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How to read "Area 51"

Interested in picking up Anne Jacobsen's "Area 51"? Before you do, let me offer some advice.

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For instance, Jacobsen claims that the legendary rocket scientist Werner von Braun, along with several other ex-Nazi engineers, were brought in to help examine the UFO wreckage. However, in examining the endnotes, one finds that Jacobsen lists her source as for this account as “Defensible speculation.” This disturbing habit of stating events as factual in the main narrative, only to reveal in the endnotes that there are significant qualifiers surrounding them – is highly corrosive to Jacobsen’s credibility.

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Following several chapters of UFO speculation, Jacobsen concludes that today’s Area 51 is the final resting place for the alleged Roswell space craft and its occupants. And it is with this rather shaky connection that she launches into a much more conventional narrative of Area 51 and its role as a center for highly secret experimental aircraft and military technology.

Unlike her single-source accounts of UFOs, Jacobsen’s account of Area 51 as a center of Cold War experimental aviation draws on numerous interviews with former base employees, including the lead radar technician T.D. Barnes, base commander Colonel Hugh Slater and chief of security Richard Mingus. She also gets first hand accounts of the base’s projects and operations from a slew of high-level test pilots and engineers.

The net effect is a surprisingly well fleshed-out picture of what it was like to work and live at one of America’s most secretive military installations during the height of the Cold War. Compared to some of the drier tomes on the subject, Jacobsen’s account of the men and women involved with Area 51 – their careers, their families, their triumphs and their failures – comes across as touchingly personal, and thoroughly readable. Well, with one caveat.

Although often rich in human experience, “Area 51’s” main narrative is frequently lacking in factual rigor. Facts regarding geography, weapons systems, dates, and historic events are frequently wrong, sometimes indefensibly so. Whether it’s the flight times of ballistic missiles, the speed of a nuclear bomb’s shockwave, or the geography of the Soviet Union, Jacobsen’s errors and oversights have the effect of distracting the reader and eroding the author’s credibility.

The tragic thing about “Area 51” is that, were it not for the UFO theories and factual errors, it would actually make for a perfectly decent slice of Cold War history. Many of Jacobsen’s sources interviewed for the book seem to agree.

Specifically, in an interview with the Huffington Post, T.D. Barnes, president of Road Runners International – an association of retired Area 51 employees – claimed that Jacobsen had never indicated that her book would involve UFOs or Nazi science conspiracy theories. Barnes said Jacobsen had mislead him and his colleagues, leading them to believe the book would be exclusively about Area 51’s history as a classified testing facility for experimental military aircraft.

While Barnes avoided discouraging readers from buying the book outright, he did urge them to skip the chapters on UFOs. I heartily second his suggestion.

Kevin Moran is a Monitor contributor.

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