A sweeping yet intimate look at the Pentagon and its vast often hidden impact on America
"Carroll is the author of the 1996 National Book Awardwinning memoir An American Requiem, and his latest impressive offering may garner similar tributes . . . Certain to be one of the most talked about nonfiction books of the season." Booklist
James Carroll was born in the same fateful week that the Pentagon was dedicated. As a child, he often visited the Pentagon with his father, who served as an Air Force general and a top Pentagon official for more than twenty years. For Carroll, this vast building was a first playground, and later a place to explore. It was there that Carroll decided to become an Air Force officer like his father. And that ambition prompted his enlistment in ROTC when he was a student at Georgetown University. But during the Cold War crises of the early 1960s Carroll felt the existential dread of a threatening nuclear war, which spawned a spiritual crisis that led him into the priesthood.
During the Vietnam War, Carroll became a peacenik priest, which brought him back to the Pentagon, but this time as a protester with his father still working inside. Carroll's parents are now buried near the Pentagon, in Arlington National Cemetery. After 9/11, from a spot near their graves, Carroll looked down on the damaged Pentagon and realized that after spending a lifetime in and around this American landmark, and having learned to loathe and fear the place, he still loved it. That is why he wrote House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Houghton Mifflin; May 16, 2006).
In House of War Carroll shows how the forces that attacked the Pentagon on 9/11 were set in motion exactly sixty years earlier, on September 11, 1941, when ground was broken for the Pentagon. Here are some other revelations in the book:
The United States always demonized the Soviet Union, but the leader of the arms race was in fact the Pentagon.
Ironically, the most hawkish president of all, Ronald Reagan, ended the upward spiral of the arms race. Famous for not trusting Communists, he trusted Mikhail Gorbachev. Together they broke the Pentagon-generated momentum.
Although the Cold War ended, the Pentagon did not change. Only weeks after the Berlin Wall fell, and as Mikhail Gorbachev was ordering his soldiers not to fire on crowds demanding an end to Communism, George H. W. Bush invaded Panama. The United States was alone in refusing the new culture of peace.
Even Bill Clinton, who had been a peacenik, kept the Cold War momentum going. He did not challenge the U.S. military's dominance.
George W. Bush's disastrous war policies were primed by a decades-long momentum that was generated as much by Democrats as Republicans. Now America spends more on "defense" than all the other nations of the world combined. And what does that treasure buy? Incredibly, not enough to defeat a small, ragtag force of "insurgents" in Iraq.
In House of War, Carroll proves a controversial thesis: the Pentagon has, since its founding, operated beyond the control of any force in government or society. It is the biggest, loosest cannon in American history, and no institution has changed this country more. With a breadth and focus that no other book has yet mustered, House of War explains what the Pentagon and America have become over the past sixty years. Carroll draws on extensive research and interviews with Washington insiders. The result is a grand yet intimate work of history, unashamedly polemical and personal but unerringly factual.
James Carroll was born in Chicago in 1943 and raised in Washington, D.C., where his father, an Air Force general, served as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll attended Georgetown University before entering the seminary to train for the Catholic priesthood. He received B.A. and M.A. degrees from St. Paul's College, the Paulist Fathers' seminary in Washington, and was ordained as a priest in 1969. Carroll served as the Catholic chaplain of Boston University from 1969 to 1974, after which he left the priesthood to become a writer.
In 1974 Carroll was the playwright-in-residence at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1976 he published his first novel, Madonna Red, which was translated into seven languages.
Since then he has published nine additional novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Mortal Friends (1978), Family Trade (1982), and Prince of Peace (1984). His novels The City Below (1994) and Secret Father (2003) were named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times.
Carroll's essays and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Daedalus, and other publications. His op-ed column has run weekly in the Boston Globe since 1992.
Carroll's memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us, received, among other honors, the 1996 National Book Award in nonfiction.
His book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, a History, published in 2001, was a New York Times bestseller and was honored as one of the best books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. It was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and won the Melcher Book Award, the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award, and the National Jewish Book Award in history.
Responding to the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis in 2002, Carroll published Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform. In 2004 he published Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War, adapted from his Boston Globe columns since 9/11.
In May 2005 he will publish House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, a history of the Pentagon.
Carroll is a regular participant in ongoing Jewish-Christian-Muslim encounters at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is a member of the council of PEN/New England, which he chaired for four years. He has been a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School. He is a trustee of the Boston Public Library, a member of the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University, and a member of the Dean's Council at Harvard Divinity School. Carroll is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where he chairs the academy's Visiting Scholars Center, and is a member of the academy's Committee on International Security Studies.
James Carroll lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall. They have two grown children.
A Conversation with James Carroll
Your perception of the Pentagon was formed at close range and at a very early age. Can you talk a bit about your personal connection to the subject of your new book?
As a child, I went to the Pentagon with my father, who spent his career there as an Air Force general. The Building was a first playground on Saturdays, and then, when I stopped there on my way home from high school, it was a place to explore. I formed my first ambition there: to be an Air Force officer like Dad. And that prompted my enlistment in ROTC during my freshman year just upriver at Georgetown University. But during the Cold War crises of the early 1960s, again with Dad at the Pentagon, I felt the existential dread of a threatening nuclear war, which spawned a spiritual crisis that took me into the priesthood. Ironically, during Vietnam, I became a peacenik priest, which brought me back to the Pentagon, but as a protester.
My parents are buried up the hill from the Building, in Arlington National Cemetery. When I stood near their graves after 9/11, I looked down on the damaged Pentagon and realized that, having learned to fear the Building, I still loved it. That is why I wrote House of War.
When and in what political environment was the Pentagon created?
The Pentagon was formally dedicated in the same week of January 1943 in which FDR demanded the unconditional surrender of the Axis enemies, the week that Los Alamos was established, and that the first U.S. bombing runs against German cities were ordered. These three events were the beginning of a new American spirit of total war that culminated not only in the total destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, but also, ultimately, in the Cold War doctrines of massive retaliation and mutual assured destruction. The American economy, the academy, the political system, and the culture were transformed by this new dynamic.
It was set in motion as the Pentagon came into being, and the Pentagon kept it going even after the Cold War ended until now.
Who was involved in its creation?
Great characters built and then defined the Pentagon, including General Leslie Groves, who went on to head the Manhattan Project; Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who presided over the construction of the Pentagon and then tried to temper its savage new spirit; the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, who defeated Stimson but whose fears later drove him to suicide; Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, who, with Stalin, made Forrestal afraid; Curtis LeMay, who imposed his belligerent spirit on the Pentagon at the start; and Robert McNamara, who began by working on LeMay's staff and ended as LeMay's boss, yet he lost out to the very thing he represented.
You have referred to the way power is passed on within the Pentagon as similar to the "apostolic succession" of Catholicism. What do you mean by this? How have individuals come to power within this institution?
The spirit of fear-driven preference of military over diplomatic solutions that defined American Cold War policy began with Forrestal, whose psychological paranoia spawned the nation's political paranoia. Forrestal handed his martial spirit on to his protégé Paul Nitze, who handed it on to graduate students Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, who inspired Donald Rumsfeld, whose protégé was Richard Cheney. Wolfowitz, in turn, passed on the mantle to his graduate student Scooter Libby, who ended up as Cheney's chief of staff (until he got into legal difficulties). Such figures kept alive the evil-versus-good mindset of the early Cold War, which always depended on an orthodoxy of political and physical fear (whether of Communists or terrorists) to gain and keep power.
How would you characterize the balance of power between the Pentagon and the White House?
The Constitution assumes the president's supremacy over the military, but dependence on the nuclear arsenal has quietly shifted real dominance to the Pentagon. The military has effective control of nuclear weapons, from what the targets will be to how the decision is made to go to war. This accounts for the extraordinary fact that, once the justification for the massive nuclear arsenal (the USSR) disappeared, the United States did not lessen its dependence on that arsenal, and even expanded it.
The Pentagon is the quiet center of power in Washington, with the State Department (which ceded its primacy as far back as Dean Acheson), the Congress (which is dominated by defense contractor lobbyists), and the White House (which can never appear "soft") in no position to challenge it. This is exactly the "disastrous" power that President Eisenhower had warned of.
How has the Pentagon influenced the nation's sense of itself and its place in the world? How has the struggle for the American soul been won or lost here?
Without fully realizing it, America has been profoundly militarized, with either the actual use of force or the mere threat of it defining our nation's way of being in the world. The most obvious evidence of this is the huge proportion of the American budget that goes for "defense," more than the rest of the world combined. After the Cold War, which ended nonviolently (despite all Pentagon predictions), unimagined opportunities for peace broke out across the globe, but the United States went to war again and again.
After 9/11 this spirit resulted in a disastrous war in Iraq (led by George W. Bush and cheered by most Americans until it began going badly) and the destruction of America's place in the good opinion of mankind. The present crisis is the result of more than Bush's mistake. It follows from a momentum set running long ago in the Building by the Potomac.
How have the presidents in power since the creation of the Pentagon influenced its course of action?
The rise of the Pentagon went hand in hand with the rise of nuclear weapons. After World War II President Truman tried to demobilize, but, having initiated the nuclear age himself, he defined the threat from Moscow in quasi-religious terms, and responded to Moscow's atomic bomb by pushing the world across the even more dangerous thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) threshold. The 200 nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal in 1950 grew to almost 20,000 by 1960 a staggering increase, the insanity of which is not understood today.
Eisenhower and Kennedy both tried to stop this horror, but both made it worse, and their successors followed suit. Carter came into office promising to reverse the arms race, but he left office having quickened it. Finally, Reagan, in the story's unexpected climax, became the unlikely hero when he embraced the goal of nuclear abolition and almost achieved it with Gorbachev.
Now, under Bush, America has returned to the primitive (and dangerous) attitude that nukes are necessary and even good which is, of course, why Iran and other rogue states want them.
You've said that you want House of War to prompt people to reconsider the presidencies of the past sixty years
and to reexamine the decisions our leaders have made. Why?
The Pentagon is the headwater of the current rushing toward the "Niagara Falls" of military catastrophe. Each administration since Truman's should be considered in the light of how the president dealt with that current. By that standard, Truman should be remembered as the man who both decided to use the atomic bomb and (however justified, or not, one regards that first decision) ordered (with dubious justification) its genocidal successor, the H-bomb.
Kennedy, in the Berlin and Cuba crises, drew closer to the abyss than any other president and therefore grew determined to turn the world away from it. The tragedy of his assassination takes on far more significance in light of the too-little-understood antinuclear decisions of his last weeks (see his famous American University speech and the Partial Test Ban Treaty).
It was Reagan who did more to stem the current of disaster than any other president, but he was responding to his Soviet counterpart, Gorbachev, who contradicted everything Reagan ever believed about Communists. And just as surprisingly, the president best equipped (by age, experience, and temperament) to lead the nation out of this trap, Bill Clinton, did almost nothing about it, leaving the nuclear arsenal about where he found it.
Clinton kept the monster alive for George W. Bush, who set it loose again.
You've spoken before about how the fear of the Cold War during your childhood was overwhelming and distracting for everyone, and how today debate over the war in Iraq is being carried on almost exclusively by mothers of dead soldiers. Why do you think we as a country have become so ambivalent, even after tragedies like 9/11 and despite a war involving 150,000 soldiers?
Nuclear fear explains our inability to deal with the war in Iraq. We experienced the 9/11 attacks as if our long-delayed nightmare had finally come (which is why we called the World Trade Center ground zero, the designation for a nuclear target). The stated justifications for the war in Iraq had all been shown to be false even before the 2004 election, yet Senator John Kerry, the Democrats, and the electorate all declined to make it an issue.
The war is an issue now, more because it is going so badly than because it is unjustified or wrong. Americans, in other words, have still not confronted the true horror of what we are doing waging an unnecessary, unjust war for reasons having more to do with the trauma we suffered on 9/11, and the fears it has left us with, than with any real "cause" of war. Bush exploits our fears, and we let him.
Even today, no mainstream U.S. politician is calling for an immediate end to this immoral war.
The best history lessons help us avoid repeating mistakes. What do you think lies ahead if we don't learn from the mistakes of the past half century?
The prospect of terrible things ahead further chaos in the Middle East, a war of civilizations with Islam, a new arms race with China, the resurgence of a militarized Japan, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, world poverty as the great security threat, deployment of weapons in space is clear enough.
The policies of George Bush must be stopped and reversed, and soon. Diplomacy must be resurrected as the main mode of American influence; soft power, not hard. Treaties and forums of international law must define Washington's political agenda, not invasions and "force projection." This change must occur not just for reasons of morality, but because it is only realistic.
As a ragtag bunch of "insurgents" has shown, America's massive military is actually quite impotent.
The hope of stemming the current toward war lies in the other story that House of War tells, which is of the great countercurrent of nonviolence that ran through the twentieth century, from Gandhi in India through the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. The world's people embraced an ideal of peace (from Walesa and Sakharov to Randy Forsberg and the Berrigans), and that, finally, is what ended the Cold War.
The nonviolent demise of Soviet tyranny and the peaceful resolution of the East-West conflict defied the predictions of every Pentagon expert, and proved at last that the dream of peace is no dream. It is the world's only hope.