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The Pentagon People

Boston Globe columnist James Carroll looks at how personal ideology and unchecked power have shaped American military policy.

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House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power

James Carroll

(Houghton Mifflin)

Boston Globe columnist James Carroll frequently uses his forum to challenge the Bush administration about the ever-worsening situation in Iraq, questioning the shifting rationales for war and asking who we are really fighting. But Carroll's real concern is the ways the powerful use the threat of an enemy to justify actions, even when those actions violate laws and common sense.

In his new book, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, Carroll, a former priest and community organizer, details the inner workings of the building at the center of American power. Beginning with the Pentagon groundbreaking on September 11, 1941, he traces the ascendance of American military might up through and including that same date 60 years later. Carroll makes clear that from the onset of the cold war the Pentagon and core components of society--universities, unions, and the media--were defined by their relationship to communism. But he focuses on personalities and the psychology of power as much as Pentagon military strategy. What emerges is part Dr. Strangelove and part Kitty Kelley tell-all.

Carroll was born the same week the Pentagon opened and roamed the building's halls as a child. His father, Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll, worked in the building for more than 20 years, many of them as the first head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll weaves his own coming-of-age story through the historical narrative, showing how the threat of communism molded him as well as his father, and how he came to both love and hate the place he refers to as "the Building." At one point Carroll recalls picking his father up from a late night at the office in the midst of the 1961 Berlin crisis and getting an unexpected peek at the costs of a Pentagon job. "I may not come home one of these nights," the elder Carroll told his teenage son. "I'll want you to get everybody in the car. I'll want you to drive south. Get on Route One. Head to Richmond. Go as far as you can before you stop." (Carroll's 1996 memoir of his father, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award for nonfiction.)

Through his father, Carroll came to know the Pentagon brass who shaped American foreign policy during the cold war. He provides an intimate look at the lives of men like James Forrestal, the first secretary of defense, who, in Carroll's words, "did more to establish the ethos of national security than any other person," convincing the Pentagon to view the Soviet Union as an omnipresent threat. He had a nervous breakdown shortly after he resigned in 1949, and jumped 13 stories to his death while a patient at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Forrestal was convinced communists had infiltrated the White House and were out to kill him. A year later Senator Joseph McCarthy unveiled his list of suspected communists; some of the names had been provided by Forrestal.

Carroll repeatedly shows how personal ideology shaped national policy--to the point that the reader is left wondering how the collection of egos running the Pentagon could possibly agree on anything at all. Air force chief of staff Curtis LeMay--the alleged inspiration for Dr. Strangelove's deranged General Jack D. Ripper--is a recurring character. The man who masterminded the firebombing of Japan in 1944 and '45 prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb was also Carroll's next-door neighbor, and according to Carroll guarded nuclear secrets so thoroughly that strike plans were murky to almost everyone in his circle. Even Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson, was kept in the dark.

Carroll describes the development of the B-36 bomber, known as the Peacemaker, as part of a turf war between the air force and the navy over who would control the delivery of future atomic weapons. Accusations that the B-36 was an inferior plane carried over into anonymous attacks on secretary of the air force Stuart Symington and air force general Hoyt S. Vandenberg, alleging adultery and a possible menage a trois. The letters turned out to have originated from a midlevel navy official who was dramatically exposed during congressional hearings. The elder Carroll, then working for the air force, had used his FBI training to sneak into navy offices at the Pentagon to match up typewriting samples.

Despite its 592 pages, Carroll's book moves briskly, summing up important international events with zippy one-liners and wickedly skewering an endless cast of short-sighted, self-serving Pentagon figures. Carroll's sharp analysis also succinctly pins down events misread by most foreign policy experts at the time. "By the late 1950s," he writes, Khrushchev "had reason to fear that the Russian nightmare--West Germany in control of its own nuclear weapons--was coming to pass. That was what all of Khrushchev's posturing on Berlin was about."

Carroll's analysis stumbles once the cold war ends. His personal contact with figures at the Pentagon fades as his father succumbs to Alzheimer's and dies, and with the fall of the Soviet Union the template by which to analyze the new leaders' motivations disappears as well. But Carroll has provided an instructive way of looking at any regime. Lessons learned about powerful men from the early days of the Pentagon apply just as well to the current leaders of the house of war. As today's Pentagon promotes a new, broadly defined terrorist menace, the administration is able to use the "war on terror" to justify all manner of extraordinary actions. After all, the indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" or the proposed construction of a 400-mile-long wall on the Mexican border couldn't happen without widespread conviction that such measures provide protection from a hostile world.

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