Where the US makes its wars

The history of the Pentagon, through the eyes of a general's son.

By

Don't pick up James Carroll's House of War expecting a detached historian's take on the Pentagon.

Carroll, an antiwar activist-Catholic priest-turned novelist, is also the son of an Air Force general who served nearly a quarter century inside its walls. Carroll admits he still thought of the massive five-sided military headquarters as his father's house even as he stood right outside protesting the Vietnam War.

Carroll proved in his National Book Award-winning book about his father, "An American Requiem," and his history of the Catholic Church's relationship with Jews, "Constantine's Sword," that he writes best about the topics he cares most about.

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The looming presence of Carroll's father is this book's greatest strength and its ultimate weakness as he sets out to trace military history from the day the Pentagon opened in 1943 until the present day.

The ceremonial groundbreaking for the building intended as a temporary headquarters was ironically Sept. 11, 1941 (exactly 60 years to the day before an airliner slammed into it in the worst domestic attack in US history). By the time the Pentagon opened 16 months later, the US had entered World War II, and the Army officer charged with its completion almost immediately began organizing the top secret effort to develop an atomic bomb, code named the Manhattan Project.

Here, Carroll turns his attention to the question of the US's strategic targeting of civilians. The Army and Marines become bit players; their ground wars in Korea and Vietnam merit mere paragraphs. The star in Carroll's narrative is his father's branch, the Air Force, which beat out the Navy for control of most of the US's nuclear arsenal during the cold war.

Carroll struggles to understand how, during the course of World War II, American military planners went from carefully selected bombing targets to obliterating entire Japanese and German cities in fire bombings far more devastating than the atomic blasts on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

He rightly points out that the American public, convinced of its own righteousness, has never come to grips with the Greatest Generation's purposeful (and possibly unnecessary) targeting of civilians during the war.

And during the cold war, Carroll charges, another generation of American generals proved far too eager to launch nuclear attacks that could have destroyed mankind.

The power of this book does not necessarily come from the originality of Carroll's thinking. There is a predictable indictment of the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower first warned about in his 1961 farewell address.

Nor is Carroll the first to point out that the poisonous cold war-era inter-service rivalry caused the military's branches to spend nearly as much time battling each other as they did fighting the enemy.

What makes this a compelling read is the way he 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.

There are tragic figures, such as James Forrestal, the nation's first secretary of defense after the merger of the Army and Navy Departments, who ultimately took his own life after a breakdown and fit of paranoia. And Robert McNamara, the technocratic defense secretary throughout the 1960s who discovered too late he could win neither the war in Vietnam nor his own war with admirals and generals back at the Pentagon.

There are almost cartoonishly militaristic figures such as Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who as head of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War, repeatedly rebuffed his civilian bosses's attempts to learn about his plans for all-out nuclear war. Carroll, who lived next door to LeMay on a Washington, D.C., Air Force base, describes his former neighbor as the embodiment of the US military's most destructive impulses. LeMay's civilian doppelgänger is Paul Nitze, whom Carroll portrays as a hawk who whispered in the ears of nearly every postwar president.

Sprinkled in between are tales of the career of his father, Joseph Carroll. Perhaps because of his dad's service, Carroll is less inclined to blame any single individual for the military's failings. He personifies the Pentagon as a living entity with an unstoppable drive toward expansion.

But the book suffers when Carroll's father exits the Pentagon. Carroll's ability to identify, if not sympathize, with those who work there seems to fade with his father's retirement in 1969.

By 1991 - the year his father passed away - Carroll is increasingly resorting to caricatures. President Reagan is a doddering old fool. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld are zealots and extremists. The nadir is an over-the-top comparison between phallic nuclear missiles and the Pentagon's fixation on gays in the military - a topic that Carroll gives more ink than either the Korean or Vietnam War.

Still, Carroll's rhetorical excesses ultimately do not detract too much from his exhaustive, if biased, study. Perhaps most relevant for readers today is the way Carroll shows that the nation's intelligence failures hardly began with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Instead, Carroll demonstrates, our military failed to anticipate the construction of the Berlin Wall - or its fall - and plenty in between.

• Seth Stern is a reporter for Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C.

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