Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book review: Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire

Ugh. I read this almost two months ago, and I couldn't quite figure out what to write about it. I worked on it here and there, constructing a rambling, extremely long review, which even I didn't have the patience to read! (and like proud parents with new baby pictures, who of us hasn't created reviews that only we find endlessly witty and fascinating?) It started to feel like I was rewriting the book, yet couldn't quite say anything meaningful about it, including even whether I was recommending to read it or not. Part of the problem is that I wanted this book to convey some sense of outrage. The topic is outrageous... a secretive and unaccountable think tank which has likely had a hand in bungling the Vietnam War, toppling freely-elected governments, and shaping the perverse worldview of Neoconservatives. My tortured first draft tried to address those subjects within the framework of reviewing this book. The problem is, author Alex Abella doesn't spend much time on those subjects. He dwells heavily on RAND's role formulating American nuclear strategy of the early Cold War. When he does diverge from this, Soldiers of Reason is more like a fun-filled romp through the swinging 60's and 70's with a bunch of madcap super-geniuses. Abella didn't write a bad book... he doesn't defend RAND's bad behavior... but he doesn't seem to care about the things I care about, and my first review pretended that he did. That's why it sucked. A better review, and more fair, I think, is to lay it out the way the author did, and make the best of it.


I think Soldiers of Reason was supposed to be a fascinating examination of all the great minds and quirky personalities who have worked at RAND over the years. To be sure, there's a bunch of them. The only one I had ever heard before was John Nash, who was portrayed by Russel Crowe in the movie "A Beautiful Mind". (I'm too lazy to put in the link, plus I know you've all seen it) There are others, and I'm sure they were all great too, but honestly I didn't have much patience for this part. Reading the biographies of academics has limited appeal, and my interest was the larger historical significance of RAND.

Origins
The origins of RAND has no great story involving two guys sitting around spontaneously deciding "Hey! Let's establish a think tank to advise the Department of Defense on special reseach projects!" Presumably something like that did happen at some point, but as near as any records can show, RAND was born as a result of the Ford Foundation being allowed to set up an office in the brand new Air Force (previously the Army Air Corps) in 1947. The name "RAND" is merely an uninspired abbreviation for "Research and Development". How a private wealth foundation was allowed to do this is not explained. If I start a company tomorrow and then approach the Dept of Defense to ask about letting my company have an office in the Pentagon, what do you think they'd say? Well, obviously big money like the Ford Foundation doesn't have to observe rules made for "little people" like you and I, but I wish Abella would have explored this arrangement in greater depth. On the face of it, RAND's conception looks like a public institution (the Dept of Defense) granting a private institution preferential and unprescedented access. That's not really how our government is supposed to function.

RAND's first project (1948) was to be an American equivalent of the Soviet Sputnik program. If it had stayed on track, maybe it could have beat Sputnik into orbit. That would have changed a thing or two in history, especially as relates to NASA and the space program. Unfortunately, the project stalled out and was canceled, but RAND's directors were unphased. Believing the brainpower amassed under their roof must be good for something they quickly reinvented themself as advisors to General Curtis LeMay, helping direct the Air Force's rocket program. The U.S. had recruited many of Germany's rocket scientists for this very purpose in "Operation Paperclip", but in 1948, they were all working for the Navy. LeMay wanted to put his new Air Force on equal footing with the Navy (and Army, I guess) with breakthroughs of his own. Armed with the atom bomb, ICBMs were to be the ultimate "big stick" weapon. As it turns out, development of nuclear-tipped ICBMs was only RAND's gateway to more sinister activities. The institution quickly became enmeshed in a host of top-secret, and often ethically questionable programs. LeMay found himself turning to RAND with increased frequency to advise on top-secret dirty work because: (A) RAND scientists already had high-level security clearances from their work on ICBMs; and (B) to keep nosy bureaucrats from looking too carefully into sensitive undertakings.
Oh, you heard me right. RAND was protected from serious Congressional scrutiny. Although it had been conceived as an advisory body to the Air Force, it had been completely funded with Ford Foundation money, and just a few years after its creation, it was administratively separated from the Air Force and restructured as a private corporation. Through a quirky configuration of financial channels, RAND was fiscally independent of Congress, yet its activities made it a de facto component of the Department of Defense. The Federal Reserve has played a similar, perhaps more successful version of this ruse- a private corporation pretending to be a government institution when that suits its needs, and falling back on its private status when transparency or accountability are called for. All this raises the obvious question "Why was the RAND corporation created, and what is the Ford Foundation getting out of it?" It doesn't exactly suggest a government "by the People, for the People". It infuriates me that Alex Abella never raises this question.

Follow the Money

Come right in
Moving along, in the early 50's, LeMay and other top brass decided that since RAND was doing such a bang-up job developing nuclear missiles (that pun was for you, Eh!), it made sense to bring RAND's mathematicians onboard to create the conceptual tools (e.g. game theories, mathematical models) needed to plan a nuclear war. People entertained all sorts of odd ideas back then about how a nuclear war would play out. One strategy (p83) functioned on the premise that since too little was known about the Soviet Union to formulate a predictive model of their behavior, Pentagon strategists should substitute the tested and proven model of a much more thoroughly studied adversary: the Japanese from World War II. This seems like it would further confuse an already-difficult task, but Abella debates the merits of this approach, which at least makes for interesting reading.

While RAND mathematicians tinkered about with their theories, LeMay had arrived at his own personal strategy for nuclear war: that he should try to kill everybody in the USSR except a few leaders with the authority to officially surrender. He encouraged RAND staff to support this, but to their credit, they never did. Perhaps this is the bright side to their financial independence and institutional lack of oversight. Also to their credit: RAND came up with some pretty cool ideas which are still used today, including many systems analysis and cost analysis tools, and something called "Rational Choice Theory". Abella explains them all, so I won't here. The punch line to RAND's extensive efforts refining nuclear and rocket technology is that LeMay's golden boy and all-around rockstar mathematician Bernard Brodie more or less convinced Pentagon leadership that the only rational approach to nuclear weapons was avoid using them at all.

"Shall We Play a Game?"
Wargames

We all saw "Wargames", so Brodie's conclusions may be no shock to us, but his pronouncements were issued in the late 1950's, when the sitting President was a former five star General, and America was still in love with heroes like Douglas MacArthur, whose "fortune-favors-the-bold" and "push-for-the-decisive-showdown" mentality had converted the Korean conflict from an unmitigated disaster to an unsatisfying stalemate (and some suspected it could have been turned into a "win" if he had been permitted to use the atomic bomb on China).
Brodie's view was not always the final word in the halls of power, but it significantly shifted military thinking, and gave legitimacy to the somewhat unfavored ideas of containment and de-escalation of conflicts. An interesting side note to all this: Abella reveals a secret but resolute principle of American foreign policy from 1945 to 1989 was that Berlin should be unconditionally defended against a Soviet takeover with all needed force, up to and including nuclear weapons.
atomic blast
The Cuban Missile Crisis, and the subsequent replacement of inflammatory Nikita Khrushchev with corrupt-but-sedate Leonid Brezhnev seemed to validate Brodie's ideas. This amplified RAND's clout among top military officers... credibility that would soon be poorly spent in Vietnam.

The End of "Innocence"
As the rest of the culture slid out of the "Father Knows Best" 50's into the "Turn on, tune in, drop out" 60's, RAND seemed to undergo a transformation of its own, taking a decidedly cynical and Machiavellian turn in its institutional character. Abella describes this transformation as mysterious, but I wonder if it might be explained by a closer examination of RAND's patrons at the Ford Foundation. RAND was earning a lot of revenue on its own now, so maybe not, but Abella's failure to explore this relationship seems like a glaring deficiency.

When U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated from an advisory role to active conflict, RAND staff set about exploring cold-blooded questions like how to cause social instability in theater through mass starvation. Clearly any innocence RAND may have once had (and I believe there was precious little to begin with) had been lost. Looking out at the grand chessboard of the world, RANDites further opined about the cost/benefit ratios of overthrowing assorted foreign governments, the utility of installing cooperative dictators, and ways to win the allegiance of neutral nations through coercion or manipulation. None of this seems to bother Abella as much as it should. Fortunately, it did bother RANDite Daniel Ellsburg, who came to see the Vietnam War as a terrible mistake. In October 1969, he took classified RAND documents from his office, copied them, and released them to the New York Times. The files documented American strategic thought in Vietnam all the way from its days as French Indochina up to a foreshadowing of the 1970 bombing of Cambodia. Activists ran wild with Ellsburg's revelations and RAND was humiliated... but in the end, business continued as usual.

Sucking in the Seventies
On through the 70's and 80's, abated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's philosophy of realpolitic, RAND became progressively more sinister. As the Soviet Union and its satellites showed signs of failure, RAND had already identified terrorism as the West's next big existential threat. For reasons not entirely explained or even acknowledged by Abella, RAND took a much harder stance against terrorism than it ever did against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Brodie and the RANDites of his era had been confident that the Soviet nuclear monster could be contained, de-escalated, and rationally negotiated with. In comparison, the newer, coarser face of RAND stood hard on the idea that the many-headed hydra of terrorism, wherever on the globe it existed, could only be dealt with by aggressive American military intervention. This seems like a ineloquent solution, coming from what was supposedly the greatest scientific think tank in history. What about examining possible causes of extremism, and looking for solutions to prevent it? What about examining the specific motivations and characteristics of different terrorist groups?... are you really telling me that the "shoot-'em-up-cowboy" strategy is the best approach to dealing with al Qaeda, Colombia's "National Liberation Army", HAMAS (Palestine's Islamic resistance movement), and the Irish Republican Army alike? How did RAND arrive at that conclusion? Exploration of these issues could probably fill several books, but Abella should have at least raised the question.

The By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, RAND was in full-blown Dick Cheney waterboarding mode, and actively pushing American leaders towards the goal of worldwide "full spectrum dominance" (FSD). FSD essentially holds that America must become the lone overwhelming and absolutely unopposable military force on the globe. It is an expensive idea, in terms of both money and goodwill, and it seems aimed at a symptom (terrorism) rather than a cause (extremism in response to real or perceived injustices).

Cheney
Since we're on the topic of Cheney (sort of): it is truly disturbing how many Neoconservatives and likeminded bad apples were somehow connected to RAND, either as members, or closely affiliated through other institutions: Cheney himself, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Richard Armitage, and Paul Bremmer. I probably skipped some. After a while, it becomes impossible to tell whether RAND influenced these people, or whether they changed RAND. Regardless, the book finishes up by laying out RAND's philosophical reasons for advocating our current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know about RAND, I don't know what does.

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