The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   33

UFO Crash at Roswell

The Genesis of a Modern Myth

by Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore

Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997

The Folk Narrative Is Out There

This is, almost without question, the best book ever written about the supposed UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947; it is also, almost equally certainly, the most damning, though the authors (two anthropologists and an atmospheric physicist) claim to have gone out of their way to avoid taking sides between skeptics and believers. In point of fact, their approach is even more damaging to the believers' case than normal skepticism. (Readers who have been completely cut off from American culture for the last few years may want to read the author's rendition of the generic Roswell story, circa 1996, before going on.)

The Roswell myth is available in at least half a dozen books, any number of publications from the dedicated UFO press, and The X-Files every other Sunday night or so, when they get back to the conspiracy plot-line. (It is pleasing to learn that the author of an early flying-saucer-crash-and-government-cover-up book was named Scully.) A normal skeptical attack on the story would show that it was bad history. Our authors disdain this approach, and proceed to analyze the versions in the six books which have found mainstream publishers as though it were a ``folk narrative'', the anonymous creation of a subculture holding certain distinctive ideas in common. Such stories mutate in predictable ways as they are told over and over again, the trends having been first identified by the great psychologist F. C. Bartlett in the '20s: elements of fantasy are introduced; ``inventions and transformations, once introduced, show great tenacity''; ``all those types of relation ... about which feeling tends to cluster are readily exaggerated''; unpleasant and unassimilable elements get dropped; parts of the story switch place or are reversed; the plot as a whole is rationalized (according to the lights of the tellers). All of these can be seen in the successive avatars of the Roswell story; since the written versions are produced by members of the subculture itself, stitching together various oral accounts (``personalized legends'') and applying their own imagination, their composition is subject to the same psychological mechanisms and the same trends, and of course the these written versions trigger new oral versions in turn. My favorite instance of these transformations is the redheaded MP:

In Version 3 this civilian describes his ejection from the hospital [to which the aliens' bodies had been taken] by the military police; in Version 4 he is ejected by the military police and accosted by an angry redheaded colonel who threatens him with severe reprisals if he reveals what he has seen; and in Versions 5 and 6 he is ejected by the military police, but the redheaded colonel is dropped and, instead, the civilian is accosted by a black sergeant and an angry redheaded captain... The threatening black sergeant and redheaded captain had appeared first in the story of Gerald Anderson, which is given in Version 4. Anderson's tale was rejected as a ``fiction'' by [those] who produced Versions 5 and 6, but the ubiquitous black sergeant and redheaded captain reappear in Versions 5 and 6... [pp. 45--46]
Was Red demoted for failing to sufficiently intimidate the first witness? Inquiring minds, etc.

The authors classify the Roswell folk narrative as a myth because it is (1) not regarded as fiction by its tellers and (2) concerned with a ``transcendental'' subject, namely the existence of non-human intelligence. In fact it falls under entry number A1481 in Stith Thompson's standard index of folk-tale motifs: ``A malevolent monster (the government) has sequestered an item essential to humankind (wisdom of a transcendental nature, i.e., evidence-based knowledge that we are not alone in the universe). The culture hero (the ufologist) circumvents the monster and (by investigatory prowess) releases the essential item (wisdom) for humankind.'' Not only that, but it serves the social functions outlined in Malinowski's classical theory of myths, that of a ``charter'' for the beliefs and practices of the subculture, and indeed an example to be imitated. Among other things, it warrants suspicion and hostility towards the US government, if not others, in part explaining its recent popularity outside the circle of dedicated believers.

Now, why do I say this is even more damning than a conventional skeptical debunking? Because it undercuts the justification for believing in the Roswell story. Even if, by some absurd miracle, the story should happen to be true, the authors have shown that that truth one way or the other has nothing to do with why people believe it. Similar undercutting maneuvers are at the heart of contemporary debates about the validity of science. Here I think the sapping succeeds, because the authors have both (1) shown that there is a process, indifferent to truth and justification, for spreading the belief and (2) shown that this process is operating in this case. (It's hard to argue away that redheaded MP.) The old-fashioned skeptics paid believers the complement of rational opposition; our authors think they're not even wrong. Could it possibly be worse?

Well, yes. Despite the claims by the anthropological authors that they're leaving the truth of the Roswell myth to one side, they provide evidence for an entirely prosaic, terrestrial origin for the events later elaborated into the myth. In 1947, Charles Moore was a beginning graduate student in atmospheric physics at NYU, part of a research group which was developing constant-altitude balloons for the Army Air Force. This was part of Project Mogul, the goal of which was to lift the balloons to 10-20 km and have them listen for the long-distance, high-altitude sound waves thought to be produced by very large explosions --- say, an atomic bomb going off in Kazakhstan or Siberia. Quite in keeping with the security system of the time, Moore and his colleagues didn't even know the name of the project they were working for!

The balloons --- or rather, trains of them, connected by 180 meters of nylon cable --- were launched from Alamogordo, and tracked by planes, theodolite and radar. To help with the radar tracking, special radar reflectors were attached to the balloons; on some of the first flights, these reflectors were bound together with a kind of scotch tape printed with a pinkish-purple flower design, a striking but pretty typical piece of war-era bricolage. One flight with such a reflector was never recovered --- the whole construction was cheap enough that nobody bothered to go after it. Moore meticulously calculates the probable path of this balloon, based on the known weather of the time and the flights of later, better tracked balloons. This path ends --- surprise! --- at the Forster ranch, 75 miles from Roswell, where the debris which started the whole thing was recovered. Among the features of the debris: ``some tape with flowers printed on it.''

The fourth chapter, by Benson Saler, is much less valuable. Most of it is devoted to re-hashing arguments in anthropology over the definition of religion (will these people never learn?), quoting Wittgenstein on ``family resemblance,'' discussing different philosophical accounts of belief, and contrasting popular ideas about outer space (à la TV science fiction) with traditional ideas about heaven. The connection to the Roswell myth is under-explored, and what would seem like obvious and important questions in the variation of religious or near-religious ideas about outer space are simply ignored. (One suspects that those who believe the planet is being secretly run by Greys engaged in hybridization experiments and cattle mutilation have very different notions than those channeling benign members of the Federation.) The chapter as a whole could have been dropped with profit.

The final chapter describes, impressionistically, plausibly and without much evidence, three different ``images of Roswell'' --- that in the media (called ``the public''); that held by scholars; and that held by believers. There is a brief, hand-waving discussion of ``media-driven public credulity,'' which doesn't even bother to establish that it exists, much less that it is important in this case, or what its specific effects are. This would have been a logical place to examine non-print instance of the myth, like the notorious ``alien autopsy'' video, or probe the politics that goes with it in more depth, but our authors let the opportunity slide.

Despite the flaws of the last two chapters, UFO Crash at Roswell remains an excellent piece of work, of great interest to anyone interested in mythology, folklore, or the soft dark underbelly of the American mind.

Q: Is there any other impression about the Mars landing and people's perception about it that you want to say?
A: The most salient thing that strikes me is what I said at the top of this interview --- which is, the incredible and dismaying dichotomy. On the one hand, we land a robot on Mars after two decades --- and on the very same day, here are all these people buying hot dogs and looking around for space garbage in a rancher's field in New Mexico. And those are the smart ones. The stupid ones are the ones who went to Roswell, Ga., because they didn't know the difference.
---Harlan Ellison, interview in the Dallas Morning News, 13 July 1997

xii + 198 pp., endnotes, bibliography, index of names
Debunking / Folklore / North America / Popular Culture / UFOs
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 1-56098-751-0, US$24.95
17 March 1998