Since the collapse of the pro-US regimes in Indo-China in 1975, Vietnamese troops have been involved in warfare against the Hmong mountain tribes-people of Laos. Allegations of the use of chemical weapons have been made by the Hmong refugees, and taken seriously by US authorities. This book is a detailed critique of these reports; the author argues that they contain many dubious and absurd features, and that they stem partly from the role played be belief in witchcraft and secret poisons in Hmong culture. (Thus, similar equally dubious tales of mass-poisoning by US forces were current in the early 70's)
At one point the author makes a passing analogy with UFO reports. The analogy is certainly worth pursuing. The Hmong reports, like UFO reports, can be seen as a social panic centring round tales of mysterious aircraft that allegedly leave physical evidence and after-effects on witnesses.
The US Government agencies that have disseminated such stories seem to have played a role similar to that of many UFO groups. They have been over-confident in the reliability of 'eye-witness' evidence, and ignored the fact that different accounts are contradictory in many details. The physical evidence they rely on is at best ambiguous (some 'chemical warfare' traces have been shown to be bee excrement, and the 'poisoning symptoms are identical to those of diseases endemic to South East Asia).
Since the author is a sociologist, it is rather surprising that he has little to say about the prevalence of 'mass-poisoning' panics, since a look at some of these would have further strengthened his argument. The alleged 'poisoning' of Arab children in the Israeli occupied West Bank no doubt came too late to be included, but readers of Fortean Times will recall several similar cases from Britain.
Ultimately this book leaves one wondering about the social construction of knowledge. For many belief or even interest in UFOs is still the sign of the 'crackpot'. However, chemical warfare stories, based on no better evidence than many UFO stories have found their way unchallenged into major newspapers and have been used as justification for the current arms race that may yet culminate
in a manner too fearful to contemplate.
Perhaps those writers on the Sceptical Enquirer who believe that uncritical acceptance of paranormal claims will lead to a new dark-age should be looking sceptically in other directions. -- Roger Sandell, from Magonia 16, July 1984.