Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reading :: Soldiers of Reason

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

In the Foreword to this book, the author tells how he gained access to RAND. "One of the managers," he tells us dramatically, "confided that he thought agreeing to this book was either the brightest or the dumbest move RAND had ever made" (p.3).

Interestingly, I read the Foreword just days after I mentioned to a RAND contact that I was about to begin the book. His reaction was unenthusiastic; he had not read the book, but seemed to imply that those who had were not impressed. Not great, but not terrible, more of a wash.

That's a pretty good summary -- both of the writing style and the book's content. The book is full of hyperbolic statements and characterizations like this one:
RAND's hawkish views of Soviet intentions, distilled in Leites's works and Nitze's jeremiads, fit the paranoia of the age, the national terror over an impending nuclear conflict, the abhorrence of anything that wasn't true-blue American. Nevertheless, RAND analysts believed that with hard work, dedication, and sacrifice -- and the prescriptions issuing from Santa Monica -- there might still be a future worth living. One of these RAND prescriptions would pull the world from the brink of possible nuclear annihilation, while another would rewrite the basic concepts of social welfare, politics, and government in America and the West. (p.39)
Yet the book itself is just okay. Abella is curious about RAND, but that curiosity leads him to attribute all sorts of things solely or primarily to RAND that seem to have deeper and broader roots. For instance, he attributes RAND's development of rational choice theory with "redefin[ing] the foundations of public policy by assuming that self-interest defines all aspects of human activity" (p.52) and noting that "RAND people were the primary practitioners of realpolitik in America's intellectual world" (p.96), while seemingly unaware of the interplay with Machiavelli and Adam Smith (neither of whom, I hasten to add, was a RAND analyst). For Abella, RAND seems to be the obligatory passage point for these fundamental shifts, but RAND is only one vector for the development of these ideas.

I also began to distrust Abella's characterizations of leading RAND figures from the glory days of the past. Invariably, these figures were portrayed as larger than life, with larger-than-life eccentricities and tragic flaws and blind spots. As often happens with this sort of text, the closer we get to the present day, the blander and more colorless RAND researchers get -- just as the miracle-working patriarchs of the Old Testament make way for the people you see at your local synagogue or church. I began to wonder whether the larger-than-life figures from the old RAND were more the artifact of temporal distance than faithful characterizations, and whether they became larger than life because they were mostly dead, known only through documents and recollections, unable to talk back to Abella's characterizations.

In any case, this book was interesting in spots, but I would seek out corroborating histories if I were to use it as a source.

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