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

“Rollicking” is not the kind of adjective one would expect to describe a study of a defense policy think tank. Thus it is to Alex Abella’s considerable credit that much of his new book, Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire, is often a lot of fun to read. The first half particularly exudes a Strangelovian Cold War madness, with its portrait of a brilliant coterie dreaming up apocalyptic nuclear strategies and trying to reduce the messiness of human motivation to mathematical algorithms.

Abella, the author of four novels, has a fiction writer’s eye for detail and scene setting. He is, unfortunately, not nearly as good at political analysis or capturing ideological currents, which is why this book grows frustrating when it attempts sweeping claims about RAND’s ultimate significance. In attempting a unified theory of the RAND Corporation, Abella makes grand assertions that are not borne out by the rest of the book, too often substituting style and hyperbole for depth. Soldiers of Reason skitters over the surface of more than a half century of defense policy. There are many fascinating moments, but it’s hard to see what it all adds up to.

The RAND Corporation was founded in the aftermath of World War II in order to ensure that some of the staggering brainpower mobilized for the conflict would continue to be available to the military. It’s fascinating, given the seeming anti-intellectualism of American politics, to realize what a profound influence the ideas of the RANDites would have. In pursuit of this connection, Abella offers an overblown metaphor: “In a very real, very tangible way, in this great maelstrom of consumerism called Western civilization, all of us are the bastard children of RAND. Put in everyday terms, RAND’s rational choice theory is the Matrix code of the West?Think of this book then as the red pill that will make visible the secret world that rules us all.”

Actually, don’t. Think of it, instead, as an interesting tour of the ideas and characters that have influenced postwar American defense strategy and, to a lesser extent, economic policy.

The book begins in 1945, with General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, trying to find a way to “hire the best brains in the country, put them together in a space they could call their own, and have them come up with weapons nobody had ever imagined.” RAND — the name stands for “research and development” — was born as an idea factory for the Air Force, and under its aegis, some of the smartest men in the country were given free rein to go wherever their powerful intellects led them. Abella describes one early hire, John David Williams, head of the mathematics division: “He personified what would become hallmarks of RANDites — a love of pleasures of the flesh, a dedication to abstract theory, and a sense of absolute self-righteousness married to an amoral approach to politics and policy.” Life at RAND, writes Abella, “was a boy’s conception of what a man’s life should be, down to the fragrant pipe tobacco, fast cars, and clubby exclusivity.”

Ideas that came out of RAND were enormously influential in guiding American nuclear doctrine. (Among the think tank’s innovations was a system to communicate in the event of a nuclear attack that presaged the Internet.) Abella shows how theories that evolved to deal with a war with the Soviet Union — particularly, the sustained escalation of force, or “counterforce” — were applied, with disastrous results, to Vietnam. He suggests that RAND was implicated in the intellectual arrogance that led the United States into that quagmire, although he just barely skims the story that David Halberstam told so definitively in The Best and the Brightest. Indeed, it’s hard to tell exactly how Abella judges RAND’s role in Vietnam, as well as in Iraq, where a number of RAND veterans would become important players in the neoconservative movement that pushed for the American invasion. His analysis can be so muddy that his conclusions sometimes seem to spring from nowhere.

Within RAND, the “animosity between the pro- and antiwar groups was so bitter that fistfights broke out in management sessions.” But despite having access to RAND’s archives — and to the memories of Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers — Abella doesn’t really capture the mood inside the organization in the 1970s with anything like the richness of his writing about the 1950s. Given that he acknowledges ideological divisions among RANDites over Vietnam, it’s somewhat jarring when he essentially proclaims the think tank as morally culpable for the war as then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. By supplying the operative military theory, he suggests, “RAND was responsible as those who put counterforce into effect.” That is a stark conclusion, and not supported by the rest of the book.

Similarly, Abella shows how several of the architects of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq passed through RAND, but he never really demonstrates how the Weltanschauung of the place encouraged their fatal, hubristic errors. One can infer from passages elsewhere in the book that Abella is arguing that RAND, because of its emphasis on reason and the measurement of quantifiable variables, led people associated with it to underplay the importance of factors like faith, pride, and tribe. As he writes in the conclusion, “Let us grant that the people of RAND?acted in good faith, wanting only to shed the light of reason on a dangerously irrational world. Their choice of instrument has unleashed world-changing responses driven precisely by the forces their instrument cannot handle — religion, nationalism, patriotism.” But Abella also shows that RAND was a pioneer in terrorism studies, foreseeing the rising danger of religious extremism, so it’s unclear how the flaw in their ideology was a misguided faith in the power of reason.

One finishes the book impressed by the world-straddling lives of some of RAND’s intellectuals and convinced that, within its hothouse environment, others conceived destructive policies that they foisted upon the world with the swaggering confidence of the elect. But all this really proves was that RAND was an important incubator of defense intellectuals. A deeper reckoning with RAND’s particular role in the world, and its signature intellectual contributions, remains elusive. For a book about analysts, no matter how lively it is at times, that’s no small shortcoming.