Soldiers of Reason, by Alex Abella
Review by W. J. Rayment / ConservativeBookstore -- Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire, by Alex Abella begins as a fascinating history of the RAND Corporation, its origins as an Air Force think tank, its formulation of Nuclear Strategy in the 1950s, its development of game theory, systems analysis, and rational choice theory.
In the early chapters, we learn about the founding fathers of the corporation, General Hap Arnold, Frank Collbohm, and Curtis LeMay. Mr. Abella draws good character sketches that help explain the motivations of the individuals involved. His prose is readable and interesting. What is curious about this book is how the author seems to be able to be relatively detached in the beginning, telling a good story, relating crucial facts, making the arcane interesting. Then, as the story goes on, the author becomes more and more involved in the political implications of RAND's activities passing judgement in ways that begin to detract from the story.
For example, there is a passage in the book covering the time when McNaughton and Shelling (two RAND consultants) were discussing ways to bring Hanoi to the peace table in Vietnam. They advocated an escalating bombing campaign to put pressure on the North Vietnamese government. They rejected bombing civilian population centers as well as the dikes, the destruction of which would have meant the deaths of hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives. They decided to stick largely to military targets. Yet Mr. Abella states, "The failure of that policy, and the tragedy it caused, is a moral burden that RAND has never acknowledged." It would seem to me that RAND and the gentlemen involved in coming up with and instituting this policy were being as humane as they felt they could be under the circumstances. They were practicing restraint. We must remember that war is hell. Nevertheless, in a book that purports to be a history, more fact and less moralizing on the part of the author would have been preferred.
I was willing to forgive these asides as the book is full of facts, and by and large well done. However, I found the conclusion of the book is an attempted critique of rational choice theory. Unfortunately, it comes off juvenile, rather as if it were written by a young high-school student who believes in certain altruistic values because they seem warm and fuzzy, all the while missing the implications of the facts upon which he is commenting. Abella decries rational choice theory as missing factors that have to do with religion or feeling, all the while unaware that even his denigration of rational choice is a rational choice he makes because it makes him feel superior to the intellectuals at RAND.
Mr. Abella also roused my own personal bug bear. In his writing, he seems completely unaware of the fact that markets work. Mr. Abella whines that the top 5 percent of the population controls 60 percent of the wealth, without taking the trouble to see that people are wealthy in this country in the main because they choose to work hard and be innovative. Those who are not wealthy choose another path. They choose to devote their lives to leisure, or academia, family, or whatever, and yet it is because of these people who strive to create wealth that there is enough wealth in surplus for the rest of us. On this, and other topics in this chapter, I found Mr. Abella's arguments neither convincing, nor even challenging.
Ultimately, "Soldiers of Reason" is well-written and informative. But its author could have taken a page out of James Thompson's book and tried for a few less "adjectives", especially where his own opinion was concerned. I would have thought quite highly of the book if Mr. Abella had stuck entirely to facts. I wasn't looking to read a fawning treatise, but neither was I looking for a liberal screed.
Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire is available at Amazon.