Carroll goes inside the Pentagon and U.S. foreign policy
Behold this haunted house. The Pentagon bears a special fascination and dread for James Carroll, a social critic and the author of such noted books as Constantine's Sword and the National Book Award-winning memoir An American Requiem. He played in the Pentagon's hallways as a child, marched on it with masses of other Vietnam War protesters, was stunned when terrorists crashed an airplane into it and, throughout his life, watched it evolve into the menacing driving force behind America's foreign and domestic policies. House of War, then, is at once a political history and a very personal journal.
Carroll's father, Joseph F. Carroll, was a one-time FBI agent who was drafted into military intelligence and then appointed the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a position he achieved under President Kennedy via the recommendation of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Starting with the construction of the Pentagon and the development of the atomic bomb during the height of World War II, Carroll argues that these two events combined to sweep America into perilous waters again and again, regardless of who was president and nominal commander of the military. His rogue's gallery of overreachers, careerists, paranoids and villains is by now familiar (and persuasively documented). It extends from President Roosevelt, whose doctrine of unconditional surrender may have needlessly cost hundreds of thousands of lives, to Leslie Groves, the man who oversaw the creation of both the Pentagon and the A-bomb, to Curtis LeMay, the bombing scourge of civilians from Germany to Japan, on through alarmist George Kennan, the tormented McNamara and such hardliners as Edward Teller, Herman Kahn, Paul Nitze, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
It was not a coup by a man on horseback that Eisenhower was warning of [in citing the military-industrial complex], Carroll maintains, . . . but the impersonal workings of a frenzied cycle 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 more fear which feeds on ever more money. Wiser and stronger presidents might have slowed or stopped this cycle, Carroll suggests. They might have even shifted the emphasis in international relations from force to diplomacy. But none did.
In growing up when and where he did, Carroll was more sensitive than most to the very real prospect of nuclear annihilation. Still, he manages to bring a scholar's thoroughness to his critique. While clearly no fan of communism, he expresses great admiration for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his willingness to negotiate nuclear disarmament. He also praises America's nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, which was gaining enormous momentum when President Reagan's Star Wars proposal effectively neutralized it.
Despite the grim drag of history, Carroll says there are ways for America to rise above its worst instincts. But the road he envisions is a rocky one: no weapons in space; no wars of prevention; no going it alone; no torture ever, under any circumstances; treaties are sacrosanct; the spread of international legal forums is in America's interest; the sources of violence deserve as much attention as the threat of it; diplomacy, not war, is America's primary way of being in the world.
Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.