[The space race] was always a race, but one in which the United States assumed it had a natural advantage. The Soviet Union could not produce a decent automobile; how could it possibly hope to best the United States in rocket science? (p. 31)
Since finishing Sharon Weinberger’s superbly researched book, The Imagineers of War, I find myself coming up short in how to describe it, much less review it. When talking to friends about it, all I can say is, “Those people are crazy!”
ARPA was founded in 1958 with a mission of creating “the unimagined weapons of the future.” Originally meant to beat the Soviets into space, ARPA had an unlimited budget, prestige in the Pentagon, and became a magnet for every wacky idea to come along.
The space race went to NASA, formed a year later, and weaponry became DARPA’s focus. Nearly anyone with an idea could get through the doors to make a pitch.
One of my favorites is Ronald Reagan’s version of Star Wars, a network of missiles in space meant to stop incoming bombs. Only, Reagan was never supposed to hear about it or take it seriously. To say Star Wars was flawed in concept would be an understatement of massive proportions. A lot of DARPA’s ideas made me wince and wonder how anyone thought that was a good idea.
Another interesting one was making a sort of mechanical elephant tall enough to carry supplies and personnel through the Vietnamese jungles. It never got off the drawing boards. That it got on the drawing boards leaves me in awe.
And then there are the little details that give me an unfair advantage on trivia nights. That is, if trivia nights focused on weird historic stories. In this case, it’s the story of how Agent Orange, the defoliant used to burn the jungles – and everything else – in Vietnam down. The dangerous effects of this herbicide reverberate even now, over 50 years since its use was implemented.
The men at DARPA were so bent on stopping Communism in its tracks and making it easier for US troops to fight, they lost sight of the costs in terms of civilians in surrounding villages, and their food supplies. A variety of chemical experiments were made all code-named Agent [some color]. They worked their way through the alphabet until Agent Orange proved to be the one that worked.
There were the experiments with psychic abilities and ways to weaponize them. I couldn’t help thinking of the 2009 George Clooney movie, Men Who Stare at Goats.
Outlandish ideas aside, this is the agency that gave us drones and the Internet. But Imagineers of War is more than a recitation of outlandish ideas, it delves into the politics of various administrations, the Pentagon, NASA, the armed forces and this not so little mysterious agency doing things no one, not even DARPA, completely understood.
The men and, much later, women of DARPA have a vague mission. To think up and develop weapons of the future to find the enemy and kill it. It’s easy to understand the inter-agency contests that have arisen since the very beginning.
Weinberger puts this all into context. The outlandish ideas, the political infighting, the successes and failures, set against the backdrop of impending disaster, imagined and otherwise. She sets the context of the times with care. From the Space Race to the Cold War to Vietnam and beyond, Sharon Weinberger tells us why DARPA was created and why even the most outlandish ideas were taken seriously.
Yes, these people were crazy. But they’re the ones charged with visualizing how to keep us safe from a world that’s crazy. They may be crackpots, but they’re our crackpots doing their best to imagine a crazy future.