Review by John Freeman
House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power
Sept. 11, 2001, was going to be a ceremonial day for the Pentagon before Flight 77 slammed into its outer ring. Sixty years earlier to the day, ground was broken for the building. War raged then in Europe, so the ceremony was small and brief—there was a lot of work to do. Besides, Franklin Roosevelt intended the structure to be temporary.
And yet today the world’s largest office building still stands, while the World Trade Center—the only building to ever surpass it in sheer office space ... does not. In his frightening new book, House of War, James Carroll finds deep symbolic significance in this fact.
Digging through archives and history books, interviewing some of the most powerful elder statesmen of the postwar period, Carroll emerges with a story about how the Pentagon has accumulated a remarkable amount of power since the end of World War II—far more than anyone intended.
As Carroll portrays it, with each passing year the Pentagon’s budget has grown ever larger, its bailiwick ever wider, its weapons ever more destructive and the moral consequences of their use ever more abstract.
As such it became the true "machine that would go of itself," as historian Michael Kammen describes the Constitution. "The Building was the center of an agency," Carroll explains. "But it also came to possess agency—the capacity to act in ways that transcended the wills and purposes of the people who claimed responsibility for the Defense Department."
If this makes the Pentagon sound like Frankenstein’s creature, then Carroll has hit his mark. The son of a top Pentagon official, raised a Catholic at the height of the Cold War, Carroll grew up drenched in the mythology of American military might. One might even call it a religion—a word Carroll, a former priest, would never use lightly. "War ... in the thermonuclear age, is a source of transcendent fear and trembling," he writes.
At the center of this religion is the bomb. Not for nothing was its test site dubbed Trinity. In Carroll’s mind, American nuclear power was the sublime force behind the American empire, and the Pentagon made itself essential to that project by gaining control of the bomb.
One of the most fascinating passages in House of War retells the story of how the atomic bomb was first deployed, who got to pick its targets, and why it was used. Although David McCullough’s award-winning biography portrays President Harry S. Truman as the ultimate decider, Carroll presents a more complicated picture. Nuclear power did not have to be used to defeat Japan; the firebombing of their cities had pretty much ensured that. But in demanding unconditional surrender—something many knew the Japanese could not accept culturally as it challenged their notion of the emperor—the U.S. made diplomatic failure a foregone conclusion. Sound familiar?
Carroll’s view is that the United States dropped the bomb to send a message to Russia, and that instinct came straight from the Pentagon. This was no accident: Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the man responsible for overseeing the Pentagon’s construction, also managed the brain trust working on the atomic bomb, and was eager to use the weapon. After the war, Groves boasted, "I didn’t have to have the president push the button on this affair."
House of War is full of men like this—career government officials who had not seen combat firsthand, but remained fiercely wedded to the use of power, or the projection of power, to achieve American aims. Robert McNamara graduated from IBM and academia and began using computers to understand the effectiveness of bombing campaigns in World War II. Not long afterward, he became Secretary of Defense. Donald Rumsfeld was an aviation instructor in the Navy. His belligerence was never more pronounced, however, than when he was out of uniform.
In addition to being a novelist and a memoirist—his American Requiem won the 1996 National Book Award—Carroll is also an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe. That influence shows throughout this book. House of War deliberately and forcefully engages the central myths of American power, but its tone occasionally warps toward the polemical.
Addressing the buildup of a military-industrial complex, Carroll writes that long before President Dwight Eisenhower uttered the phrase, a "frenzied cycle" had been set in place "in which money feeds on fear which feeds on power which feeds on violence which feeds on a skewed idea of honor which feeds on demonization of an enemy which feeds on fear which feeds on ever more money."
House of War is an attempt to slow this cycle down so we can isolate its individual actors and assess its inevitability. As such, it is a deeply personal book for Carroll. Throughout the narrative, he veers from the path of factual recitation to stare into the reflecting pool of the past. He recalls the building’s bubblers, its gloomy stateliness and the way his father’s office crept ever closer to that of the Secretary of Defense.
These memories do not so much hold the book together as give it yet another dimension, one that is less a confession than a kind of intellectual prayer. Synthesizing a great deal of information, Carroll has given us a blueprint of America’s most powerful building—not the White House, but a place where the true will to power lives in this country.
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