January 30th, 2011

Spoiler alert:  There are no aliens in a cooler at Area 51.

UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies and Realities
by John Alexander
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press
336 pp.

Although I’m going to try to review this book at greater length elsewhere, I’m offering a brief comment here, since this site seems to get some attention from ufologically-minded readers.

So let me “cut to the chase” by stating that anyone seriously interested in the subject of UFOs should have this book on his or her shelf or e-library.

In it, John Alexander tells the important story of how he and a few other government officials, during the late 1980s and 1990s, tried to find out where in the federal bureaucracy the presumed ultra-secret “UFO project” was being hidden; and after concluding that there wasn’t such a project, tried to get one set up.  I don’t think I will spoil anything by noting that they failed to get one set up; in any case, what’s interesting here is the journey, not the destination.

As Alexander recounts, he began this effort toward the end of his Army career and later continued it while serving as the civilian manager of a non lethal weapons development program at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  He brought to it a long standing interest in UFOs and the paranormal, a slew of top clearances, and – I think most importantly – a Rolodex full of high-level contacts.

Disguising themselves as the “Advanced Theoretical Physics” group, and minimizing their paper trail to elude FOIA requests, Alexander’s band of ufological brothers – though sometimes Alexander alone – basically went around knocking on the doors of three and four-star generals, top-floor espiocrats, and senior scientists and engineers at defense contractors and government labs.

Those they approached included Lt. General James Abrahamson, while he was head of the Strategic Defense Initiative; Ben Rich of the Lockheed Skunk Works; Los Alamos physicist and nuclear weapons designer Edward Teller; an unnamed former senior watch commander at NORAD; an unnamed CIA deputy director (almost certainly John McMahon); and Max Thurman, then the vice chief of staff for the Army.

Most of these officials seemed open-minded about the possibility that UFOs are extraterrestrial or otherwise very anomalous phenomena.  However, none gave indications of knowing about an ongoing government UFO research program; and none was enthusiastic about trying to set one up.

Alexander’s account makes clear that the major obstacles to official interest were, first, the lack of an obvious, Independence-Day-type threat posed by UFOs; second, the politically hazardous nature of the subject, especially in agencies with tight budgets; and third, the fact that UFO sightings occur so seldom and obscurely that elite scientists still deny their existence.

I came away from the book with the sense that Alexander and his comrades might have succeeded anyway, if they’d managed to build a stronger support network among senior academic and/or government-involved scientists.  Alexander, despite having had some supervisory authority over high-tech projects in his last Army posting and subsequently at Los Alamos, is neither a scientist nor an engineer.  The scientists and engineers in his “Advanced Theoretical Physics” group were in some cases very accomplished in their fields; but for this culture-breaking task, engineers and scientists at the topmost levels — Ben Rich and Richard Feynman, for example — were probably needed, not to mention congressmen and senators who headed up key science-related committees.

Even so, it is sort of mind-boggling what Alexander did manage to achieve.  He joined the Army as a teenager fresh out of high school; soon impressed his superiors enough to be made an officer; distinguished himself in some fairly hairy Special Forces assignments as a junior officer in Vietnam; later (not uncontroversially) helped steer Army intelligence towards a variety of far-out projects; retired at the rank of full-bird colonel; became a recognized expert on non-lethal weapons; was given a senior management slot at one of the most prestigious scientific and technical laboratories in the world; and then (in his spare time, while not writing books) used his networking skills to try to set up a UFO research project in the U.S. government.  I suspect that not just his general I.Q. and energy level but also a formidable social intelligence had a great deal to do with these accomplishments. He seems to be one of those human “connectors” that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in The Tipping Point.  (In the pre-edited galleys sent to me by his publisher, there are four pages of “advance praise” blurbs from Alexander’s friends and associates, who range from the likes of Whitley Strieber and George Noory, to nuclear engineer Ted Rockwell and a retired three-star general, Gordon Sumner.)

Being so fully enmeshed in a social web can sometimes be a hindrance, however, and I think that Alexander here spends too much time showing respect (even when he is critical) to topics and ideas that seem out of place in a serious book on this subject:  By that I mean crop circles, “mind control” conspiracy theories, the “Taos Hum,” stories of aliens beneath the New Mexico desert, and the fantastic, U.S.-government-met-with-aliens tales of Philip Corso and Bob Dean.

Similarly, Alexander signals his approval of his friend Jacques Vallee’s “non-ET hypothesis” for UFOs. Whether or not that hypothesis is right, the cases Alexander cites in support of it are not exactly compelling, at least not to me. It seems that, like Vallee’s favorite non-ETH cases, they belong to the weakest and most folkloric class of anecdote, i.e., eyewitness-only.

Finally, Alexander asserts that when the governments and the elites of Western society do accept the reality of UFOs – because of quiet efforts like his, or as the result of some un-ignorable UFO event – “the response is likely to be surprisingly muted.”  I could not disagree more.  In fact, I think that one of the very few consolations, for people who are frustrated by science’s rejection of the phenomenon, is that the most plausible adverse side-effect of acceptance – a slow but ultimately severe societal demoralization – hasn’t yet begun. Why doesn’t Alexander fear this eventuality?  Perhaps because he has long accepted the reality of these anomalies, and if anything has been rewarded by them.  He may not appreciate how unusual he is in this regard.*


*For a slightly more pessimistic take on the whole ET acceptance thing, check out this Martin Amis short story.

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