Actor Jeff Bridges nominates Jim Channon, who wants to mobilize the military to plant trees, clean up freshwater reserves and restore reefs.
Susanne Sims | Jan/Feb 2010 issue
It’s a cold winter day in Kansas, with the windchill driving temperatures well below zero. Why would anyone leave a tropical home in Hawaii to come here?
Jim Channon’s luggage is filled with puppets, masks, storytelling gear, musical soundtracks and a colorful set of magic markers. He stands at the podium of Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College to address 100 select military officers who have gathered from 11 nations and all branches of the service. His orders from the chief of staff are to “clean off their hard drives and reboot their imaginations.” It’s an opportunity this social architect relishes, even in the dead of winter.
On large white boards he illustrates a myriad of tactical and strategic ideas, many coming in live from the group. He then turns on a compelling soundtrack and in tandem with the music, launches into an animated story designed to enroll these future leaders in their higher purpose and the deeper meaning of service. “You are the recovery team for the Earth’s biosphere,” Channon says with gusto. “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. And you are it.”
Often referred to as “The Fastest Magic Marker in the West,” retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jim Channon is a strategic visionary, shamanistic storyteller and highspeed graphic illustrator. His unique combination of imagination, wit and intellect has been likened to that of producer Walt Disney, Muppets creator Jim Henson and architect Buckminster Fuller combined. Channon’s career of 50 years spans the military and corporate worlds, where he developed farreaching ideas and conceptual tools to make Earth a better place for us all. Thirty years ago, Channon dared to dream about how a group of soldiers called The First Earth Battalion could save the world. Now, he wants to deploy that mythical military force.
In the intervening decades, Channon has been creatively heralding this message: The world’s militaries will one day administer first aid to an ailing planet. In his vision, the army must set about reforesting the Earth, planting billions of trees and cleaning up the fresh water reserves. The Marines will protect and restore the dying coral reefs and coastal wetlands while the Air Force monitors carbon emissions, ozone depletion and air pollution. The Navy, Channon says, should be tasked with measuring rising ocean temperatures and melting polar ice as well as policing illegal dumping and overfishing of the seas.
To abate rising sea levels and the flooding of coastal cities and ports, Channon sees all branches of the military teaming up to undertake one of the biggest plumbing feats in history. They will siphon excess water from the oceans and channel it into the desert basins of the planet to create enormous salt water lakes. The Air Force will then transport thousands of refugees from the Pacific Islands to these areas, where they may tend giant new fishponds. “Climateinduced crises have the power to topple governments, fuel terrorism and destabilize entire regions,” says Channon. “The military must respond to the failure of sustainability—whether that be political, social, economic or environmental—and it must do so peacefully.”
Experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are taking a serious look at the global security implications of climate change. The U.S. Navy recently created a task force to monitor rapidly diminishing sea ice, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and increased storm severity. “Because the Arctic is changing faster than any other place on the planet, our first deliverable will be a strategic road map proposing actions for the Navy regarding the Arctic region,” says Rear Admiral David Titley, the Navy’s senior oceanographer.
Back home in Hawaii, Channon has his own game plan. He lives on the remote northwest coast of the Big Island on a threeacre ecohomestead with a team of individuals dedicated to creating selfsufficiency. In the neighboring towns of Hawi and Kapa’au, community members regularly assess water resources and emergency response, and have formed a sustainability network made up of small farms, seed banks and alternative energy resources.
Channon is no stranger to emergencies. As the son of a military officer, his childhood years were spent in Athens, Greece, where he traveled to school by armored vehicle each day, sometimes through an ongoing insurgency. Later, in 1965 and 1967, he found himself leading his own airborne infantry rifle platoon on search and destroy operations in War Zone D and the Iron Triangle in Vietnam.
“The first day that I took my rifle platoon out, 14 things happened—12 of them I had never imagined in my life—two of them I had been trained for,” Channon recalls. “We lost one man. The next day I said to my men, ‘We are not going to talk to each other when we walk the woods. We will communicate only by eyes and with our hands.’ So we went immediately into stealth mode. Walking in a thick forest, when you know somebody is there, but you don’t know where, our bodies started reaching out and we all started to feel things. We were doing remote viewing.”
To survive, Channon created what he believed was a nearinvisible and stealthy platoon with extrasensory paranormal abilities, able to detect an enemy hiding in thick, triplecanopy forests. Whereas “the normal expected life of a rifle platoon leader in combat is 14 seconds,” Channon says, he made it through 319 days of exhausting combat. He never lost another man or killed an innocent civilian. Returning home from this horrifying experience, he was convinced that soldiers of the future would need better awareness skills to deal with complex and kinetic urban warfare and operate in a manner that would minimize collateral damage.
“We were demoralized by our painful exit from Vietnam, yet advancing in our immediate future was the prospect of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets,” recalls Channon. “Recruitment and morale were at an alltime low and officers were encouraged to bring to bear any skill that could provide a radically different kind of tactical advantage.”
Channon responded to this challenge in 1978 by launching a selfdirected, twoyear study into advanced human performance and human potential. “Channon was seriously engaged in studying cultural transformation in the postVietnam era,” says retired colonel of Channon’s cohort, John Alexander, known as the father of nonlethal weapons. “They called Jim ‘the lightning rod’ because of his willingness to go beyond the norm.”
And go beyond the norm he did. A fresh assignment as a public information officer landed Channon in Hollywood, California, within three hours striking distance from Big Sur’s Esalen Institute. It was here that he spent weekends soaking in the center’s mineral hot tubs with the likes of aikido master George Leonard and mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. Word spread quickly that here was a military man who was sincere about world peace and brotherhood, and the introductions and invitations poured in.
Marilyn Ferguson, author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, about the rise of a movement for social change and personal growth, especially took a shine to Channon’s offbeat, charismatic character and militarystyle thinking. His advanced graphic rendering skills proved useful among this group of pioneers. He was offered the spotlight at numerous gatherings and seminars, and on many TV shows.
“I joined the The Urantia Book and A Course in Miracles study groups, practiced neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and experimented with everything from firewalking to spoon bending,” says Channon. “Along the way, I realized that I wasn’t only in it for the troops. I had some serious healing to do from my years of combat. A group of Taoist monks got a hold of me and performed what I think was an exorcism. Whatever they removed from my belly and psyche, using their energybased chi, well… it was pretty vile.” Channon credits the monks for his failure to suffer posttraumatic stress disorder and his general good health, despite constant exposure to Agent Orange and the bedlam of battle.
Channon’s goal was to build “advancedsituational awareness” among his soldiers. As he experimented with stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation and shiatsu, he came to believe these methods could prove useful with battlefield trauma. To report his findings, he wrote and illustrated a military field manual, Evolutionary Tactics, filled with curious artistic renderings, cartoons and outoftheordinary ideas. In it Channon imagined ways to make war less violent and save the lives of soldiers and civilians. Personal evolution, teamwork, ethical combat and earthwork formed the cornerstones of his philosophy.
Infantry on the ground would be better cared for—outfitted with natural food, biofeedback devices and packets of ginseng. They would combine the courage and nobility of the warrior with the spirituality of the monk. By blending martial arts, intuition, telepathy and paranormal skills with nonlethal weapons, soldiers could successfully negotiate peaceful outcomes in volatile danger zones, like those present in the Middle East today.
Ultimately, Channon imagined an emerging class of people called Evolutionaries, soldiers and civilians motivated to create paradise and act as “loving protectors” of humankind. He called these mythical warriors The First Earth Battalion. Channon introduced the military brass to a conceptual prototype by staging a series of interactive ceremonial events at the Command and General Staff College, Force Com headquarters and through Task Force Delta. More than 150 general officers, a similar number of colonels and civilian scientists and 1,000 field officers were briefed.
Channon’s breakthRough ideas met with resounding enthusiasm. His superiors published orders making him commander of The First Earth Battalion and asking him to go forward and “dare to think the unthinkable.” John Alexander, Channon’s former colonel, became one of the Battalion’s most enthusiastic supporters and recalls that “the Army was in need of creative young officers and the leadership wanted to make Channon an example to others.”
Respected General Max Thurman, who led the 1989 invasion of Panama, asked Channon to develop an experimental unit on the ground, but Channon declined, conceding that The First Earth Battalion could gain more traction as a mythological construct and a story of civilization’s potential than as an organized structure. “I saw it as a ‘be all that you can be’ idea and a creative movement,” Channon says. “My main concern was that the initiative not be lost or deconstructed in such a highly institutionalized environment. It was also important that all personnel and nonmilitary civilians become part of the movement. I wanted the world to play, and I still do.”
Because the Army printed just 300 copies of Evolutionary Tactics, the handbook, photocopied and passed from officer to officer, became coveted. “Within the military, a subrosa element that circulates this document still exists,” says Alexander. The public now has access to the manual at neweartharmy.com. Eventually, as a result of talks Channon had with his friend, media mogul Ted Turner, the syndicated cartoon series Captain Planet was launched.
Actor George Clooney is the latest to find inspiration in The First Earth Battalion. The Men Who Stare at Goats takes a playful shot at psychic soldiers and high performance technologies in the military, with Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor joining Clooney. Bridges humorously portrays Channon in his role as Bill Django, founder of the New Earth Army. “It’s impossible to keep a great legend down,” says Channon.
While the movie might offer a moment of nostalgia, Channon stays squarely focused on global game plans for the future. Post military, he entered the corporate world and began illustrating the strategic visions for many of our largest multinationals. He went on to work with two American presidents—George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton—and with cabinet ministers from Malaysia to advance their nation’s vision for the year 2020. He recently led the effort at the World Business Academy to create a positive 100year vision for the planet.
After recently celebrating his 70th birthday, Channon feels both satisfied and philosophical about his contribution. “They say if you want to measure the courage of a soldier, you look at the medals on his chest. And if you want to measure the courage of a change agent, you count the number of arrows in his back.” Jim Channon has a full measure of both.