiences by welcoming everyone into the First Earth Battalion. “Armies can be both the instruments of destruction and the guardians of humanity's evolution,” he writes.  “The warrior monk's role is to protect the possible and to nurture the potential...to generate workable international solutions... to defuse the nuclear time bomb.  We must wisely use energy, enforce ecological balance, assist with appropriate technological expansion and above all – strive for human development, in ourselves and in others. I invite each of you to become not a revolutionary, but an evolutionary, and to adopt the code of ethics of the warrior monk.”

The reception was tremendous. Initially his superiors published orders making him the commander of this mythical force and to go forward daring to think the unthinkable.  The Army was in need of creative young officers and the leadership wanted to make Jim an example to others.  General Max Thurman asked him if he would lead an experimental unit on the ground. Channon declined conceding that the First Earth Battalion could gain more traction as a mythological construct or a great story of civilization’s potential than it could as an organized structure to be evaluated by the ‘system.’  “It was not an easy decision,” he admits. “My main concern was that the creative initiative not be lost or deconstructed in such a highly institutionalized environment.  It was also imperative that all soldiers and non-military civilians become part of the movement in their own minds.”

Indeed, the legend spread fast reaching Ted Turner who asked Jim for conceptual ideas for his Captain Planet series. Jim delivered the “Go Planet” cheer that was heard around the planet.  

A nostalgic Channon sits next to his “Go Planet” California license plate.   

© Photo by: www.mschwartzphoto.com

 

And while the Goats movie might offer a moment of entertainment,  Channon stays focused on numerous global game plans for the future. He recently led the effort at the World Business Academy to create a hundred year positive vision for the planet and his years of dedication have produced dozens of YouTube videos on positive social change. 

Channon’s illustrated 100 year positive vision for the planet.

"We’ve just had eight very disruptive years in the history of our democracy and we’re collectively mired down in catastrophe. Pick up any newspaper, turn on any television and the powers that be will enroll you the latest calamity, dead set on convincing you that civilization is collapsing. The noise of the collapse is deafening, so much louder than the potential of what can rise from the ashes.”

And what about other key members of the First Earth Battalion, where are they today?  At the age of 78, Major General Bert Stubblebine heads up the Natural Solutions Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting health freedoms and shielding the world from genetically modified foods and untested vaccines.  Together with his wife Rima Laibow, M.D., he is building a sustainable community in Volcan, Panama with a natural medicines clinic, organic coffee, vegetable and poultry farm.  Colonel John Alexander, the father of non-lethal weaponry and author of Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Twenty First Century Warfare, still actively promotes the notion of humanitarian, non-lethal options. 

Channon reflects a bit further on two of his own iconic folk heroes. "One day I realized that both Bucky Fuller and Jim Henson had left the planet and that no one was manning the cockpit of Spaceship Earth." He then reaches into a big cardboard box and pulls out a set of six new puppets. "My latest extravaganza,” he winks. “It's called Puppet Regime, the story of how the banksters on Wall Street brought a country to its knees and in the process forced us to examine how unbridled capitalism cannot be sustained.”  He exits, stage left, calling out his patented charge to all who might be in earshot.... “Go Planet!”

Channon delivers an “out-of-the-box” performance with GI Joe puppet.
                                                                                                                                       © Photo by: www.mschwartzphoto.com

SusanneSims.Com

Photo:  Monica Schwartz  mschwartzphoto.com

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