10 February 2020

The Pentagon’s Brain, by Annie Jacobsen

Posted by Callan Bentley

This book is a comprehensive account of everything unclassified that DARPA and its predecessor ARPA, has ever done. The subtitle is: “An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency.” It begins with testing nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll in 1954, where theoretical calculations about the Castle Bravo bomb’s explosive yield get a sobering reality check: it was more than twice as powerful as had been anticipated! Oops. The narrative then moves on through time discussing how the U.S. War Department (later rebranded the Department of Defense) pushed research and innovation in military activities. Through the Cold War, groups of scientists and academics collaborate in their attempt to push American military superiority into the future. A significant portion of the book is spent on the Viet Nam War, as this appears to have been a ripe time for out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation with military strategy and technical innovation. Jacobsen also does a terrific job documenting the developments that led to the phenomenon by which I’m communicating this review to you: the Internet, which is a direct spinoff from a DARPA project. Her comprehensive history also devotes substantial attention to the first and second iterations of the Bushes’ Iraq War, with case studies of decisive battles won with the advent of effective night vision capacity, or precisely-guided smartbombs. Biotech also gets substantial attention, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. A fascinating section on Russian efforts to weaponize some of humanity’s worse plagues makes for chilling reading. The history concludes with a discussion of the modern day, as DARPA explores drones, autonomous robots, cyborgs, and (a perennial topic of fascination for me) artificial intelligence.

Jacobsen’s book is a thorough account of the U.S. interest in science and war. It is very long, which lowers its readability, but increases its scholarly value. The tone is apolitical, but Jacobsen doesn’t shy away from pointing out the unmatched power of these killer innovations. It ends on a foreboding note about the imminent deployment of hunter-killer robots. Will a few top-clearance military scientists underestimate their power in the same way the ferocity of the Castle Bravo nuclear test caught their predecessors by surprise a half century ago?