What About Roswell?
The persistent appeal of UFO Stories
In UFO Crash at Roswell, anthropologist Charles Ziegler narrates the historical events that generated one of the most widely-accepted myths of the modern age. Given the facts of the matter, why do some 75 million Americans believe that the debris collected near Roswell, New Mexico, was extraterrestrial in origin? Ziegler holds an agnostic position on the literal facticity of the claim that extraterrestrial craft crash-landed in the desert, but his analysis provides a convincing mythogenesis of why so many of us feel that little green men piloted the craft that went down in the desert. Myths, a kind of narrative truth, stand in curious relation to empirical truth, just as the stories told by ufologists and believed by much of the public are radically different from the version of the events that is accepted by most scientists. The question is what makes them different. It’s not simply a matter of the sheer accumulation of information; in fact, many committed ufologists command much more factual detail about the events than do many knowledgeable scientists. It’s also a matter of the cultural plausibility and dramatic shape of the story—the mythological structure of what happened, why, and how.
On or about June 14, 1947, seven or eight miles from the Foster ranch which he operated, some 30 miles southeast of Corona, N.M., and 70 miles north of Roswell, foreman W. Ware ("Mack") Brazel, accompanied by his 8-year-old son, Vernon, came across some debris scattered around a 200-yard area. He said that initially he didn’t pay much attention to it because he wanted to complete his rounds. On the 24th of June, pilot Kenneth Arnold's report of seeing "flying saucers" near Mt. Ranier, in Washington State, was broadcast across the nation. The news touched off hundreds of similar sightings nationwide, but Brazel, living in a shack in the desert with no radio and ten miles from his nearest neighbor (his family lived separately 100 miles away, in Tularosa), was unaware of the sighting or the furor. On the 4th of July, three weeks after finding the debris, accompanied by his wife, Vernon, his son, and his daughter, Betty, Brazel returned to the spot and gathered up “quite a bit” of the material, rolled it up, and tossed it underneath a bush. He later stated that the paraphernalia consisted of rubber strips, tinfoil, tough paper, sticks, and what appeared to be Scotch tape bearing a floral pattern, and it seemed to form an object roughly the size of a “table top,” a contraption some 12 feet long. His account described no metal among the debris, no apparent engine of any kind, and no wire; Brazel insisted that the material could not have been components of a weather balloon.
The next day, on July the 5th, Brazel went to Corona and heard about the Arnold sighting of “flying disks.” Since Brazel found the rubble near a military airfield, he reasoned that what he had found could have been the remains of a military craft of some kind. On Monday, the 7th, he returned to Corona to sell some wool, sought out Sheriff George Wilcox, explaining that he might have found the wreckage of a flying disk. Wilcox got in touch with Maj. Jesse Marcel and another officer, Captain Sheridan Cavitt. Marcel, thinking the material could be the remains of a flying craft, accompanied Brazel to his home, where Mack handed them the material, in feed sacks, that he had found on the 4th. Cavitt stated for the public record that there was nothing out of the ordinary about the material, and Marcel reported that there were no crash or scoop marks on the ground where the material was found. Back at the base, a photographer took pictures of Marcel and Brigadier General Roger Ramey with the debris. Officials at the Roswell base then shipped the wreckage to a regional command center, Carswell Army Air Force base in Fort Worth, Texas, and from there, shipped it off to what is now the Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio. It’s not clear what happened to the material after that.
Responses to a Gallup Poll taken at the time indicated that virtually no one thought that sightings of “flying disks” might have been alien spacecraft. Most of the public questioned thought they were illusions, hoaxes, misinterpreted natural phenomena, or secret military vehicles. The Cold War had gotten started the year before, and the Army Air Corps intelligence was focused mainly on the possibility of a high-level, super-secret American spy project or perhaps Soviet surveillance craft.
Authorities at the airfield issued a press release which stated that the debris from a "flying disk" had been recovered. This prompted a July 8 article in The Roswell Daily Record entitled "RAAF [Roswell Army Air Field] Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region." The news created a sensation; inquiries flooded in from around the world asking about the craft. The night of July 8, General Ramey called the media, issuing a statement to the effect that the remains were from a high-altitude weather balloon, not a flying saucer. We now know that the general's statement was a bogus story to cover up Project Mogul, an airborne system of spying on Soviet atomic explosions. Brazel was interviewed by the press on the 8th, and his statement was published in the July 9, 1947 edition of Record, which ran the headline: "General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer." The disclaimer quieted things down, and for over 30 years, the matter was largely forgotten.
In 1978, Stanton Friedman, a former nuclear physicist, interviewed Major Marcel, who remained convinced that what Brazel gave him was the wreckage of an unusual craft of some kind. Unfortunately, Marcel's accounts reveal the decay of memory over time. He could not recall the year when the incident took place, the fact that he had appeared in two press photos, not just one, that a total of seven photographs were taken, and that the material in all of these photographs was identical. These details assume enormous importance later on. Friedman ignored these problems, interviewed several other witnesses, and collaborated with Charles Berlitz and William Moore (coauthors of the now-discredited The Bermuda Triangle Mystery), on The Roswell Incident, which was published in 1980. (Friedman did not receive co-authorship of the book.) When interviewed, Marcel stated that the material he was photographed with was unrelated to the Roswell crash and that the “real” debris was extraterrestrial in origin.
Two features of the Berlitz-Moore-Friedman book are remarkable. The first is that it put forth the contention that the debris discovered in the desert near Roswell was the wreckage from an alien craft. It is notable that the first three published claims of crashed alien ships (in 1948 and 1950) were either a hoax or a joke, indicating the rarity with which this belief was held at the time of the collection of the Roswell material. The second remarkable feature of the claims made in The Roswell Incident was a story, told third-hand, by one Barney Barnett, who had died in 1969. He claimed he had seen another crash site on the plains of Saint Agustin, 150 miles from where Brazel had found the debris. His story is that this site was littered with tiny, humanoid bodies. At the time, no one, Friedman included, placed credence in the third-hand story, which originated from a by then-deceased man, since it seemed to have no relation to the Roswell crash. But years later, the second tale assumed prominence in a book written by two science fiction writers, Kevin Randle and Don Schmitt, The Truth about the UFO Crash at Roswell, who claimed that the government had found and "spirited away" the alien bodies. Hundreds of alleged Roswell eyewitnesses stepped forward, including a mortician, who had been asked for "child-sized coffins," and a nurse, who said she had seen an autopsy performed on "strange-looking, small bodies." Over time, the Roswell tale has taken on truly baffling twists and turns.
Dozens of books claiming that alien space ships crashed in the desert near Roswell have been published; in all likelihood, dozens more are in the works. According to a poll conducted by Time magazine, among the segment of the public accepting the idea that UFOs are alien airships, two-thirds believe that a UFO "crash-landed near Roswell,” and four-fifths believe that the U.S. government "knows more about extraterrestrials than it chooses to let on." The fact is, contrary to the conspiracy theorists, the U.S. military was actively seeking to locate physical evidence of an alien crash long after the Roswell incident. Secret documents that the government was forced to release under the Freedom of Information Act contain statements by top Air Force officials to that effect. For instance, in a document dated March 17, 1948, Col. Howard McCoy, chief intelligence officer at the air force base where the remains of the Roswell crash were supposedly shipped, stated: "We are running down every [UFO] report. I can't tell you how much we would give to have one of those [mysterious craft] so we could recover whatever they are.” Clearly, the military knew that the material collected in the desert was not of extraterrestrial origin.
In 1995 and 1997, the Air Force released two reports on the Roswell incident. Both admitted that the weather balloon story had been a cover-up for top-secret Project Mogul, which was designed to monitor Soviet atomic tests. The materials used to assemble Mogul's reflectors, according to Ziegler, perfectly match Brazel's 1947 description of what he found in the desert, as well as the seven photographs taken of the debris before it was shipped from the Roswell base. The material was fitted with and held together with beams of balsa wood, coated with glue, and the seams were reinforced with the same tape (with "pinkish-purple . . . flower-like designs") which Major Marcel interpreted as bearing “hieroglyphics.” Records show that one train of the reflector balloons was released in the first week of June, about a week before Brazel found the debris. The train disappeared off the radar screen that was monitoring its movement just 20 miles from the ranch were Brazel found the debris. Moreover, military records show that there were no unusual operations, movements, or maneuvers during the period in question, nor did pilots assigned to the Roswell base at the time report any rumor or hubbub occurring just after the discovery of the debris.
According to the Air Force reports, the small bodies some witnesses claimed to have seen were in all likelihood test dummies, 67 of which were released in projects High Dive and Excelsior, exercises that took place in the area between 1954 and 1959. Some critics charge that these projects took place before the Roswell incident. But in 1947 no one reported having seen alien bodies. In all cases, the recollection of supposed eyewitnesses of extraterrestrials took place well after the Roswell incident, the passage of time collapsing their recollection to 1947. The autopsy that the nurse-eyewitness reports could not have taken place in 1947, since she was not assigned to the Roswell base until 1956. The third-hand story about the dead bodies seen in 1947, as told to Friedman in 1978, cannot be verified. In other words, we have no evidence that is unassailably contemporaneous to 1947 that says anything about alien bodies. This part of the tale was tacked on much later, after the notion of extraterrestrials had become believable to the American public.
Thus, the interesting questions about the Roswell incident are not physical or forensic, but sociological and anthropological. In other words, what is important about Roswell is not what happened—because we already know what happened. (At least, we know the version that is most credible to scientists and historians.) Clearly, the scientific, historical, and journalistic accounts are vastly different it from that believed by ufologists. What is important from the perspective of a social scientist is how and why the tale that aliens crashed in the desert arose, why does it seem credible in certain circles, and what role it plays in contemporary culture. The official version of the crash is questionable only if one buys into the notion of a vast government conspiracy. If one believes that the government released false information to cover up the real story—that there was an alien craft—one is free to construct any conceivable story one might choose. No amount of discrediting information could refute any such assertion because that information is inevitably part of a government cover-up of the truth.
Ziegler classifies the assertion of the alien origin of the crash as a myth. (Six different versions of the story are currently in circulation.) By this he does not mean they are necessarily false, only that they follow a stereotypical or folkloric structure, much like the tales told in tribal and folk societies. The Roswell myth contains themes that have been embedded in stories for thousands of years. The central motif of the Roswell tale is that "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 tale has a hero as well as a villain: "The cultural hero (the ufologist) circumvents the monster and by investigative prowess, releases the essential item (wisdom) for humankind.” Hoarded-object folk narratives in which the hero, through intelligence, bravery, and zeal, releases or liberates the hoarded object "are truly ubiquitous and geographically widespread.” Once again, the folkloric quality of the Roswell story does not automatically refute its validity, but it does shed light on its appeal. According to Ziegler, the Roswell incident "is a folk narrative masquerading as an exposé.” In addition, the Roswell UFO story is appealing to many believers because:
- It represents a "vehicle for social protest" against the government; it is an expression of "antigovernment sentiment," dramatic testimony to ongoing government conspiracies.
- It is unfalsifiable; it cannot be disproven. Any fact that is presented to counter its validity is interpreted as a government cover-up.
- It contains a strong religious element. For many observers, aliens are contemporary angels possessing wisdom humans need but lack.
- It is an ingredient in affirming group solidarity and distinguishing believers (who are wise and virtuous) from nonbelievers (who are fools, knaves, and narrow-minded dogmatists), stressing the superiority of the former over the latter.
- It is a means by which the "we are not alone" notion is made manifest and, simultaneously, an assertion that our earthly imperfections could be rectified by the wisdom of infinitely superior, superhuman, almost supernatural beings.
Ziegler argues that the image most scholars and scientists hold on the Roswell incident is that it rests on a "way of knowing" that is radically different from that which believers use. The former tend to have different, and usually stricter, standards regarding acceptable and decisive evidence than the latter. Issues that concern them tend to assume less importance to advocates, believers, and ufologists.
For instance, scientists and scholars place far more emphasis on physical and forensic evidence, while UFO believers have more faith in eyewitnesses (if they agree with their own version of the truth). Discrepancies between different versions of the Roswell tale are more distressing to the expert and less so to the believer. The fact that the tale follows well-worn traditional and stereotypical folk idioms that have existed for thousands of years arouses more skepticism in the scientist and the scholar and less so in the believer. The fact that supposed eyewitnesses have come forward decades after the event, or have been shown to have been dishonest in other matters, or changed their stories over time, is far more discrediting to their story to the scientist and the scholar than it is to the believer. In contrast, believers more readily discount evidence that issues from the government, assuming that it is "tainted" by a conspiracy; scientists and scholars are less likely to do so, arguing that conspiracy theories are an excuse for protecting a theory that cannot be falsified.
Once again, the ways that scientists "know" something to be true are very different from the ways that believers or laypersons "know" their version of the truth. Each is based on an epistemology that cancels the other out. Given their incompatibility, it is almost unimaginable that the mystery of Roswell can be solved to the satisfaction of all parties any time soon. According to Thomas Bullard, author of The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, “official reports and learned disputes ceased to carry any weight because the cultural reality of the Roswell crash overshadowed its historical reality.”
The fact that scientists and ufologists have different “ways of knowing” emphasizes that different sorts of evidence are accepted by the two sides. Believers feel that the fact that the government “covered up” the Roswell story in the past (that is, lied about atomic spying) is crucial evidence that it could just as easily have lied about a space ship; given the fact of a cover-up, it must have been about the extraterrestrials. The fact that six entirely different and in large measure, contradictory, alien Roswell stories circulate is crucial for the scientist, almost irrelevant for the believer. (After all, they reason, at least one has to be true.) The fact that these tales resonate with and address cultural and societal concerns is important for the scientist, a mere distraction for the believer. Once again, a narration of the events of Roswell underlines the fundamental differences in epistemology between ufologist and scientist, but it does not prove that one version is right and the other is wrong. At this point, neither side could possibly be successful in convincing the other of the validity of its position.
Published on April 9, 2012 by Erich Goode, Ph.D. in The Paranormal