The Pentagon’s Brain

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

Little, Brown (2015), Paperback, 560 pages

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An absorbing book about a little-known organisation that has been at the heart of American military planning and weapon development since the height of the Cold War. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), began its existence as ARPA in 1958 as a response to the shock Soviet achievements in space, with the mission of ensuring that the US would never be caught unawares by a rival again. DARPA has been behind to some extent practically of the US military’s developments in weapons and communication ever since. As the book reveals, the agency has dabbled in missile launch detection, surveillance (including surveillance of millions of US citizens), nuclear test detection, counterinsurgency (from Vietnam through the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and most recently anti-terrorism. One of the agency’s lesser-known links is with the shadowy organisation known as the Jasons, a loose grouping of elite scientists who are tasked with brainstorming the most radical and left-field answers to military problems. DARPA’s main contributions to military strategy have also drifted over into civilian life, including drones, laser technology, and most pervasively and influentially, a little thing called ARPANET, which became the foundations for the Internet. This all makes for fascinating and sometimes controversial reading. Certainly conspiracy buffs, readers of a left-wing or anti-authoritarian bent, or those who simply mistrust governments, will find plenty in here to anger them, but this doesn’t alter the fact that is a fine piece of writing that lifts the lid on an influential organization that has played a major role, behind the scenes, in much of world history of the later 20th century and early 21st centuries. The book is gripping in the early parts, but tends to lose focus a bit in the latter stages, the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful piece of writing and research. Worthwhile reading.

8.5/10

Dictator

Dictator, by Robert Harris

Hutchinson (2015), Paperback, 464 pages

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The culmination of Harris’ trilogy on the downfall of the Roman Republic, this is arguably the best book of the three. While the others were somewhat clunky, and suffered from the fact that a lot of the drama in the late years of the Republic happened in the Senate, this book covers the period when Rome’s political structures had finally collapsed, and the action had moved from dry debate to actual warfare. The book centres on the peripatetic bibliophile, gossip, legal genius and sometimes proverbial pain in the butt Marcus Tullius Cicero, as observed by the narrator, his faithful secretary, librarian and muse Tiro. The choice of Cicero as central character is a good one, as Cicero’s letters are our main source of information on this period, as well as being a natural foil for the more important players in the drama, all of whom alternatively sought to bring him to their side, aware of his pull in the Senate and his formidable powers of oratory, and then subsequently drove him away in disgust when he proved to be hopelessly vacillating. Above all, Cicero, a hopeless drama queen through and through, is just a damn interesting character to write a book on. The book starts slowly , but then gathers pace as the venerable Republic starts to unravel. Cicero and Tiro are witness at first to the Senate conservatives’ efforts to bring down Caesar, then the subsequent war between Caesar and Pompey, Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome and his downfall at the hands of the assassins, the war between Antony allied with  young Octavian and the so-called Liberators, then the beginnings of the conflict between Antony and Octavian which leads to Cicero’s death at the orders of the former. There are some curious historical omissions – Antony is brought into the story too late, and Cato, the heart and soul of the anti-Caesar forces, is largely ignored, but overall this is an exciting, historically solid outing on a fascinating period of history. I loved it because I know and appreciate this era particularly well, but anyone who loves a good historical novel will really enjoy this.

8.5/10

The Wrath of Cochise

The Wrath of Cochise, by Terry Mort

Constable (2014), Paperback, 352 pages

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A rambling but fascinating discourse on the West and general and the Indian wars in particular. Despite the title, Cochise only figures in the beginning and end of the book. The rest is a lengthy scene-setting exercise featuring the history of contact between the Apache and white men, and the Apache hatred for Mexicans, as well as extensive discourse on related topics including mining, the stagecoach industry, the Mexican-American War, the Mormons and the Civil War in the West. The core of the book relates to a fateful decision made by a young army officer that led to a bloody decade long war between the US and Cochise’s Chiricahua Apaches. Following the abduction of a 12 year boy by Apaches, Lieutenant George Bascom, only three years out of West Point, elected to hold Cochise and his family hostage in an attempt to bargain for the boy’s release, but Cochise escaped. After failed attempts to get his family back, Cochise tortured to death several white captives and went on the warpath against the whites. Mort goes to great length to analyze Bascom’s motives for his decision, showing they were militarily correct, according to his West Point training, but he simply did not understand the Apache mindset, which was totally alien to all the whites’ assumptions about how they would behave in a given situation. The US Army’s military tactics against the Apache were also flawed. Unlike the Plain tribes, the Apache did not have any property or herds of horses the Army could capture, they were a pure warrior society who excelled at guerrilla warfare. The result was a decade long war costing hundreds of lives, before Cochise finally wearied of war and sued for peace. This is a fascinating work for anyone interested in the West, and the Indian tribes in particular. It is a graphic picture of a way of life that was destined to disappear, and the tragic confrontation between two utterly different civilizations. Great read.

8.5/10

Console Wars

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle That Defined a Generation, by Blake J. Harris

Atlantic Books (2014), Paperback, 592 pages

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I have to admit this book left me cold, not because it is not extremely interesting, absorbing and well-written, but because of the subject matter. The book details the explosion in the videogame industry in the late 80’s and early 90’s, when after a hiatus following the earlier collapse of Atari in 1983, sales of consoles and games exploded into millions of units. The primary engines behind this growth were the rival corporations of Nintendo and Sega. At the beginning of the story, Nintendo had a death-grip on the home entertainment market, while Sega was a struggling Japanese arcade game maker who barely had a presence in the USA. Enter Tom Kalinske, a former successful Mattel executive who is headhunted by Sega while holidaying with his family. In the course of the next decade, Kalinske molds a team and philosophy at Sega that turns the videogame industry on its head, at its culmination briefly overtaking Nintendo as the biggest seller of consoles in the US, before jealousy by the company’s Japanese parent and a dual strike by Nintendo and Sony effectively ends Sega’s console ambitions for all time. The story is symbolized by the rival corporations’ flagship mascots, Mario for Nintendo, Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega. The book strongly channels the “cola wars” conflict between Coke and Pepsi, which is referenced in the story, as well in as the sly title. As I said, this is a fascinating book, absorbing for anyone like me who loves games and gaming. And I am the first to admit that gamers like myself have benefited immensely from the technological advances this conflict sparked. However, I said the book left me cold and that is true. I had no emotional involvement in this story because I am not and have never been a fan of consoles. I am a hardcore PC gamer, one of those some of us would refer to as “one-percenters”, those who only game on PC, never on console. To me, consoles are toys for the entertainment of children, and I really feel I had this view confirmed by the actions of the principals described in this book. You will simply never read of any more childish, immature and petty actions and stunts perpetrated by supposedly adult executives to denigrate or even bring down their opposition. To me, they are toymakers, and they act exactly like it. But don’t let that stop you from grabbing this book and devouring it, if you have any interest in videogames at all. It truly is an epic, fascinating read.

9/10