I was fascinated by the idea of UFOs as a child. As I got older and realised that it was highly unlikely that aliens were visiting us my curiosity dimmed. But even if alien spacecraft are not dropping by, the UFO phenomenon does exist. There are lots of people - many of them reliable and respectable - who are seeing something, so what is going on?
Mostly it's people mis-identifying planes, planets or other man-made lights in the sky. Mark Pilkington's book suggests that the US has exploited UFO 'sightings' as a cover for its own secret projects. While concrete proof is hard to come by, the evidence he provides is pretty compelling.
Noting that the height of the UFO phenomenon coincided with the Cold War, Pilkington suggests that the US military realised as early as the 1950s that UFO sightings would make an ideal smokescreen for its 'black projects'.
Pilkington's contention is that the US military took a two-pronged approach: denying the existence of UFOs publicly, while actively feeding the fantasies of UFO obsessives in private. The effect, he says, was to make UFO hunters seem so outlandish and silly that the general public would have little interest in looking into their claims.
Central to the book is Richard Doty, a former intelligence officer who admits to having fed faked 'evidence' of alien activity to UFO researchers. One of the victims of the campaign, Paul Bennewitz, a businessman with a PhD in physics, eventually had a nervous breakdown, driven deep into paranoia by the disinformation he was fed.
Doty is a slippery character whose story shifts constantly. Despite his admissions of forged documents and the deliberate misinformation campaign against UFO researchers, he insists that he really has seen an alien. Is he telling the truth this time or simply spreading more disinformation?
Pilkington builds a plausible case and the story he tells is extraordinary. Along the way he gives a history of the UFO phenomenon, details of some of the more bizarre secret aircraft - including, yes, one that was saucer shaped - and a fascinating report from inside a UFO conference.
Overall, the book reminded me of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare At Goats. Whether you believe Pilkington or not, Mirage Men is very entertaining and packed with odd characters.