It took me some time to finish this book: 650 pages including nearly 70 pages of footnotes. I think House of War: The Pentagon and the Disasterous Rise of American Power is an important book, and it did not get the attention it deserved when it came out earlier this year.
This book could only have been written by James Carroll, a National Book Award winner and former Roman Catholic priest. The book is really several stories woven together covering sixty years of American war policy as well as Carroll's own life. You see, Carroll's father was Lieutenant General Joseph Carroll , the first head of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in 1947 and later became the longest serving head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll grew up roaming the halls of the massive Pentagon building, and on one level House of War is history of that behemoth structure: Carroll traces the history from its groundbreaking ceremony on September 11, 1941 to the 9/11 attack 60 years laters. From its dedication, the Pentagon in Carroll's narrative has been the source of a Niagara-like force that has led inexorably to war and militarism, affecting nearly every aspect of American society - from its foreign policy, to its academic institutions, to its major business enterprises. This is the all-powerful "military-industrial complex" that President Eisenhower spoke about in his farewell address to the nation.
What makes this book so extraordinary is the personal narrative. Carroll had access to many of the personalities at the Pentagon and State Department - such as former Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara - because of his father. So even though Carroll became a passionate anti-war activist priest and had a falling out with his father over Vietnam, the military leaders were for him not abstract monsters, but flesh and blood human beings he knew and loved. Even Curtis LeMay - the reckless advocate for nuclear war - was a neighbor and friend whom Carroll admired as a boy.
House of War begins the story of American militarism with the "original sin" of FDR in insisting on unconditional surrender by Germany. This policy eventually led to the firebombing of German civilians, and Carroll has an excellent discussion of British and American aerial warfare in WWII. Once the slaughter of civilians became an accepted practice of the US High Command, the deployment of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a foregone conclusion. This was the inception of postmodern warfare, where the Pentagon "does not do body counts" (Tommy Franks on Iraqi civilian deaths). Success in war is measured today on the mitigation of military deaths: so the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was the perfect war where ONLY civilians were killed, while NATO suffered zero losses.
Carroll follows the rise of the Pentagon as the predominate force in American policy, early on breaking free of civilian control and oversight. To preserve its power base, the US military establishment has constantly had to exaggerate the threats it faces. Since the end of World War II, generals, admirals and their supporters have issued dire warnings of impending peril, always insisting that America develop and deploy more lethal weapons to counter a growing threat from the Soviet Union and monolithic Communism. Fear has always been their ultimate weapon, according to Carroll.
We see this clearly today, as the US Senate just approved a monstrously bloated defense budget of $480 billion - this in response to a threat described by President Bush as much greater than Nazism, Communism, and Fascism, brought about by 12 fanatics using duct tape and box cutters.
What prevents House of War from succumbing to total despair and the inevitability of cataclysmic nuclear warfare is Carroll's understanding of history as shaped by human beings. Thus there were courageous voices for peace and disarmament - individuals like fellow priests Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, who were imprisoned off and on for their activism against the Vietnam war, or the MIT graduate student Randall Fosberg, who started the Nuclear Freeze initiative which changed the course of the Cold War. Thus John F. Kennedy rejected the advice to use nuclear weapons against Cuba and then secured the passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And even a Ronald Reagan - locked into a simple-minded Cold War "good vs. evil" mindset - responded to the human entreaties of Mikhail Gorbachev and effected the first real and significant reduction of America's nuclear arsenal (later reversed under Clinton). At every stage human beings stepped back from the precipice to save the world - but that now has changed with an administration that advocates pre-emptive war (the "Bush Doctrine")and an abrogation of basic human rights.
And so Carroll is able to end this tragic history on a note of cautious hope:
I have written the book about the great Building into which my father took me as a child, before I could see anything but greatness. I have written this book as a way of honoring my parents, and loving them. Once my father warned me of the danger of a coming war, and he commissioned me to do something about it. So I have written this book. Like every other person who lives long enought to bury his father, I learned from him the ultimate lesson of my own mortality. How briefly on the earth we are. Too briefly, I insist, not to find another way to live than by killing. More than for my parents, I have written this book, in love, for my children. And for everyone’s. Let us cherish their future. (James Carroll - House of War).