HOUSE OF WAR: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of
American Power, by James Carroll. Houghton Mifflin, 655 pp., $30.
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 a Frankenstein 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 of "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 in order 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
not seen combat first-hand, but remained fiercely wedded to the use of
power, or the projection of power, to achieve American aims.
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
"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 water fountains, 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.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.