Book Report: The Pentagon’s Brain


The Pentagon's Brain“Bob Taylor went to DARPA director Charles Herzfeld to request enough money to fund a networked connection linking four different university computers, or nodes. Herzfeld told Taylor he thought it sounded like a good idea but he was concerned about reliability. If all four computers were linked together, Herzfeld said, when there was a problem, it meant all four computers would be down at the same time. Thinking on his feet, Taylor said he intended to build a concept into the system called network redundancy. If one connection went down, the messages traveling between the computers would simply take another path. Herzfeld asked how much money Taylor thought he needed. Taylor said a million dollars. Herzfeld asked, ‘Is it going to be hard to do?’ ‘Oh, no. We already know how to do it,’ Taylor said, when really he was guessing.” (The Pentagon’s Brain – p245
)

Title: The Pentagon’s Brain – An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency

Author: Annie Jacobsen

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date: 2015

Origin: I eagerly anticipated the release of The Pentagon’s Brain, having thoroughly enjoyed Jacobsen’s earlier books: Area 51 and Operation Paperclip. I always emerge better for knowing more about history, and about the political and technological forces that shape our world.

Summary: The Pentagon’s Brain takes us through the history of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), from its origins as ARPA in the late 1950s to its impact in shaping the present day, to a look into the future.

To tell the story, Jacobsen breaks the book into five parts:

  • Part I – The Cold War
  • Part II – The Vietnam War
  • Part III – Operations Other Than War
  • Part IV – The War On Terror
  • Part V – Future War

Throughout, Jacobsen touches on not just the events and technologies, but the people and circumstances that brought them about.

My Take: I have mixed feelings about The Pentagon’s Brain, but don’t interpret that to mean I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did.

I loved reading about visionary genius of John Von Neumann, and the advent of computing, and the birth of the Internet; I was woefully ignorant of the Vietnam war, and appreciate knowing a bit more about the politics and technologies involved.

I knew enough bits and pieces already to be somewhat dismayed about the military-industrial complex and the development and testing of the hydrogen bomb, but this book filled in some important blanks for me.

I suppose I have mixed feelings because I’m left with a bit of a sour taste, or a spot of worry and concern. Technology is progressing so rapidly, the general public seems to take pride in being science-illiterate (so, they can’t engage in informed debate or decision-making, two foundations of democracy), and the military-industrial complex will – to an enormous extent – determine our collective future. Jacobsen shines a light on these issues, but I lack faith that they will reach any sort of positive resolution.

As Jacobsen says on p452, “There is a perilous distinction to call attention to: when the hydrogen bomb was being engineered, the military-industrial complex – led by defense contractors, academics, and industrialists – was just beginning to exert considerable control over the Pentagon. Today that control is omnipotent.”

Critics will point out that the final part of the book – owing to a lack of declassified material upon which to draw – is a bit speculative, and some might dismiss it as alarmist. However, we need to keep in mind that we typically don’t become aware of DARPA projects until many decades after they’ve first seen real-world use (for instance, drones are commonplace today but debuted in the Vietnam war, and stealth aircraft were secret from the public for several decades after their initial deployment and only really gained fame during the first Gulf War), so the questions Jacobsen asks about brain modification, widespread surveillance, and hunter-killer robots are important ones.

Yeah, that’s right: brain modification and killer robots. Shit’s getting real.

Read This Book If: …you’re curious about the origins of many of today’s technological wonders, or want to get freaked out about biological warfare or killer robots.

Notes and Quotes:

Part I – The Cold War

  • p15: “A flash of thermonuclear light, called the Teller light, sprang to life as a flood of gamma radiation filled the air. The presence of x-rays made the unseen visible. In the flash of Teller light, Freedman – who was watching the scientists for their reactions – could see their facial bones. ‘In front of me…they were skeletons,’ Freedman recalls. Their faces no longer appeared to be human faces. Just ‘jawbones and eye sockets. Rows of teeth. Skulls.'”
  • I’ve come across this concept in my reading and research forays into organizational behavior and professional sports. Unfortunately, I seldom (ahem, never) see any examination of the negative consequences (e.g., siloing, sabotage, subterfuge, mutually assured failure, etc.). If anyone has some good info or suggested reading, then I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, I’ll stick to cooperation and a raise-the-bar approach. p24: “This idea – that rivalry fosters excellence and is imperative for supremacy – would become a hallmark of U.S. defense science in the decades ahead.”
  • p58, regarding a nuclear test ban: “The leaders of the world’s two superpowers each had a vested interest in making this test ban happen. Each man was tired of having to live and govern under the nuclear sword of Damocles. Both Eisenhower and Khrushchev would send their most qualified scientists to Geneva, with a mission to sort out any differences and to make the moratorium happen. President Eisenhower made a bold and brilliant move with his choice. Instead of sending one of his science advisors who wanted nuclear weapons tests to stop, he chose a scientist who did not: Ernest Lawrence. … President Eisenhower was determined to bring about a test ban, but he was also determined to ensure that the Soviets could not and would not cheat. In sending Lawrence on his behalf, Eisenhower knew that the Soviet scientists’ intentions would be under intense scrutiny. For the first time since Castle Bravo, there was a sense of hope in the air.”
  • I have friends and family in the military, and I remember hearing about this worrisome incident, in which the attack defense system registered a false positive when it heard echoes from the moon; from p81: “It was a defining moment in the history of weapons development and the future of man and machine. A computer had reported that a thousand-strong Soviet ICBM attack was under way. And a human, in this case Air Marshal Charles Roy Slemon, used his judgment to intervene and to overrule.”
  • p93, discussing the Discoverer III life-sustaining satellite: “So much rested on the success of the mission. The space race was about creating ICBMs capable of annihilating the other side, but it was also a psychological race, about humans and science and who was best.”
  • I positively love getting historical context, and really trying to picture the advent of things that we now take for granted. This is a wonderful example, from p95: “The first launch took place on April 1, 1960; by then the program had been transferred to the newly crated National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. In its seventy-six-day life, TIROS transmitted 22,952 images back to earth. Every image was revolutionary. The spiral banded structure of oceanic storms, the vastness of mountain-wave cloud structures, the unexpected rapid changes in cloud patterns – none of this had been seen before.”

“In its seventy-six-day life, TIROS transmitted 22,952 images back to earth. Every image was revolutionary. The spiral banded structure of oceanic storms, the vastness of mountain-wave cloud structures, the unexpected rapid changes in cloud patterns – none of this had been seen before.”

  • p110, in relation to events of the late 1950s: “Godel believed he knew what the future of warfare would look like. How its fighters would act. They would use irregular warfare tactics, like the ambushes and beheadings he had witnessed in Vietnam. America’s future wars would not be fought by men wearing U.S. Army uniforms, Godel said. They would be fought by local fighters who had been trained by U.S. forces, with U.S. tactics and know-how, and carrying U.S. weapons.”

Part II – The Vietnam War

  • p147, speaking of J.C.R. Licklider: “Licklider believed that computers could one day change the world for the better. He envisioned ‘home computer consoles,’ with people sitting in front of them, learning just about anything they wanted to.”
  • Come again? p150: “It is hard to determine what is more shocking, that this information, which was made public by Russian scientists in the early 1990s, is not generally known, or that four nuclear weapons were detonated in space, in a DEFCON 2 environment, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Firing off nuclear weapons in the middle of a nuclear standoff is tempting fate.”

“Firing off nuclear weapons in the middle of a nuclear standoff is tempting fate.”

  • Once again, I’m reminded of Obliquity (and, in fact, Obliquity uses Vietnam as an example); p156: “But as with the history of warfare, the desire to control and the ability to control are often at odds. Despite inventive government efforts to influence a population, events occur that are beyond military control. What happened next in Vietnam had consequences that could not be undone.”
  • …what happened next was Thich Quang Duc‘s self-immolation, with the chilling story told over pages 156 and 157
  • Hey, if daddy says ‘no’ then just ask mommy. Or, you could listen to the truth, no matter how inconvenient or unwanted. p172: “…but the agency did not want to hear that the Vietcong could not be defeated. Seymour Deitchman took the position that Zasloff and Donnell had gone off the rails, same as Hickey and Donnell had done with the Strategic Hamlet Program report a few years before. According to other RAND officers, Deitchman perceived the POW report as unhelpful. RAND needed to send researchers into the field whose reports were better aligned with the conviction of the Pentagon that the Vietcong could and would be defeated.”
  • p186…two valuable skills: “While recovering in the Texas hospital, (Gordon) MacDonald developed two skills that would shape his life: reading everything made available to him, then discussing and debating the contents with a person of equal or greater intellect.”

“While recovering in the Texas hospital, (Gordon) MacDonald developed two skills that would shape his life: reading everything made available to him, then discussing and debating the contents with a person of equal or greater intellect.”

  • Too often in university I found myself just reproducing something from memory, rather than from a point of true understanding, so this passage stood out to me. p188: “MacDonald chose physics as a course of study but soon decided that Harvard had ‘miserable’ physics teachers. ‘I began to see the difference between memory and understanding when it comes to difficult subjects,’ he said, meaning that to learn facts by rote was one thing, but to understand concepts on a fundamental level required serious intellectual discipline.”
  • p189 touches on the importance of getting together with a diverse group of people and having long discussions, not unlike the famed coffee houses of London

Part III – Operations Other Than War

  • Ooooh, so that’s how the Internet began, p245: “Bob Taylor went to DARPA director Charles Herzfeld to request enough money to fund a networked connection linking four different university computers, or nodes. Herzfeld told Taylor he thought it sounded like a good idea but he was concerned about reliability. If all four computers were linked together, Herzfeld said, when there was a problem, it meant all four computers would be down at the same time. Thinking on his feet, Taylor said he intended to build a concept into the system called network redundancy. If one connection went down, the messages traveling between the computers would simply take another path. Herzfeld asked how much money Taylor thought he needed. Taylor said a million dollars. Herzfeld asked, ‘Is it going to be hard to do?’ ‘Oh, no. We already know how to do it,’ Taylor said, when really he was guessing.”

“If all four computers were linked together, Herzfeld said, when there was a problem, it meant all four computers would be down at the same time. Thinking on his feet, Taylor said he intended to build a concept into the system called network redundancy. If one connection went down, the messages traveling between the computers would simply take another path.”

  • The importance of acceptable failure, p257: “‘DARPA, unlike most agencies, is allowed to fail some fraction of the time,’ says Joe Mangano, a former DARPA program manager.”
  • T.I.L. p260: “Very few people outside the Livermore group understood the science behind an x-ray laser, and even fewer knew that x-ray lasers were powered by nuclear explosions.”
  • p309 kind’ve relates back to p257: “At DARPA, (Michael) Goldblatt realized that almost anything that could be imagined could at least be tried.”
  • …p312: “What might sound like science fiction elsewhere in the world at DARPA was future science.”

Part IV – The War on Terror

  • p321: “The terrorist attacks on the morning of September 11 created what (David A.) Bray calls a ‘hyper-turbulent environment.’ In this kind of fear-fueled setting, ‘knowledge is the most strategically significant resource of an organization,’ says Bray. Not more knowledge but better knowledge. Good, clear, factual information. Data about what is going on.”

“In this kind of fear-fueled setting, ‘knowledge is the most strategically significant resource of an organization,'”

  • p366, after an explanation of the factors that have led to the rise of the Islamic State and general chaos in the region: “It was as if the Vietnam War had produced amnesia instead of experience. On its official website, the U.S. Army erroneously identified the new Human Terrain System program as being ‘the first time that social science research, analysis, and advising has been done systematically, on a large scale, and at the operational level’ in a war.”
  • p393 sums up how a lot of people feel, I think: “Hugh Gusterson, professor of anthropology at George Mason University, accused the Army of trying to convince anthropologists that ‘Americans have a mission to spread democracy’ and that ‘Americans have only the well-being of other people in mind.’ Gusterson saw that as manipulative and believed that once a person convinced himself or herself of that, ‘you start to think of it [war] as some kind of cultural miscommunication. And you start to ask naive, misshapen questions [like], ‘If we only understood their culture, how could we make them like us? Why do they hate us so much?” Gusterson believed the answer was simple. ‘They hate us because we are occupying their country, not because they don’t understand our hand signals and because occasionally we mistreat their women,’ Gusterson said. ‘So if you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers and more people on both sides will die.'”

“If you ask the wrong questions you get the wrong answers and more people on both sides will die.”

  • p401: “It is impossible for American citizens to know about and to comprehend more than a fraction of the advanced science and technology programs that DARPA is developing for the government. And at the same time, it is becoming more possible for the federal government to monitor what American citizens are doing and saying, where they are going, what they are buying, who they are communicating with, what they are reading, what they are writing, and how healthy they are. All this raises an important question. Is the world transforming into a war zone and America into a police state, and is it DARPA that is making them so?”

Part V – Future War

  • p423: “Carl Sagan once stated, ‘It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.'” You hear that, you new-Earth Creationist folks? At least put down your cellphones if you’re gonna ignore science.

“Carl Sagan once stated, ‘It is suicidal to create a society dependent on science and technology in which hardly anybody knows anything about science and technology.'”

  • p438 has an ominous touch of Skynet: “DARPA’s goal is to create and prevent strategic surprise. But what if the ultimate endgame is humanity’s loss? What if, in trying to stave off foreign military competitors, DARPA creates an unexpected competitor that becomes its own worst enemy? A mechanical rival born of powerful science with intelligence that quickly becomes superior to our own. An opponent that cannot be stopped, like a runaway train. What if the twenty-first century becomes the last time in history when humans have no real competition but other humans? In a world ruled by science and technology, it is not necessarily the fittest but rather the smartest that survive. DARPA program managers like to say that DARPA science is ‘science fact, not science fiction.’ What happens when these two concepts fuse?”
  • p439: “Charles Townes told me that once, long ago, he was sharing his idea for the laser with John von Neuman and that von Neumann told him his idea wouldn’t work. ‘What did you think about that?’ I asked Townes. ‘If you’re going to do anything new,’ he said, ‘you have to disregard criticism. Most people are against new ideas. They think, ‘If I didn’t think of it, it won’t work.’ Inevitably, people doubt you. You persevere anyway. That’s what you do.’ And that was exactly what Charles Townes did. The laser is considered one of the most significant scientific inventions of the modern world.”

“‘If you’re going to do anything new,’ he said, ‘you have to disregard criticism. Most people are against new ideas. They think, ‘If I didn’t think of it, it won’t work.””

  • p452: “There is a perilous distinction to call attention to: when the hydrogen bomb was being engineered, the military-industrial complex – led by defense contractors, academics, and industrialists – was just beginning to exert considerable control over the Pentagon. Today that control is omnipotent.”
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Posted in Books, Math and Science
2 comments on “Book Report: The Pentagon’s Brain
  1. […] episode talks about the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale study. I first learned about this study in The Pentagon’s Brain, and my book report includes this related quote: “…but the agency did not want to hear that […]

  2. […] passage from p251 reminded me of the parts in The Pentagon’s Brain that deal with asymmetrical warfare, IEDs, and suicide bombers: “The crucial difference, […]

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