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House of War: The Pentagon, a History of Unbridled Powerby James Carroll
Synopses & Reviews
From the National Book Award-winning author of An American Requiem and Constantine's Sword comes a sweeping yet intimate look at the Pentagon and its vast — often hidden — impact on America.
This landmark, myth-shattering work chronicles the most powerful institution in America, the people who created it, and the pathologies it has spawned. James 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. To argue his case, he marshals a trove of often chilling evidence. He recounts how the Building and its denizens achieved what Eisenhower called a disastrous rise of misplaced power — from the unprecedented aerial bombing of Germany and Japan during World War II to the shock and awe of Iraq. He charts the colossal U.S. nuclear buildup, which far outpaced that of the USSR, and has outlived it. He reveals how consistently the Building has found new enemies just as old threats — and funding — evaporate. He demonstrates how Pentagon policy brought about U.S. indifference to an epidemic of genocide during the 1990s. And he 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 house of war.
Carroll draws on rich personal experience (his father was a top Pentagon official for more than twenty years) as well as exhaustive research and dozens of extensive interviews with Washington insiders. The result is a grand yet intimate work of history, unashamedly polemical and personal butunerringly factual. With a breadth and focus that no other book could muster, it explains what America has become over the past sixty years.
"Has America become the new Sparta? Although the Soviet Union collapsed more than a decade and a half ago, the United States will spend roughly $561 billion this year on national defense — in real terms, more than in any year of the Cold War except 1952, the height of the Korean War buildup. In the wake of 9/11, have we become a bomb-first, ask-questions-later superpower — a threat to world peace,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) as a majority of Europeans polled in 2003 saw us? For James Carroll, the answer is an anguished yes. His weighty 'House of War' aims to explain the mechanics of this spiritual decline and show how what he sees as a consuming paranoia and vengefulness became lodged in the national soul. For Carroll, who won the National Book Award in 1996 for his memoir 'An American Requiem,' the central dynamic is a familiar one: The wildfire growth of the military-industrial complex, the perpetual refocusing of foreign policy through a military lens and a mindless reliance on nuclear weapons have led to America's moral fall. Carroll begins his story with the groundbreaking to construct the Pentagon building at a site called 'Hell's Bottom,' on the Virginia side of the Potomac, on Sept. 11, 1941 — 60 years to the day before al-Qaeda terrorists slammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building. Those two late-summer days bracket a downward arc that begins in earnest with Franklin D. Roosevelt's demand for unconditional surrender from America's foes in World War II — a call that Carroll argues prolonged the war by leaving no way for the Axis powers to sue for peace. From this starting point, the book's narrative follows a predictable itinerary: the firebombing of enemy cities in World War II, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, the chronic overestimation of Soviet military capabilities, the Vietnam debacle and the renewal of superpower tensions during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Finally, there is 9/11; for Carroll, America's decision to respond to the assault by invading Afghanistan and Iraq — instead of launching 'an internationally coordinated law enforcement effort' — was the fulfillment of the visions of revenge and destruction that possessed America during the Cold War and a way of 'counterbalancing (the) trauma.' Intertwined with this account of epic public events is a very personal story — of Carroll's disillusionment with the Air Force (in which his father was a general), his coming of age in John F. Kennedy's Washington, and his work as an anti-war Catholic priest during the Vietnam era. Although 'House of War' aims to chronicle the rise of a vast impersonal force, Carroll tells much of his story through vignettes of key figures. Among the best are those of Gen. Leslie R. Groves, the officer who built the Pentagon and ran the Manhattan Project, and Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff who was scarily eager to use nuclear weapons. On the more heroic side are Henry L. Stimson, the World War II secretary of war who foresaw a ruinous arms race if atomic weapons were not brought under international control, and, interestingly, Robert S. McNamara, the much-vilified Vietnam-era secretary of defense who, in Carroll's telling, realized at the time that 'the arms race had brought less security, not more, to both the United States and the Soviet Union.' Through such figures, Carroll captures the irrationality that ran through the Cold War as apocalyptic weapons were piled ever higher. He writes of a cascade of errors that swelled into a cultural 'Niagara.' During the superpower standoff, Carroll writes, 'the Pentagon remains an engine room, generating a current that flows inexorably toward the edge of the abyss.' But if 'House of War' is good at recounting the most fearful aspects of the Cold War, it fails to put them in context. Moreover, many readers will question the essentially pacifist perspective that Carroll brings to his work. He focuses obsessively on nuclear weapons and clearly does not believe in nuclear deterrence. Implicitly, 'House of War' takes the position that it is immoral to threaten an act — a nuclear strike — that itself would be profoundly evil. That paradox unnerved many serious strategists, especially in the 1980s. But many also came to see the threat as the tolerable cost of a tense but cold conflict. Despite close calls, deterrence worked — buying Washington time to let Soviet communism implode. For Carroll, the success of this approach seems less important than the shadow of fear that fell over his own country. This ambitious, often overreaching book becomes particularly scattershot in its second half, where Carroll's animus often gets the better of him. For example, he criticizes President George H.W. Bush for reacting inappropriately to the fall of the Berlin Wall and missing 'the opportunity to sacralize such a pure triumph of the democratic spirit and of a human rejection of violence.' He is blind to the masterful role Bush played in winding down the East-West conflict and the self-abnegation involved in not taking a victory lap that would have humiliated Moscow. Ultimately, Carroll never makes good on his subtitle's promise to explain 'the disastrous rise' of American power, words that are drawn from Eisenhower's farewell address, in which he warned of the growth of the 'military-industrial complex.' Whatever one thinks of that complex, has the rise of American power really been disastrous? Undoubtedly, for the 'sideshow' countries of the Cold War — Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador and Honduras, to name just a few — it was. Carroll gives a death toll of 21 million in the proxy conflicts of the Cold War. Even a far smaller number would have been appalling; while the United States is not responsible for all those casualties, that awful statistic underscores the danger of subordinating everything to the single goal of defeating an enemy — a lesson worth recalling amid current administration rhetoric about a 'long war' against Islamist terror. Still, after World War II, the globe suffered no conflicts of the kind that claimed at least 80 million lives between 1914 and 1945. Western Europe remained free and grew extraordinarily prosperous, and (tellingly) the states of Central and Eastern Europe emerged from their Soviet captivity strongly pro-American. Meanwhile, democracy took root in much of the Pacific Rim and other parts of the world. The Cold War was not always pretty, but it was certainly not a disaster. 'Are we beasts?' a shaken Winston Churchill asked after reviewing the devastation that the Allies visited upon German cities. It is a question that the republic should ask itself regularly. The last few years suggest that something has gone awry in the way America exercises its power, though it is unclear how much of this is a reaction to the trauma of 9/11 and how much of it is more deeply rooted, how much we are driven by the Pentagon's 'Niagara' and how much by other elements in our culture. For a persuasive analysis of what has happened, we will have to await a better effort than 'House of War.' Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs, is the co-author of 'The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting it Right.'", Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Certain to be one of the most-talked-about nonfiction books of the season." Booklist
"With such broad and controversial claims, Carroll's theses will be disputed, yet his argument is well documented and persuasively made." Library Journal
"Among the most important works of history produced in the past few years....What distinguishes Carroll's book is not just this blending of the personal and the institutional...but also Carroll's willingness to ask basic moral questions that almost never get asked." San Francisco Chronicle
"The Pentagon is a metaphor more than a subject, explored most convincingly when Mr. Carroll describes his personal relationship to it." New York Times
"House of War will draw fire from right wing hacks and shills in the media, for it is a passionately persuasive, thoroughly researched indictment of this nation's defense and foreign policy since World War II." Miami Herald
"The Pentagon is the largest building in the United States....James Carroll...has taken that symbolic image of the building through a meticulous examination of fact and anecdote to develop a history that can serve us well as a teaching tool for the future." Rocky Mountain News
"What makes this a compelling read is the way [Carroll] weaves in the power of the Pentagon over his family, as well as the cast of personalities who thought they could control it during their stints there." Christian Science Monitor
In House of War, the best-selling author James Carroll has created a history of the Pentagon that is both epic and personal. Through Carroll we see how the Pentagon, since its founding, has operated beyond the control of any force in government or society, undermining the very national security it is sworn to protect.From its "birth" on September 11, 1941, through the nuclear buildup of the Cold War and the eventual "shock and awe" of Iraq, Carroll recounts how "the Building" and its officials have achieved what President Eisenhower called "a disastrous rise of misplaced power."
This is not faded history. House of War offers a compelling account of the virtues and follies that led America to permanently, and tragically, define itself around war. Carroll shows how the consequences of the American response to September 11, 2001 - including two wars and an ignited Middle East - form one end of an arc that stretches from Donald Rumsfeld back to James Forrestal, the first man to occupy the office of secretary of defense in the Pentagon. House of War confronts this dark past so we may understand the current war and forestall the next.
About the Author
Carroll writes a widely discussed weekly op-ed column for the Boston Globe.
Table of Contents
Prologue xi The Invisible Boy
One: ONE WEEK IN 1943 1 Hells Bottom. Unconditional Surrender. Operation Pointblank. LeMay.
The Whiz Kid. Leslie Groves Does It All. The Other September 11s
Two: THE ABSOLUTE WEAPON 40 Trumans Decision.” Stimsons Defense. Not Japan, but Moscow?
Atomic Forgetfulness. Grovess Toboggan. The Second Coming in Wrath.
The Hamburg Threshold. After Dresden. The Babe Ruth of Bombers.
Born in Original Sin
Three: THE COLD WAR BEGINS 103 Tendered a Commission. Stimsons September 11. Forrestal Agonistes.
Kennans Mistake. Foundational Paranoia.War Inside the Pentagon.
Blockade and the Birth of the Air Force. The Russians Are Coming.
Navy Versus Air Force. That Cop
Four: SELF-FULFILLING PARANOIA 161 Stalins Teeth. No to the Hydrogen Bomb. Nitze to the Rescue. Forrestals Ghost: NSC-68. Korea Saved Us. Trumans Other Decision. The Test. Duck and Cover.Massive Retaliation. The Missed Opportunity. Defense Intellectuals. Operation Top Hat. The Gaither Report: Nitze Again
Five: THE TURNING POINT 227 Life of the Pentagon. A Lark in Berlin. There Will Be War. Head to Richmond. Let Both Sides. The Need for New Intelligence.McNamara and LeMay. All-Out Spasm Attack. The Kaysen Memos. Edge of the Abyss. At American University.Why We Love Him
Six: THE EXORCISM 293 Present at the Destruction. LeMay to the Absurd. Errors of the Mind.
Great White Whale.McNamaras Endgame. From Disarmament to Arms Control. The Berrigan Brothers. Enter the ABM, Reenter Nitze. Nixon and Laird. Knockout Blow. Bombing the Pentagon? Not with a Bang
Seven: UPSTREAM 345 Nuclear Priesthood. The Madman Theory. The Schlesinger Doctrine.
Enter Rumsfeld and Cheney. Jimmy Carters Question. The Frozen Smile. The People Are Heard. Be Not Afraid.We Win, You Lose, Sign Here. The Freeze. The Abolitionist. Sanctuary. Enter Gorbachev.
Answer to Forrestal
Eight: UNENDING WAR 418 Into Plowshares. Back to Stimson. Operation Just Cause. Fools Game.
New World Order. The Chinese Word. Goldwater-Nichols. The Immigrants Son. Clintons Honor. Gays in the Military. The Real Contrast with Truman. The Nuclear Posture Review. The Balkan Wars.
Apostolic Succession. September 11, 2001
Epilogue: NEW WORLD ORDER 491 National Memory. The Normalization of War. Instant Replay. National Security? Revenge. I Have a Dream
Acknowledgments 515 Notes 518 Bibliography 609 Index 623
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