Mirage Men tackles at least in part, the sticky, controversial and exceptionally complex history of UFOs and government cover-ups. Among the rain forest of books out there purporting to explain what UFOs are (often arguing their particular case with religious zeal), anyone wanting to attempt to maintain cool objectivity while trying to root out the truth has a long hard task ahead of them. It's a task that, like those attempting to translate The Voynich Manuscript, has led some quite literally into madness.
Mark Pilkington has a long history of trying to look at the UFO phenomenon objectively; from running and speaking at UFO groups and conferences, editing the wonderful Strange Attractor Journal
, to his contributions to The Anomalist
and the Fortean Times, he seems like someone particularly well-placed to deal with everyone from skeptic to fundamentalist saucer-head.
"Mirage Men" is written partly as a broad history of the UFO phenomenon and partly as a philosophical and anthropological journey into the minds of those involved in it, on both sides of the security fence.
The book looks at the various secretive projects run by America's defence organisations over the years from the 1940s to the present day, including projects that were adapted upon and used (such as near-soundless helicopters and stealth bombers) and projects that were abandoned, scrapped, or vanished into further darkness (e.g. saucer-shaped craft developed from Nazi prototypes after WWII).
It reveals the various agencies' own paranoias regarding the perceived Soviet threat of the time, and exposes the furiously bitter rivalries between the numerous organisations which led to them spying on, and generating disinformation about, each other. (One example mentioned was the aerospace funding taken from the U S Air Force and handed to NASA, who an angry Air Force them blamed using disinformants for UFO cover-ups generating NASA a huge headache fielding off thousands of excitable enquiries, many of which still persist).
Most sinister however is the book's close look at the CIA's "grooming" of targeted individuals within the sprawling community of UFO and paranormal researchers, believers, conspiracy theorists and conference goers. Of particular note in the book is CIA disinformation operative Richard Doty, who the author manages to track down for an interview. Doty was responsible, at least in part, for a number of disinformation campaigns, repeatedly feeding people false CIA-generated "government insider" information to steer UFOlogists (physically and psychologically) away from genuine secret operations to have them running elsewhere to look for ET. (The author visits a mountain facility in the desert, a facade made out of scrap army materials, once used to convince the overly-nosey of a secret alien base). The CIA convinced some much respected researchers so well that they had exchange programmes going with aliens but "couldn't tell anyone", that one of the researchers eventually lost his mind and was committed to hospital.
Doty is real and showed off his credentials by getting the author and his cameraman in to US military bases to show them around, but it isn't long before the author begins to wonder if he is also being fed disinformation by the CIA.
It's a great story of UFO fanatics and who's-bluffing-who disinformation agents, one that is all the more crazy because it's a true story; the author was even contacted by his CIA contact after the interview to be informed that aliens really were here, after which he was then accused of being an MI6 agent!
Occasionally jumbled but mostly coherent (although an exception might be a few quaint pseudo-academic phrases such as "epistemological pretzel") it's a book that has a lot of territory to cover and does so without pretending it can explain everything. I get the impression that Pilkington, despite his hairy encounters with the CIA, remains open-minded about what's really going on. He also seemed to like Richard Doty much more than I did by the end of the book. But it certainly gives a clear indication of some of the things that were going on the the US military when and where flying saucers were being sighted, and suggests an explanation for the various government agencies' badly-co-ordinated, ever-changing and often conflicting public responses to questions about UFOs.