Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen

I listened to the audiobook while traveling 32 hours (door-to-door) from Africa to the U.S. The audio, narrated by the author, was over 18 hours and never failed to put me to sleep. Bulging with fascinating details, it lulled me to sleep with all its names and acronyms at times, but kept me awake other times. The beginning is an amazing account of the hydrogen bomb that mades me wonder about the after-effects in the islands decades later.

I recommend the book over an audiobook unless you have a good memory for details. I don't. I am going to get the book and skim it again. An ambitious look at a little-known, yet powerful agency, started in the 1950's to win wars. Annie Jacobsen does a good job dramatizing historical events and remaining objective letting the reader decide whether DARPA crosses the line or defends the country in its mission. I can see why this was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize nominee for history.

The arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States meant the belief in "mutually assured destruction" - nations attacking each other with nuclear weapons would destroy themselves in the process. The U.S. decided to develop DARPA in 1958 to stay ahead of the Soviets in new arms and technology, and prevent a nuclear strike. The department developed cutting-edge technological, biological, psychological and scientific warfare. They developed ARPANET, the pre-cursor to today's Intenet, and Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used in the Vietnam War. Sophisticated rifles, drones, and global positioning systems (GPS) make this read like a spy novel at times.

One reviewer, Richard Easton, claims that the information on GPS is incorrect. He's quite detailed in what he considers egregious errors. I would have to do more research in this area to see if I agree or not. I do not agree that the entire book is a wasted effort if that is true as he implies. The GPS is a small portion as the author is covering the entire DARPA history. However, if Jacobsen is wrong, I hope it is corrected in new printings. I hope her book leads to more work on the topic. She wrote it by interviewing 71 former DARPA scientists and reading newly declassified documents from 1958 to the present. It is quite fascinating and original.

5 Smileys


  1. Thanks for mentioning my review. Obviously, a book can wrong for three pages about GPS and still be a useful tome. However, earlier books by Jacobsen have been severely criticized. Check out my website for more details about GPS.

  2. Interesting. So there is a pattern of inaccuracies. That is good to know, especially since I work with high school students on IB extended essays and many of the topics in Jacobsen's book show up in their topics. I ordered your book by the way. I look forward to reading it. Thanks for the insight.