'The Pentagon': the shape of power

From its inception on Sept. 11, 1941, to the attack upon it on Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon has served as the ultimate symbol of US military might.

While World War II raged in Europe in early 1941, the United States military high command occupied 17 separate buildings in Washington, D.C. With US intervention looking more certain every day, Brehon Somervell decided that consolidating military headquarters into one building was essential.

General Somervell was chief of the Army's Construction Division and a man of such determination that what he wanted got done, whatever the obstacles.

Somervell ordered the building to be designed immediately, giving the architects a single weekend to develop a blueprint. The pentagonal shape of the building was designed to adapt to the chosen site, Arlington Farm in Virginia.

The project moved forward speedily, and soon ground was broken. The exact date: Sept. 11, 1941.

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists wanting to attack "the great Satan" chose the Pentagon as a symbol of America's global military power.

In Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel, a military reporter for The Washington Post, meticulously describes the construction of the Pentagon over the course of 17 frenetic months, then concludes his account with its rebuilding in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, after terrorists had crashed a plane into the building, killing 184 people.

It's the story of the construction of one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

Its original estimated cost was $35 million, a figure that would prove wildly optimistic. Due to objections from President Franklin Roosevelt and others, the site had been moved to nearby Hell's Bottom, but Somervell kept the initial pentagonal design. Vogel shows how Somervell demanded speedy construction above all, even if it meant troubling trade-offs in quality and safety.

During construction, the architectural team worked around the clock to stay ahead of the building team, but, as Vogel makes clear, the Pentagon was designed and built simultaneously. Architects would race to complete blueprints, which would be rushed to waiting builders. Sometimes, the builders moved ahead without even waiting for blueprints.

Speed can be deadly. During Pentagon construction, Vogel notes, "[t]he accident rate was four times higher than the average for Army construction projects, and accidents on this job tended to be more serious." Vogel describes horrific worksite accidents that killed workers being pushed to the brink. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Somervell demanded even more speed from his harried construction team.

The Pentagon cost about $75 million, more than twice Somervell's initial estimate. The general did his best to conceal burgeoning cost overruns, but Congress eventually found out. Among Somervell's most vocal critics was a senator from Missouri named Harry Truman, who loathed Somervell's dictatorial style and suspicious accounting.

Vogel seems to have researched every aspect of the Pentagon construction project, and his narrative is filled with exhaustive – and sometimes exhausting – detail. After the first employees had moved into the Pentagon, Vogel describes how General Leslie Groves complained at length about the substandard quality of the butter patties in the cafeteria. Vogel also discusses General Groves's "lifelong battle with weight," explaining how the general wore an oversized uniform to disguise his girth. While this is interesting, it makes for a long book.

The Pentagon was completed in February of 1943, and became the world's largest office building. Yet Vogel's book is far from over. He details the heated postwar interservice rivalries, especially between the Army and Navy, sketches a short history of the cold war, and even devotes a chapter to the October, 1967 "March on the Pentagon" by demonstrators. While this material is useful, it's handled with greater depth and critical insight in James Carroll's terrific "House of War," an underrated account of the Pentagon's role from 1943 to the present.

Vogel vividly depicts the horror of those inside the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and then skillfully describes the rebirth of the Pentagon through the Phoenix Project. His intimate knowledge of the construction process and his years of research energize these pages. While there may be better books on the role of the Pentagon and its impact on politics and war, there is simply no better book on the massive construction – and then restoration – of the building itself.

Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and writes frequently about American history.

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