The story of science in the service of war could start just about anywhere in human history, from Persia with Alexander the Great to Egypt with Napoleon. In her book about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. government’s defense science agency, Sharon Weinberger selects as her starting point Nagasaki and the point of view of a 6-year-old boy waking up in a city of rubble and seared flesh after the second, and (so far) last, atomic bomb ever used on Earth.In Vietnam in 1950, the U.S. Embassy in Saigon didn’t have a single officer who spoke Vietnamese. What they lacked in cultural understanding, though, the Americans made up for with science. By 1961, the U.S. was moving closer to war, as the scientists’ psy-ops schemes weren’t working to deter the Viet Cong. One plan was to play on local superstitions. (In the Philippines, an American adman-turned-CIA-officer had persuaded the anti-communist government to capture a rebel, drain his blood and leave two puncture holes in his neck, to play on villagers’ fear of vampires.) DARPA men also proposed herding pro-U.S. peasants into “strategic hamlets.”
Social engineering took second place to designing new hardware and weapons. For Vietnam, DARPA men dreamed up a fuel-efficient “airborne Volkswagen,” land mines disguised as rocks, thermobaric weapons and hormone-based plant killers to defoliate communist hideouts. The chemical defoliant Agent Orange was one of the agency’s Vietnam legacies.