The American establishment, especially the media and the military top brass, has a bizarre obsession with extraterrestrials. They love to talk about aliens in official capacity, at official platforms, in a manner that flies spectacularly in the face of common sense.
The latest of this happened on 12 February when the US Air Force shot down what they claimed to be a “High Altitude Airborne Object” over the northern coast of Alaska. When asked about the possibility that these could be of extra-terrestrial origin, the military officer giving the press conference let the people know that he “hasn’t ruled out anything.”
This is but another episode in a specifically American discourse made possible by an ever-imaginative media, helped along by breadcrumbs from the military establishment and made grand by Hollywood blockbuster movies. The prospect of “extraterrestrials” making appearances on strange aircrafts and archived through grainy footage or other inconclusive visual evidence remains seemingly very real in America. We saw a similar news cycle surface towards the end of the Presidency of Donald Trump.
Ever since the beginning of the Cold War, the spectre of the extraterrestrial keeps recurring in America’s public psyche through mentions by officialdom, and there are always enough takers to keep the pot stirring. The US happens to be the only place where a topic of speculation and imagination is elevated to full seriousness, with the government taking an active role in fuelling speculations. When you imagine this scenario in any other country, say India, UK or France, and the responses that would follow, the absurdity of the premise becomes clear.
Much has been speculated as to why the military and security establishment of the US lets such rumours circulate with their tacit approval. The most common arguments have been two: that it helps deflect attention from other crisis; and it keeps the public in thrall so as to keep refreshing popular support for the US military.
But, this doesn’t explain why the public believes such claims. If the government of any other democratic country were to raise the spectre of aliens, the response would probably be a lot more dismissive. It is predictable to see terrorist threats and rival nation threats being raised. What makes the extraterrestrial such a lucrative choice for American government institutions, such as the Pentagon, to consider raising it seriously?
Because all the alien talk keeps unfolding at the official level, it means that the government knows that it is an effective tool of deflection. In other words, it does not work on everyone, but works on enough people.
What makes it work, though? The US public is not entirely uneducated, and could ideally be expected to be suspicious about such deflections. What purpose does the bogeyman of aliens serve where the spectre of the Russians, Cubans, Chinese, “illegal” Mexican immigrants, or Islamic terrorists fails?
The Roswell incident
In the American imagination, the alien has been ever present since the end of World War II. The spark of alien talk was first lit by the Roswell Incident. In June 1947, a passerby near the city of Roswell in the state of New Mexico claimed to have seen the wreckage of an alien spacecraft. Needless to say, it made headlines. However, an ordinary person’s claims are not enough to fire up the public imagination, unless official channels also play their part.
This is where the US Army and the US Air Force played two different roles in tandem. A remark by a US Army officer somehow became the first official statement out in the public. He said that it was a flying saucer, and that was it. The public imagination had been set alight. Of course, it was later debunked as an experimental high-altitude balloon meant for spying on the Soviets. The US Air Force had preferred that the alien story get out instead of revealing the extent to which the American government was involved in snooping on the USSR.
To avoid the matter getting out of hand, the US Air Force revealed the partial truth (that it was a weather balloon). As Roger Launius, a curator of space history at the Smithsonian, noted, it was better to encourage the story about the crashed alien aircraft rather than inform the world about Project Mogul, a program to launch high altitude balloons to spy on Soviet nuclear tests.
But, as is the human tendency, first words and impressions have a lasting effect. The image of the alien was now very much positioned in the front and centre of the American public psyche. The first official statement, the public’s response, and the clarification with incomplete information created favourable conditions for the establishment of a cottage industry of conspiracy theories. It gave birth to an entire subculture of Americans completely convinced by the presence of aliens.
American superhero, alien supervillain
If the Army-Air Force double act generated buzz about the possibilities of aliens, it was Hollywood that truly tasted the honey of profits because of it. Capitalising on the growing popular interest, Hollywood produced film after film in not just the science fiction genre, but specifically the “alien invasion” subgenre whose roots lay in the HG Wells classic, War of the Worlds.
One of the commonest themes running in Hollywood’s alien invasion science fiction films was American exceptionalism. These films depicted the US, through its unrivalled military power, saving the world from aliens, who coincidentally always land up in America of everywhere in the whole wide world. Movies such as Independence Day became major hits.
Then, in the aftermath of the unending US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the US military gradually became unpopular both domestically and internationally, Hollywood shifted the role of saving the world to its superheroes. This way, the industry could both serve the narrative need of centring America in the context of a theoretical threat, and be profitable at the same time.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe played an exceptional role in this by elevating the category and danger posed by its supervillain, ultimately manifesting in the image of the alien overlord Thanos. It is not a surprise that Marvel has links to the Pentagon in matters of representing the US defence establishment in their films.
The other superhero franchise, DC, too rode the same train. Its ultimate villain in the Justice League series is an extraterrestrial known as SteppenWolf who serves another alien overlord Darkseid. The appetite, at least from a popular culture consumption point of view, makes complete sense.
Still, is all of these enough to warrant the legitimacy of an official response?
American officialdom maintains an entire lexicon of symbols and gestures to bring the alien back into the public. This includes terminologies and their minutiae, such as NASA revising the term “UFO” to instead insist on “UAP” or “Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon”, which conveniently leaves a bigger scope for imaginative interpretation. It also includes releasing bread crumbs of supposed “evidence” through leaked footage and declassified documents, all meant to keep the public in thrall.
The proliferation of online groups could also be a force multiplier. As we saw from the rise of extremist groups such as the Q-Anon, conspiracy theories can be very potent when propagated within an information environment that favours them. All these factors add up to increased chances of ordinary Americans believing in aliens. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, the number of Americans that believe that aliens have visited the Earth is around 40%.
This is why whenever the US government finds itself in a tight corner, the UFO talk is likely to escalate. It is not a surprise that the last time “UFOs” visited the US, the government was all in a really difficult spot. In April 2020, when the Pentagon released alleged UFO footage taken by Naval pilots, President Trump was facing a strong assault on his credibility due to COVID-19 mismanagement and getting into nasty spats with Anthony Fauci.
When human enemies fail
At the end, it is still very simplistic to say that the threat of the alien is used to deflect the public attention away from questions of crumbling public infrastructure, inflation, and the extremely high costs of healthcare as defence continues to get a lion’s share of the budget. There are human enemies for that too. There are many other candidates for enemies, real or imaginary, that are more believable than extraterrestrials.
After all, there is China presenting a real threat to the US establishment. There is Russia, whose threat is no longer a just threat, but has translated into an active war against an American ally. There are bases to maintain, alliances to keep, and wars to be fought. That should be a reason enough to not worry about public attention on defence expenditures that could have been used elsewhere. The US military budget is unlikely to diminish in strength and power anytime in the future.
Then what could be the function that only a being from outside the planet could fulfil?
Perhaps one reason could be that wars are not as grand as a lot of conventional literature, cinema, or television present. And the US has, for large parts of the 20th and 21st century, been involved in a huge number of them – Vietnam in the days of the Cold War, Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era, and currently, indirectly in Ukraine. More often than not, these wars are protracted and bloody, with a lot more tragedies than stories with a good ending. Stories of atrocities and sorrows emerge. The tragic nature of war cannot lend itself to a state where the public support for the military would be unconditional. Time to time, the public must also be kept in a state of excitement.
When reading, hearing, and watching about human wars generates fatigue, the possibility of the promised enemy must recur from time to time. Like a perpetual post-credits scene from a Marvel movie that keeps hinting at a new villain on the narrative horizon, the alien must keep reappearing, making cameos in government websites, Pentagon reports, and military press briefings.
Except, it is unlikely that the alien enemy will ever land on Earth with its grand fleet, ready to destroy humanity. In the era of the Anthropocene, humans themselves are doing this job pretty well.
For the American public, believing in the alien threat offers a guilt-free consumption and support of the US military-industrial complex. By any chance, if the said aliens are real, it seems like they have begun to enjoy their designated role as mysterious villains in American domestic politics.
Views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
is a PhD scholar at South Asian University, New Delhi.