Mark Pilkington. The Mirage Men. Constable, 2010 -- Reviewed by John Rimmer
Mirage Men pretty much tells us that a lot of what we know about UFOs is wrong, but that a great deal of what we suspected was right. From the very earliest days, Arnold and after, the various military and intelligence arms of the US Government seem to have been using the UFO story to promote, hide, or divert attention from their activities.
1. The Mystic and the Spy
It's hard to imagine how difficult it must be writing about a topic when you're quite sure that most of the people you talk to, and a great deal of the documents you read on the subject, are deliberately lying to you, or at least attempting to direct you away from what they consider the truth.
It is a measure of Mark Pilkington's skill as a researcher and journalist that he is not only aware of this, but is able to navigate a way through a landscape with such misleading maps.
It's possible that governmental interference in the UFO myth started even before Arnold. Magonia has already discussed Bernard Newman and his remarkable fictional book The Flying Saucer, published in 1948, which put forward the idea of a faked interplanetary invasion as a way of uniting the nations of the world. Writing in Magonia (1) Philip Taylor notes: "Newman’s inspiration was a speech by Sir Anthony Eden, who in 1947 said: 'It seems to be an unfortunate fact that the nations of the world were only really united when they were facing a common menace. What we really needed was an attack from Mars'". Whether this comment by a very senior politician was acted upon, even to a preliminary extent, is worth consideration. How much reality was there to 'Operation Far Stranger'?
US military interest in UFOs started in earnest with the Maury Island case in Washington State, which happened at a time when US intelligence agencies, through 'Operation Venona' had uncovered Soviet 'moles' in top-secret atomic research facilities. These agencies may have subsequently become interested in Maury Island, alerted by Arnold's talk of atomic powered aircraft. It's certain that Army Air Force Intelligence, as well as the FBI, showed an interest in what was happening in this corner of the USA.
Maury Island witness Fred Crisman, with his involvement with the OSS and his subsequent peripheral role in a spin-off from the Kennedy assassination investigation (as well as his extended feud with the librarian of his local public library) was a character who may have had his fingers in any number of pies.
Although Roswell is seen by many ufologists as central to the 'government cover-up' narrative, its real position seems to have been far more peripheral, and here the book may overestimate the significance of the famous press release which announced that a 'flying disc' had been recovered. Mark wonders if this may have been a useful device to deflect interest away from what 'really' happened - he makes the suggestion of a 'human guinea-pig' test as proposed by Nick Redfern. The other more mundane possibility is that the press officer was trying to earn credit for suggesting that the USAAF now had the flying saucer mystery under control. Remember, at this time few people would have formed any clear idea as to what was or was not behind the reports of flying discs that were beginning to filter into the press. Certainly the idea that they might be extraterrestrial craft was not widespread.
A great deal of the book involves Mark's, and his associate John Lundberg's attendance at the 2006 Laughlin Nevada International UFO Convention, where he meets the (in)famous Richard Doty, and some of the other inmates of the 'aviary' of UFO characters who were flying around in the 1990s. At this point I find it difficult to review this book, as the plot gets so complicated, and one is hampered by the distinct possibility that you might not be able to believe a single word that passes Doty's lips - even when he's telling the truth!. We are certainly in the middle of a maze of distorting mirrors.
Doty first came to ufological prominence as an AFOSI operative at the Kirtland Air Force base, where he was involved with the complex Bennewitz affair, which has been written about at length elsewhere. (2) Some accounts of Doty's activities, mostly those given by Doty himself, suggest that he was central to whatever counter-intelligence operations were being deployed against ufologists. However, reading between the lines of Mark's account of his guided visit around Kirtland, it would seem that his access to this 'secret' base was limited to areas that would be opened to any visitor.
One of the silliest stories which have arisen from the America ufological/military milieu in the last decade has been 'Serpo'. This began in 2005 when a series of anonymous documents were circulated on the Internet, by someone calling themselves, rather unimaginatively, 'Anonymous'. Basically these claimed that the entities in the saucers that crashed at Roswell and Aztec had been in contact with their utopian home planet of Serpo and arranged for a saucer to land at the Holloman AFB. They had then arranged a sort of cultural exchange, with twelve military personnel being sent to Serpo in 1965, returning to Earth in 1978 (apart from two who allegedly chose to remain on Serpo).
It is likely that the origins of the Serpo story go back further than 2005, quite apart from being a rip-off of the closing scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The meeting at Holloman AFB is probably based on a scenario in Robert Emmeneger's UFOs, Past, Present and Future, which is presented as either a real meeting or a government psychological experiment, and they might even date back to a rumour after the Socorro case in 1964, spread by the Lorenzens, that a Socorro saucer had landed on a runway at the Holloman base. (Thanks to Peter Rogerson for pointing out these connections.)
The UFO story in America has certainly been manipulated by military and intelligence sources, both as part of Cold War deception and inter-agency rivalry. This manipulation has involved actions which by any normal consideration would be regarded as criminal. Yet, probably because of the manifestly nonsensical nature of many of the stories, there has been little inclination for anyone to take the matter seriously outside of the narrow coterie of people directly involved, and the UFO 'community'.
It is true to say that an awful lot has also happened in American ufology, and elsewhere, during the period discussed here which is not connected in the slightest with military and intelligence matters, and this book does not attempt to delve too deeply into them, except where they are relevant to the particular topic being discussed. I was particularly amused by Mark's description of the activities and personalities of the Norfolk UFO Society, in the 1990s, when Mark was a member and sometime chairman. With its description of characters such as George, who received psychic messages through his television, it took me back to the days of the Merseyside UFO Group and Manchester's DIGAP in the late '60s and early 1970's. Plus ca change..., etc.
This book gives what is virtually an alternate history of the modern UFO phenomenon, and one which will turn on its head many of our current assumptions about how the American government (and probably others) interacted with it. But when you read it - and you really should - I suspect that Mark Pilkington would be the first to remind you that almost everyone in it is either lying or trying to divert your attention in one way or another. Caveat emptor!
- John Rimmer