Area 51, Revisited

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The latest on Area 51

Why does people’s skepticism go out the window when it comes to military matters — especially any that are secret? Granted, the recent dispatch of Osama bin Laden does make the U.S. military look all-but-omnipotent. But it’s important to note that grand success was striking…because it was so rare.

Annie Jacobson’s new book — AREA 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base — is the 398th touching on the Nevada site, according to Amazon’s roster. But some of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (Video: Watch Jacobson discuss her most provocative Area 51 findings)

She has interviewed 74 pilots and engineers, among others, who used to work there, and uncovered lots of details about their ground-breaking work in developing the U-2 spy plane, the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber and other aviation assets that helped the U.S. win the Cold War. There are amusing tales of trying to turn pigeons and cats into animal-kingdom 007s.

PHOTOS: The UFO Congress

Part of Area 51’s intrigue is that the government still declines to discuss it. That adds to its mystique, because truth…tends to be boring. It’s the same way with the SEALs who offed bin Laden — there is no quicker way to render a hero humdrum than to meet him. (Gosh — he’s so normal!)

Area 51 suffers one flaw. Jacobsen’s tale of the UFO that fell from the sky near Roswell, N.M., in 1947, is just that: a tale. The U.S. government transported the “spacecraft” to Area 51, where it was subject to all kinds of probing. It has generated endless controversy and confusion since then. All government efforts to explain what it was — usually a weather balloon of some kind — have merely thrown gasoline on the conspiracists’ fires. (See the top 10 conspiracy theories of all time)

Jacobson suggests in the book (as well as in recent TV interviews) that the UFO was, in reality, a Nazi-inspired Soviet spy plane manned by midget teen-agers. Josef Stalin purportedly had Josef Mengele provide surgically-tweaked mini-pilots who were supposed to disembark from the aircraft, pretend to be space aliens, and scare Americans to death.

Someone’s DVD player has been stuck on Close Encounters of the Third Kind for too long. When stories like this pop up, I like to impose what I call the “human nature” rule. Why would they have wanted to keep this tale secret, if it had happened this way? More critically, could the U.S. government have kept it a secret? Just because a fair number of Americans become unhinged when discussing UFOs and military matters is no reason for the rest of us to tag along. (See the top 10 strangest government secrets)

“Facts are often more fantastic than fiction,” publisher Little, Brown’s website for the book says, “especially when the distinction is almost impossible to make.” Most of Area 51 is solid and well done, but its dubious claim regarding the Roswell UFO makes one wish all involved had tried a little harder to separate fact from fiction, before printing the later as the former.