How to read "Area 51"

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

Were it not for the UFO theories and factual errors, "Area 51" would actually make for a perfectly decent slice of Cold War history.

It was the late Carl Sagan who popularized the oft-repeated maxim that, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Unfortunately for readers, investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen’s new book Area 51 doesn’t just ignore Sagan’s advice; it attacks it with a chainsaw.

First, let me bring you up to speed. You know the 1947 Roswell Incident? The one where an alien spacecraft supposedly crashed into the New Mexico desert only to be recovered and hidden by the US government? Well, Jacobsen’s book says that contrary to all the loony conspiracy theories about aliens from outer space, there is a perfectly logical, straight-forward answer to the mystery and here it is:

The Roswell UFO was a secret German flying saucer that had been captured by the Soviets after World War II and crewed by kidnapped Russian children surgically engineered by Nazi mad doctor Joseph Mengle to resemble aliens and created with the goal of sowing terror and confusion in the US populace in order to facilitate a full on Soviet attack.

See? Simple!

At least according to Jacobsen it is. In supporting the theory, she cites “Ockham’s razor,” the famous logic test that dictates that the simplest solution to a problem (or the one requiring the least additional information) is usually the correct one.

So, for those of you keeping score, Jacobsen is implying that German flying saucers controlled by Stalin and crewed by Nazi engineered mutant children is the simplest possible solution to the Roswell Incident. Much more straightforward than the convoluted story cooked up by the US government about how the incident resulted from a popped weather balloon.

All right, enough sarcasm.

What Jacobsen is really writing about is the story of Area 51 – the much mythologized although never officially acknowledged secret US military installation in the Nevada desert. Speculation about the site has abounded for decades now. Jacobsen – a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and an investigative reporter whose work has also appeared in The National Review and The Dallas Morning Newsclaims to be ready to tell you the truth (about the aliens and much else.)

But beware. She doesn't.

Although “Area 51” contains over 100 pages worth of end-notes and citations, all information, references and accounts relating to the UFO theory come from a single anonymous engineer, who allegedly worked for defense contractor EG&G on reverse-engineering the supposed flying saucer and its surgically altered crew. And that’s it. One. Single. Source.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Upon reading “Area 51”’s end-notes, one finds that for many of Jacobsen’s claims, she rather fancifully cites “educated speculation” as a source.

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.

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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