Friday, October 14, 2011

Airplanes and Nukes and Secrets, Oh My!: A Review of Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base by Annie Jacobsen

Title: Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base
Author: Annie Jacobsen
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co. (2011)
Pages: 521
Challenges: 2011 GoodReads Reading Challenge
How I Came by This Book: I first heard about this book in passing on NPR. Being a nerd, books like this are pretty much the equivalent of candy so I checked it out of my library as soon as it was available.

About the Author: Annie Jacobsen is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine and an investigative reporter whose work has also appeared in the National Review and the Dallas Morning News. Her two-part series "The Road to Area 51" in the Los Angeles Times Magazine was widely read. A graduate of Princeton University, Annie Jacobsen lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.

Synopsis: It is the most famous military installation in the world. And it doesn't exist. Located a mere seventy-five miles outside Las Vegas in the Nevada desert, the base has never been acknowledged by the U.S. government--but Area 51 has captivated imaginations for decades.

Myths and hypotheses about Area 51 have long abounded, thanks to the intense secrecy enveloping it. Some claim that it is home to aliens, underground tunnel systems, and nuclear facilities. Others believe that the lunar landing was filmed there. The prevalence of these rumors stems from the fact that no credible insider has ever divulged the truth about his time inside the base. Until now.

Annie Jacobsen had exclusive access to nineteen men who served on the base proudly and secretly for decades and are now aged seventy-five to ninety-two; she also had unprecedented access to fifty-five additional military and intelligence personnel, scientists, pilots, and engineers linked to the secret base, thirty-two of whom lived and worked there for extended periods. In Area 51, Jacobsen shows us what has really gone on in the Nevada desert, from testing nuclear weapons to building supersonic jets to pursuing the War on Terror.

This is the first book based on interviews with eyewitnesses to Area 51 history, which makes it the seminal work on the subject. Filled with formerly classified information that has never been accurately decoded for the public, Area 51 weaves the mysterious activities of the top secret base into a gripping narrative, showing that fact is often more fantastic than fiction, especially when the distinction is almost impossible to make.

Review: I thankfully didn't learn of Jacobsen's affiliation with the ultra-conservative National Review until after I had read the book. I might have put it down immediately and not picked it up again. While I appreciate getting perspectives from both sides, the openly hostile and historically racist magazine is one source that I can honestly say that I can't appreciate. Even still, Jacobsen's Area 51 is a well-written book...but one that I can't in good conscience recommend as a good work of non-fiction, "seminal" or otherwise.

Jacobsen is a good writer. She's engaging, often funny, and delves deeply into her topic. But her misuse of source material bothers me immensely. Basing most of her work on interviews with men who claim to have worked at Area 51 (including pilots, scientists, and security guards), Jacobsen molds a narrative from what these individuals told her, shaping the unclassified documents she was given to fit what these men said. She frequently asserts that what she is saying has never been made known before, but I question whether or not people who had spent their entire lives sworn to secrecy would divulge possibly classified information to her just because they're no longer working there. In fact, Jacobsen makes it clear that even past employees of the base aren't supposed to be walking around blabbing about what they saw and did there.

I firmly believe in the existence of Area 51. That's not to say that I'm a conspiracy theorist. Do I think the moon landing was a hoax? No. Do I believe in chemtrails? No. But do I think that there are things going on in Nevada that we're not being told about? Yes. Jacobsen makes the case that almost all of this secret business has always revolved around developing new and better planes and nukes (if you can call a nuke of any sort "better"). And yet, this is only what she was able to find out based on unclassified documents and octogenarians. There is quite a lot missing from the narrative, especially since the 80s, mostly because these projects (and the existing documentation) are still on a need-to-know basis. For Jacobsen to claim that this is an almost definitive history is ludicrous.

Also in the category of "Things I Wouldn't Believe Even If You Gave Me a Lobotomy, for $500, Alex" is her claims about the Roswell incident. Yes, I believe in extraterrestrial life, but that's not what makes me wary of her "explanation." The idea that the Soviet Union had hover technology and that they used it to attempt to create a scare on the scale of the "War of the Worlds" incident is, frankly, insane. Jacobsen spends almost 500 pages building a story of the best and the brightest and how they were able to create all of this amazing and ahead-of-its-time technology and yet it's the USSR who figures out how to do something that no one working at Area 51 could do without retrofitting? Give me a frakking break.

The even crazier idea that she pushes in regards to Roswell is *SPOILER ALERT* that there were bodies recovered from the two crash sites but that, get this, they were actually children who were genetically modified by Josef Mengele for Stalin in order to create the impression that aliens were flying their space-age hovering aircraft. Put yourself into Stalin's shoes. You have hover technology installed in an aircraft that can go at unimaginable speeds and you're going to put children who look like aliens in the cockpits and have them flown by remote control just so that you could scare some Americans? That's not what I would have done. You know why? Because it's stupid. It's also, contrary to what Jacobsen asserts, not the simplest explanation. Her use of Ockham's Razor is, I suppose, her way of legitimizing her absurd theory. It, however, fails miserably, as does her insistence that the information came from an EG&G engineer who (although unidentified) swears that he worked on a project to recreate hover technology as well as--wait for it--genetic experiments done on children and the handicapped that are, quite possibly, still being carried out by U.S. intelligence. Yep, because that's what I'd want to waste time doing--creating kids with big saucer eyes and no nose.

As I was reading this book, I stopped thinking of it as non-fiction (even with the presence of some old photos that show what I'm sure *are* legitimate programs carried out by Intelligence and the Air Force) and just started reading it as fiction. It reads quite like a novel and if you aren't looking for any legitimacy then it's a pretty enjoyable read. Her use of end notes that depend on you guessing which lines are going to be cited annoyed the hell out of me (how about just using numbers to keep track of your notes, Jacobsen?) so I pretty quickly just ignored the citations because, let's face it, I wasn't going to get anything particularly useful out of them anyway. The ups and downs of the base and its personnel were interesting but, again, it seemed more fiction-y than anything else.

So, let's recap:
1) Great read if you think of it as a novel, but
2) not-so-great if you think of it as non-fiction, and
3) absolutely absurd if you have any real common sense when it comes to the Soviet Union or genetic modification.

I'm giving Area 51 3 out of 5 Gabriels. I really can't rate it lower because it was well-written and readable, but I also can't really recommend it either.



  1. "Great read if you think of it as a novel"

    That's pretty much all I was hoping for when I picked up a copy myself. I was a bit leery of it, but now I'm kind of anxious to get reading. :)

  2. I'm curious to see what you think of it. When you post your review, feel free to leave the link here so that I can go and check it out. :)