Suspension of Disbelief: The U.S. Air Force, UFOs and Roswell
Thomas J. Carey
Co-author of Witness to Roswell [2007, 2009]
This article is used with permission and was originally published in What’s Happening Magazine.
After a stint in the Air Force where he possessed a TOP SECRET/CRYPTO clearance, Thomas J. Carey became interested in anthropology and human evolution and received a Masters Degree in Anthropology from California State University, Sacramento. Tom then received a fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Toronto.
Carey became interested in UFO's while in high school and rekindled that interest when he became the MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) State Section Director for Southeastern Pennsylvania (1986-2002). In that capacity, he investigated local UFO sightings in the Delaware Valley, which encompasses the five-county area surrounding Philadelphia. Since 1991, Carey’s research has focused solely on the so-called "Roswell Incident" and the alleged retrieval/cover-up by the U.S. Government of an alien spaceship and crew that crashed near the town of Roswell, New Mexico in July, 1947.
Carey was the investigative consultant for the highly acclaimed and top-rated 2002 Sci Fi Channel documentary, The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence. Most recently, he has appeared on Larry King Live (2003), CN8 Weekend Live (2004), The FOX NEWS CHANNEL (2004), Coast-to-Coast AM with George Noory (2004) and the Jeff Rense Show (2004).
Everyone has seen a movie or a play at some time or other in his or her life that involved the invocation of that time-honored theatrical technique known as “suspension of disbelief” [hereinafter referred to as “SOD”] by which the audience is required to believe a premise that they would normally never accept – things that happen in the story, which no one would believe if presented to them as fact in the real world. In such instances, the audience makes a semi-conscious decision to put aside its disbelief and accepts the unbelievable premise as “real” for the duration of the story, as long as the story maintains consistency with that premise within the parameters of the storyline. In other words, the audience suspends its disbelief of what it is witnessing in order that the story can go forward. If it doesn’t, the story doesn’t work, and everyone goes home unhappy.
SOD lends itself most notably to comedies, fantasy and science fiction, action and surprisingly, sports movies. Older readers will remember the 1943 WW II fantasy film, A Guy Named Joe, wherein its star, Spencer Tracy, plays a bomber pilot who was killed in a crash only to reappear as a ghost to harass his former buddy, another pilot played by Van Johnson, in Johnson’s pursuit of Tracy’s former girlfriend, played by Irene Dunne. The SOD occurs when the audience, who can clearly see Tracy “in the flesh” as the ghost character on the screen, must accept the disbelief that the other actors on the screen, most notably Johnson and Dunne, also cannot see him . Without the audience’s acceptance of their SOD, the film doesn’t work. In the 1990 film, Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze as a ghost and Demi Moore as Swayze’s former true love, although the story-line is completely different [i.e., a real “tear-jerker”], the same SOD concept, but with a twist, is similarly employed between the on-screen images of the characters played by Swayze and Moore when they appear together on the screen. In this film, however, although Moore’s character cannot see Swayze as a ghost, the audience is led to believe that she can “sense” his presence, much to everyone’s delight.
Action movies, however, sometimes push SOD believability to the limit, and in such instances SOD must be employed with caution. It doesn’t always work, especially in sports movies where professional actors with no athletic experience try to portray sports heroes. Although audiences, out of respect for a beloved sports icon, tried their best to suspend their disbelief, movie critics were not so charitable with 1948’s The Babe Ruth Story because the film’s star, William Bendix, displayed an obvious inability to throw, catch or hit a baseball remotely like the left-handed “Bambino.” The problem was that in real life Bendix was right-handed! Unlike the critics, however, audiences could overlook Bendix’ dexterity shortcomings in the role and loved the movie, because they liked William Bendix from his role as a household bumbler in the weekly radio and TV series, The Life of Riley, and they still revered the recently-deceased “Sultan of Swat,” Babe Ruth.
A similar situation occurred with Anthony Perkins’ miscast portrayal of the troubled Boston Red Sox star center-fielder Jimmy Piersall in the critically acclaimed 1957 film, Fear Strikes Out. How or why the obviously non-athletic Perkins [in the film, Perkins displayed a baseball skill-set equivalent to someone who had never played the game before] was chosen to play the part of a star athlete is unknown, but audiences and critics were able to swallow their disbelief out of respect and hope for the then still-performing Piersall and because the film was really more about a very serious topic - mental illness - than it was about baseball.
Robert Redford had at least played some minor league baseball before becoming an actor. So, his baseball skills, on display in the role of the aspiring but over-aged “rookie” Roy Hobbs in the 1984 film, The Natural – my all -time favorite sports movie - were well within the boundaries of “belief.” The SOD arrives, however, when the audience is asked to accept that a scrawny, un-muscular, late “thirty-something” could hit a baseball “Ruthian” distances, explode light standards and knock-down tall buildings with a single blow. Further, in the filming of the action sequences, it appeared that the trajectory of some of Hobbs’ “moon shots” [“Oh, my! Goodbye Mr. Spalding.”], if followed, would have had trouble clearing the infield dirt rather than the outfield fences! In the end, the audiences - including me - overlooked their disbelief of Roy Hobbs’ hard-to-believe physical prowess to launch baseballs into the stratosphere in favor of a desire to root for a downtrodden underdog who came from nothing and nowhere to reach the mountaintop of success against the odds, which represents the “American Dream” to most people not starting out from privilege.
From these few examples, it can be seen that the success or failure of SOD depends upon several key factors, most notably the context or milieu in which it is employed, the degree of disbelief involved [there are limits] and the predilections of the audience at any given moment [e.g., what worked for audiences in the 1940’s or 1950’s might not work for today’s audiences].
The U.S. Air Force’s use of SOD to explain away UFO sightings and close encounters over the past sixty-odd years is legendary. Eyewitnesses who have come forward and signed sworn affidavits attesting to having seen something of an otherworldly nature have been insulted, demeaned and even threatened by the Air Force into believing that they had witnessed nothing more than the planet Venus, weather balloons, flocks of geese cavorting high in the sky, plovers flying in tight V-formation or marauding meteors and bouncing bolides. Close encounters with UFOs in our atmosphere or on the ground are explained away as U-2 spy planes out of time, moon-landers out of place, flares suspended over major U.S. cities at night for no apparent reason, or “swamp gas” that has somehow coalesced into a metallic, domed-disk complete with antennae and portholes!
These “explanations” have generally sufficed for a disinterested mainstream news media, academics, politicians and other “professionals,” all of whose livelihoods depend to some degree upon their credibility or public reputations. To these, the subject of UFOs remains an anathema, and any statement tossed out there that “explains away” the latest big sighting as something mundane – no matter how ridiculous - is good enough for them. In their world, it’s just another misidentified or misrepresented “case closed.” This trusty template for denying the reality that some UFOs may represent extraterrestrial space craft from another world, can trace its roots back to the year 1947 and the Air Force’s handling of the so-called “Roswell Incident.”
For those of you who were not around in 1947, or were around but were too young to know anything, or were old enough but have simply forgotten, the Modern Age of UFOs [called flying saucers or flying discs, back then] burst upon the scene in late June of that year. For a period of two weeks, flying saucers were front-page news in every newspaper throughout the land. What were these mysterious objects flitting about our airspace with seeming impunity? Where were they from? Were they Russian, and were they a threat? A nation anxiously wanted to know. Even though many eyewitnesses seemed to be describing something that was beyond our known science and technical capabilities of the time, Gallop Polls taken during and shortly after this first known post-war UFO wave or “flap”, consistently showed that most citizens believed them to have been of earthly origin – either U.S., Russian or German devices developed since the war. That they might represent extraterrestrial technology was way down on the list. It was during this time – occurring just two weeks after Kenneth Arnold’s seminal sighting of nine “saucer-like objects” near Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington – that what has come to be known as the “Roswell Incident” shook the world.
At first, the Air Force issued a local press release stating that it had recovered a flying disc [as the military preferred to call them until the term “UFO” was adopted in 1952] that had “landed” on a ranch near the town of Roswell, NM. No details were provided other than to state that it was discovered by a local rancher, and that its custodian was an Army Air Force officer by the name of Maj. Jesse A. Marcel, who was the intelligence officer from the 509th Bomb Group located at Roswell Army Air Field just south of the town. The release concluded by stating that the disc was “… loaned Maj. Marcel to higher headquarters” for further inspection. The “higher headquarters” would be that of the 8th Air Force located in Fort Worth, Texas. The press release soon hit the news wires, and what was initially a local story soon became a national and international sensation. An excited world was sorely disappointed the next day, however, when they were informed by the commanding officer of the 8th Air Force, General Roger Ramey, that the flying disc was nothing more than a rubber “weather balloon” attached to a tinfoil radar “kite,” which was framed by balsa wood struts – just like a regular kite. The boys of the 509th had simply made a mistake. What the world did not know was that the men of the 509th Bomb Group at Roswell were part of the most elite military unit in the armed forces of the United States at the time and part of the only nuclear-tipped strike force in the world. It was B-29s of the 509th Bomb Group that ended World War II by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in 1947 Roswell was the country’s first and only SAC [Strategic Air Command] base. During the Cold War, SAC was the Free World’s chief deterrent to Russian expansionism. To suggest that the 509th’s top intelligence officer, Maj. Jesse A. Marcel, would confuse an ordinary weather balloon and its radar target, made of rubber, tinfoil, balsa wood and bailing twine [that any child of six would have been able to identify], with the wreckage of an interstellar spacecraft from another star-system, is to stretch SOD beyond reasonable limits – a stretch too far. But these facts were not generally known to people outside of the Roswell environs and, having just won World War II, the U.S. military was at the height of its national prestige and esteem throughout the nation.
Vietnam disillusionment was still decades in the future. So, in 1947, when our beloved and victorious military said something was fact, people were still predisposed to listen and believe. Consequently, the “Roswell Incident” was quickly “killed” as a news story and quietly passed from the scene for the next thirty years. It all had been just a big mistake.
Oh, really? The Air Force had been “too cute by half” with its balloon explanation. Had they simply offered-up that an experimental jet aircraft had malfunctioned and crashed, or that a captured German V-2 rocket had veered off-course from its launch pad at White Sands, NM and crashed near Roswell, these lies probably would have been accepted without question and forgotten, and I would not be writing about it to you today. But, it didn’t, and things got worse – for the Air Force, that is. Responding to an official probe by the U.S. Government Accounting Office [GAO] [the investigative arm of Congress] into certain procedural aspects of the Roswell Incident, which was conducted in 1993-1995, the Air Force finally admitted that it had publicly lied to everyone back in 1947 with its “weather balloon” explanation. So, in 1994, the Air Force came out with its third explanation for Roswell. It wasn’t a “weather balloon” that had crashed near Roswell, it was a bunch of weather balloons [!] from a then Top Secret part of the project was its purpose – to try to detect the expected detonation of a nuclear device by the Soviet Union by using constant-level, high-altitude, balloon-borne acoustic sensors. [The Soviet Union’s first nuclear bomb was detonated two years later in 1949, and it was detected, not by Project Mogul but by chemical analysis of air samples.]. Unknown to most people on the planet, then and now, was the fact that, although Project Mogul was indeed Top Secret, its constituent parts were standard, not-secret, off-the-shelf, rubber weather balloons, tinfoil radar “kites,” balsa wood struts and bailing twine identical to the materials used in the original lie. Further, by the time of this announcement [1994/95], additional hundreds of first- and second-hand witnesses attesting to the extraterrestrial nature of the 1947 incident had been located and interviewed by civilian researchers. To believe this new Air Force “explanation,” a strong dose of SOD had to be swallowed, this time by arbitrarily tossing aside those hundreds of witnesses as if they didn’t exist, and by accepting the suggestion that the men of the 509th Bomb Group at Roswell, our country’s finest – men with their fingers on the atomic trigger - must have been either blind or just plain dopes for not being able to recognize a balloon when they saw one! An un-inquisitive mainstream media, following the lead of the stuffy The New York Times, did exactly that. The “Roswell Incident” wasn’t of extraterrestrial origin, because The New York Times said so with a prominent, front page, above-the-fold article titled, “Wreckage of a ‘Spaceship’: Of This Earth (and U.S.)”
The Air Force’s final public pronouncement regarding the Roswell Incident came a few years later in 1997, which was the 50th Anniversary Year of the event. No doubt hoping to drive what it hoped would be the “final nail” into the Roswell “coffin” at the most propitious moment in the history of the case, all the Air Force’s publication of The Roswell Report - Case Closed succeeded in doing was to further embarrass itself. Realizing that its 1994/95 Roswell “explanation” in Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert failed to address the reports of “little bodies” alleged to have been recovered along with the wreckage from the crash, the Air Force held a formal press conference in Washington, D.C. concomitant with the release of Case Closed to offer-up its fourth explanation for Roswell. The people who reported having seen small, alien creatures out in the desert or at the Roswell base hospital in 1947, according to the Air Force, were simply mixed-up victims of a malady that afflicts some elderly people known as “time-compression.” What these unfortunate witnesses were actually “remembering,” according to the Air Force, were not the diminutive crew members from a downed flying saucer but anthropomorphic, dime-store mannequins that had been used by the Air Force instead of live human beings in high-altitude parachute drops. The problem with this theory was that these “dummy-drops” actually took place a decade later – in the 1950s! Another dose of SOD was also required when it was revealed that the mannequins were six-feet tall with decidedly human features! The Air Force had finally gone “a bridge too far” in its Roswell explanations – too far even for the usually reliable, anti-Roswell, national press corps. Met with unexpected howls of derisive laughter, the shaken Air Force officer conducting the Washington press conference stopped taking press questions and excused himself, never to be seen again. And therein lies Air Force’s case against Roswell today – balloons, tinfoil, time-compression and “dummies from the sky.” The Air Force has been stonewalling Roswell – “running out the clock?” – ever since. Can we expect a fifth explanation any time soon? Even if it was at long last the truth, who would believe them?