This is not the book I thought it was.
Annie Jacobsen is an amazing writer, and is great in this book. I loved her history of Area 51, which focused primarily on the Atomic Energy Commission, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Air Force research projects that took place in Nevada. I assumed a major focus would be the creation of the Arpanet, the immediate predecessor to the internet, and Arpanet Terminals, like what Steve Wozniak used before co-founding Apple.
Instead, Pentagon’s Brain is about DARPA’s major generation of research projects, focusing on hard sciences (nuclear war), then social sciences (brainwashing), then hard science (in Vietnam), then social sciences (also Vietnam), then hard sciences (“network centric warfare”), then social sciences (“counter-insurgency”). Throughout the book “ARPA” (Advanced Research Project Agency) and DAPRA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) refer to the same organization. ARPA/DARPA’s was done within the context of changing Secretaries of Defense, slower changing professional, social, contractor circles in and around DARPA, all-in the context of pre-need research for the military.
The beginning section is very similar to Jacobsen’s Area 51, as both the need for “pre-need military research” (like ARPA) and “Advanced Research and Development” (like Area 51) had its origins in the early Cold War and the emergence of nuclear weapons. In Area 51, Jacobsen uses the Roswell crash as a framing device for the levels of misinformation, secrecy, and confusion that surrounded the test site. Pentagon’s Brain almost has a similar framing device — the traumatic brain injury of Allen Macey Douglas, Jr.. Allen’s injuries prevented him from forming new memories of any technology described in this book. They also are the introduction of brain science into ARPA’s research, including research on brainwashing and “Manchurian candidates.”
The back-and-forth between hard and social sciences at times become humorous, as no one appears to remember that previous cycles even existed. One memorandum cited by Jacobsen, from early the Iraq Occupation, contains word-for-word similarities with another, from the Vietnam era. Both emphasized the need to introduce social sciences into the war effort for the first time.
I found it interesting how in some ways the 1991 Gulf War (and then 2003-Iraq Occupation) was a continuation of the Vietnam War. Drone warfare, C4ISR (as part of the McNamara Line), laser guided bombs, and more debuted in Vietnam with ARPA funding. In the case of laser guided bombs a bridge which the Vietnamese ad successful defended for years was destroyed in the waning days of the war. One wonders if the war against North Vietnam could have been won as easily as the war against Saddam Hussein.
The concluding section of Pentagon’s brain discusses Network Centric Warfare, which (at the time) was a focus of this blog. My 2005 post on “Network-Centric Policing” was an attempted applications of the concept to other domains. In those early posts I contrasted Network Centric Warfare with “4GW,” Counter-insurgency, and related concepts. Annie Jacobsen seems to agree, as her sharpest commentary is to a Pentagon apparatchik who tried to blur these lines as the Iraqi insurgency proved immune to Network-Centric operations.
Much of The Pentagon’s Brain is terrifying. The details of “Civil Defense” are nightmarish, and far worse than described in bleak films of a nuclear war, such as Threads. Likewise, the expectations for what a germ war would look like (including the widespread use of a RNA human retrovirus, and a follow-on triggering agent) were unexpectedly relevant during the Wuhan virus outbreak. It is in this context that Jacobsen describes the widespread infection of humans of SV-40 during the Polio vaccination. As Jacobsen outlined the stages of a viral attack, I recognized that the widespread mockery without investigation of Dr. Judy Mikovitz was misplaced, if not skepticism of her specific claims.
Pentagon’s brain is very well written. BBN, SAIC, the Jason group, and many others in ARPA’s orbit are described. But I really wish more was shared about the origins of the internet! ARPA research is central part of our economy, and the story of the ARPAnet and the Internet is barely described in this book. There’s plenty of cool stuff about robots and cyborgs in the book, though.
I read The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency in the Audible edition.