The Pentagon’s Brain:  An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015).

Annie Jacobsen


Since 1958, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has connected the US military with the academic and scientific expertise that it relies upon to maintain its technological advantage over present and likely future adversaries.    Journalist Annie Jacobsen has done a competent job of telling the story of this cooperation, within the limits of what information is unclassified and thus accessible.   A book with a subtitle that includes “Top Secret Military Research Agency” warns the reader that there are limits to what it is likely to tell them.   Jacobsen admits in her conclusion that “DARPA’s highest-risk, highest-payoff programs remain secret until they are unveiled on the battlefield” (451).  Given the limits of what she does not know, she tells a fascinating story of ingenuity and hubris, which ends with troubling ethical and moral implications.

Jacobsen begins her story with Castle Bravo, the codename of an operation in 1954 to test a new thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb on the remote Bikini Atoll, 2650 miles west of Hawaii.   The test was part of an effort to stay ahead of the Soviet Union in the nuclear arms race.  The Castle Bravo bomb took advantage of new technology to miniaturize warheads, so that the weapon detonated on Bilini was vastly more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb a decade before, and yet was not much larger.   The explosion was far more powerful than anticipated, to the point where the observers in a concrete and sand-covered bunker nineteen miles away wondered if they would survive the massive shockwave.    

Jacobsen uses Castle Bravo to set up her main theme, that scientific and technological progress threatens to outstrip our ability to manage it, not to mention our ethical preconceptions of how war is supposed to work.   Another example, similar to the scale of the Castle Bravo explosion, was the first test in 1960 of a massive radar in Greenland, which would allow NORAD (North American Defence Command) to detect Soviet missile launches.   The radar system was so powerful that its signals were detecting the rising moon, a quarter of a million miles away, and the primitive software was interpreting the signals as an attack.  It took human ingenuity and judgement to cancel a response and recalibrate the radar.   Similar wise judgements, Jacobsen recounts, prevailed in the eventual ending of above ground nuclear tests, by the superpowers, and the cancellation of bomb projects so vast that they would destroy continents.   Politicians, scientist, and military leaders could all agree that nuclear technology could never be used in war because there was no way to guarantee that it would not escalate, and no defence if it did.  In her final chapters, Jacobsen warns that we may not be so lucky with the technologies, including autonomous fighting systems (killer robots) and artificial intelligence, that DARPA is currently researching.

If human foresight and wisdom saved us from nuclear war thus far, that same wisdom is conspicuously absent in other chapters.   Jacobsen describes two episodes, one in Vietnam and the other in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military success depended on understanding the culture and motivation of human opponents.  In both cases, DARPA was tapped to recruit anthropologists and social scientists to help the US military understand why guerrilla insurgencies (the Vietcong in Vietnam and various insurgencies – Sunni, Shia and Taliban -in Afghanistan and Iraq) were motivating and recruiting their fighters.  These were questions that military leaders and technology could not answer.  The results, especially in the case of Vietnam, were not encouraging and provide a depressing spectacle of human folly.  When the civilian scientists concluded that the corrupt South Vietnamese regime and policies of forcible resettlement of peasants into fortified villages were creating insurgents, their findings were ignored, because they did not support the dominant paradigm that Communism was to blame.  Today, as Robert Kaplan points out in his recent book Asia’s Cauldron, we know that the Vietnamese have a long history of fighting invaders, and that Communism had far less to do with the struggle against the US than was supposed at the time.  Fears of falling dominos throughout Asia blinded the US to the role of simple, robust nationalism as a motivator.  

In Iraq and Afghanistan, social scientists were recruited into so-called Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), to help US commanders understand the tribal societies they were confronting, as counterinsurgency tactics forgotten post-Vietnam had to be relearned.  In so cases, HTTs were successful in helping troops to understand the human dimension of a complex and messy battlefield.  However, some in the civilian academic community felt that mapping the human terrain of what the military calls the “battlespace” could enable other groups within the military to identify high-value targets for capture or elimination, and that the work of civilian social scientists within the HTTs was not furthering the goal if impartial academic research.   One of the things one learns from Jaoobsen’s book is that when a DARPA program is green lighted, enormous sums of money flow.   Since the growing HTT program was farmed out to civilian defence contractors like BAE systems, unqualified people may have been hired, as this article suggests.  Eventually the Human Terrain program became a target for politicians crusading against waste, and the programs were scaled back, rebranded, or discontinued.

Because Jacobsen’s narrative is chronological, her book reads as a long series of projects that seemingly have little to do with one another, other than that their funding and research went through DARPA.   As a sequence, nuclear bombs, anthropologists in Vietnam, drones and IED jammers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and research on neurological enhancements and robots in the present day, all suggest a series of frenzied and trendy research programs, driven by the exigencies of the large wars America feared, and the small wars it found itself in.   I would suggest looking elsewhere for a military / historical perspective on why the US needs research agencies like DARPA.  Max Boot’s 2006 book, War Made New: Weapons, Warriors and the Making of the Modern World, would be one example of such a perspective.  Boot’s analysis of military technology’s evolution since 1500 shows a series of revolutions in weapons, tactics, and technology, each more remarkable and more compressed than the last, but each fatal for those powers that make poor choices.  Jacobsen’s book falls partially within what Boot calls the Information Revolution (c. 1970-2000), when America gained a decisive advantage in computer technology for weapons and command and control systems.  However, as Boot notes, having chosen to ride that tiger, the stakes involved have gotten higher and higher as the edge becomes less and less decisive.  Boot writes that:

“America’s early lead in the Information Revolution can easily be lost – it may be being lost already – if it does not stay at the forefront of military developments.  Other countries and even subnational entities such as al Qaeda have an opportunity to exert power that would have been unthinkable before the spread of personal computers, cell phones, satellite navigation devices, and other Information Age technologies” (p. 16). “

Jacobsen is write to end her book on a cautionary note as she worries about the implications of applying AI and robotics research to military uses.   She does not, however, note that other powers are undoubtedly working on the same systems.  The ease with which Russia could destroy Ukrainian field units in 2014-15 was through their own use of battlefield drones and computer controlled weapons systems.   If Jacobsen’s book is about technology as a Pandora’s box opened by soldiers and scientists, then that box was opened long ago, and, now opened, will take more than one world power to close.

0 Responses

  1. As always when people question or criticize an activity, I'm moved to ask, "And what's your alternative?" DARPA's leaders, the DOD, and successive presidents green-lighted DARPA projects because they believed there was a need for the technology or knowledge that the research would bring. While no one should simply accept unquestioningly that those beliefs were correct and that the answers obtained were the right one, neither should one assume those things are not true without examining the individual cases.

  2. Jan, thank you for your comment. I tend to agree with you. As a military officer myself, I want my military to have the best possible equipment to protect my comrades and ensure their success. My view of things on the inside is thus going to be different than a civilian journalist like Jacobsen. I think the value of her book is that it tells an interesting story about military research and technology, and the things it led to, both beneficial and, sometimes, troubling. All of us as citizens need to have the right to know something about military research and to ask, is it ethical? Is it a vision of the future we want (assuming that we have a choice)?