Addicted to war

"House of War" author James Carroll says the Pentagon is out of control, the Cold War was unnecessary -- and it's good that we're failing in Iraq.

Published May 3, 2006 12:23PM (EDT)

James Carroll's "House of War" is ostensibly a history of a single American government building, that five-sided behemoth that sits across the river from Washington and is instantly recognizable to just about anyone in the world as the headquarters of the United States military. But if Carroll's book actually reads like something much bigger than that, like a story not just of the Pentagon but of the last half-century of American foreign policy, well, that's the point. "The Pentagon has been so much at the center of national life that one could write an entire history of the contemporary United States in its terms," Carroll argues in his prologue. That's just about what he does.

Carroll is a novelist, but he's best known for two massive works of nonfiction -- "Constantine's Sword," which examined the Catholic Church's troubled history with Jews, and "American Requiem," a memoir about how the Vietnam War ruined Carroll's relationship with his father. Carroll, who is a former Catholic priest, and whose father was an Air Force general who worked in the Pentagon, is thus fond of personalizing history, and "House of War" runs along the same lines. As a kid, Carroll would slide down the Pentagon's slick floors in his socks while his dad worked late in a coveted E-ring office. As an adult, he sees that something much less fun occurred in those halls -- the Pentagon's militaristic, coolly efficient bureaucracy swallowed up the American government and its people, he says, making war the constant order of our lives.

Carroll's specific complaints will ring familiar to any peacenik: He argues that since Sept. 11, 1941, when ground was broken at the building's site -- Carroll makes much of this date, exactly 60 years before United flight 77 crashed into the building's side -- the U.S. has embarked on a series of foreign policy disasters. Among other things, he believes that dropping nuclear weapons on Japan was a mistake; that we should not have developed, and then shouldn't have tested, the H-bomb; that we should have shared our nuclear knowledge with the Soviets and instituted an international framework to abolish nuclear weapons; that we were mistaken to think of the Soviets as our mortal enemies, and thus mistaken to have turned political differences into a near world-ending Cold War; that we missed many opportunities to end the nuclear arms race during that war, and that we were far more belligerent than the Soviet Union in how we conducted ourselves with those weapons; and that, finally, even today, though we no longer face an enemy that poses an existential threat to the nation, we're needlessly maintaining a military force that is more dangerous than any other force in the world, capable of instantly destroying all life on the planet.

What's interesting about this catalog, as Carroll points out, is that at various points in the nation's history, many men in government made similar arguments. Their cries were drowned out, though, by the culture of the Pentagon, which always wanted more -- more bombs, more planes, more ships, more war. It's this thesis, as well as Carroll's unquestionably solid research, that makes his story much more than a standard antiwar rant. Other than a few stock villains -- notably the mad bomber Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general who controlled the American nuclear arsenal for more than two decades -- Carroll doesn't characterize the folks who worked in the building as evil. "The Pentagon's is a story of ordinary people who acted with good intentions, faced tragic dilemmas, and resisted what they saw happening right in front of them," he writes. They didn't set out to make the mistakes they did; rather, institutional momentum led them astray.

Carroll spoke to Salon from his home in Boston.

What I liked about your story is this idea that the Pentagon created a kind of bureaucracy of warfare -- you're saying that the Pentagon as an institution forms American policy, rather than individual leaders making decisions. Can you explain how that works?

Well, I'm no social scientist, but it's clear bureaucracies generally have a life of their own, and the challenge always in a bureaucracy is to balance the momentum of the impersonal with the moral agency of the human beings involved. The Pentagon is the avatar, the ultimate example of that, not just for the size of it but because of some of the aspects of military culture that took hold after World War II, when technology became such a dominant part of military life. There's an impersonality in the technology itself -- you see this especially when nuclear weapons come to dominate the strategic position of the United States after World War II.

So the reason I begin this book the way I do is to argue that really four things happen at once -- I'm locating them as happening in one week [in January 1943, the week the Pentagon was opened]. Number one, the decision by Roosevelt and Churchill to define Allied war aims as the "unconditional surrender" of Japan and Germany, imbuing the martial purpose of World War II with a kind of spirit of totality that it did not have until then. The second thing that happened was the initiation of the combined bombing offensive against the German homeland. The third thing that happens is the commission to build the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos. So unconditional surrender, warfare fought from the air, nuclear weapons, all three innovations come at the moment of the dedication of the Pentagon.

The four developments combined in an unprecedented and unpredictable way -- if any of the people present in the government could have imagined what they were creating, I seriously doubt they would have wanted to go forward with it. A momentum is generated right there at the beginning that undercuts traditional notions of American morality. We've never reckoned with the civilian carnage wreaked by the United States Air Force in the last six months of World War II. More than a million civilians killed after the war was already won. The bombing of Japanese cities in March of 1945 killed more civilians than Japanese military people were killed in the entire war. The bombing of German cities in the same period killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Your main example of this bureaucracy taking over the decision-making was Truman's "decision" to use nuclear weapons, which you say was not a decision at all.

Well, someone I cite compared Truman to a surgeon coming into an operating room after the patient was already cut open and having to decide whether to remove the diseased organ then.

Well, and then they justified it after the fact by arguing -- and this has become the main way we remember the decision to use the bomb -- that it saved us from invading Japan and consequently saved many lives.

Yes, George H.W. Bush was the last to say that the atomic bomb saved us a couple million casualties. I lay out how the numbers of casualties became part of the myth.

One of the things that revisionist historians have pointed out with some convincing detail is that the Japanese were ready to surrender by the summer of 1945, and there was ambivalence, especially on the part of those in the defense establishment who wanted to see the atomic bomb used, about receiving the Japanese surrender signals. One of the great questions raised by revisionist historians is whether America's intentions in the summer of 1945 had shifted from Japan to Russia. We wanted to use the bomb to intimidate Moscow, to make sure that Moscow understood that we were to be reckoned with.

I take some pains to play out the complicated historical debate on both sides, and I reach my own conclusion, which was that the bomb was unnecessary. It's a pointed debate that is unknown to most Americans. Most Americans don't know, for example, that General Eisenhower opposed the use of the atomic bomb.

The most amazing thing is that, as you point out, even after we used the bomb the Japanese didn't "unconditionally" surrender.

Right, there's the other irony here, which is that we accepted a conditional surrender. If we had told the Japanese in June or July that they would be welcome to keep their emperor -- who was a divine being to them -- I'm convinced that the Japanese would have promptly surrendered. That was the last issue with the Japanese: You can't do to our emperor what you've done to Hitler and Mussolini. And that was what the Japanese were fighting for in the end. As it turned out we allowed the emperor to survive as the emperor. The Japanese imperial house still stands today.

Why do you think there's been a refusal on the part of the American people to look at the evidence about whether it was right to use nuclear weapons?

The reason we don't look directly at this history and fail to reckon with it is because if we did we'd see how unjustified our continued reliance on our nuclear arsenal is. The most important example of the momentum I'm describing in this book, this unchecked momentum, is what happened at the end of the Cold War. Because by the end of the Cold War a massive military machine had been set up and the thing that justified it, our enemy the Soviet Union, disappeared. Yet that machine was not dismantled.

There's the big clue of the momentum I'm talking about. How is it that in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 -- not so long ago -- there was a lot of talk about something called the peace dividend, but it never came? The American military did not significantly change its posture with regard to nuclear weapons, even under Bill Clinton. Why did that happen? It's the great unanswered question. And because it happened that way the responses of George W. Bush to 9/11 have all been extremely and unnecessarily militarist. We responded to 9/11 as though we were in the thick of the Cold War. The great symbol of that is an anecdote from the 9/11 Commission, which is that when we finally scrambled jet fighters to respond that morning, they went out over the Atlantic Ocean looking for incoming attacks from the Soviet Union. The other great symbol is George W. Bush fleeing to the command bunker at Offutt Air Force Base, the Strategic Air Command bunker that had been created by Curtis LeMay. That's the perfect symbol of our problem. It's not so much him I'm faulting here. What I'm suggesting is there was this unchecked Niagara current, a current that flows from the Pentagon to the disastrous cliff just ahead of us.

You do tell the stories of some of the men who tried to change this. The one who's most tragic is Robert McNamara.

McNamara tried desperately to change it -- he's a tragic hero of this book in a way. I don't attend so much to his role in Vietnam as I do to his heroic effort to wrest control of the nuclear arsenal from Curtis LeMay and the generals in the Pentagon.

Can you recount that?

Well, in a way the most important fact of the Cold War is that we had 200 nuclear weapons -- all atomic bombs -- in 1950. And by 1960 we had close to 20,000 nuclear weapons, and by then mostly thermonuclear weapons. And that was an accumulation that was not decided upon by anybody. It was presided over by Curtis LeMay. Dwight D. Eisenhower saw it unfold and that's mainly what he was warning about when he left office, what he called the military-industrial complex.

The thing that was really astounding about this monstrous nuclear arsenal was that even though there was lip service paid to civilian control, there really was no civilian control because of the nature of the communications required to administer such an arsenal. Control of that arsenal belonged to the generals, especially LeMay. LeMay had his own intelligence sources. He was poised to initiate World War III based on his own assessments that the Soviets were preparing to launch their nuclear arsenals.

McNamara was horrified when he realized how massive and unaccountable this arsenal was. He challenged LeMay directly --

And astoundingly, when he asked for the plans he was told that even he didn't have authority to look at them.

Yes, at the beginning of his tenure he asked to see the SIOP and the J-SCAP -- the secret Pentagon documents that detailed what the Pentagon plan against the Soviet Union and the communist world would be. He was told, We don't show that to anyone. He said, I'm not anyone, I'm the secretary of defense. He had to go to the White House and get backup to get access to the documents. And what he found when he saw them was horrifying: An all-out attack against hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cities all over the communist world. If we went to war against Moscow we were also going to obliterate Albania. A conflict with Moscow was going to bring us into a war with China. There were no distinctions made; there was one monolithic communist enemy.

McNamara tried to rationalize it. He spent the most important effort before he was swamped with Vietnam to bring some kind of rational order to the idea of nuclear war. And where he wound up was realizing the whole thing is so irrational that there is no rational order possible.

I recount how close we came to nuclear exchange with the Soviets not just over Cuba but in a way even more frighteningly over Berlin the year before. And it was because Kennedy and McNamara decided that the possibility of nuclear war was so horrifying that by the time the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded Kennedy had already decided against nuclear weapons. He was the one standing alone against his advisors on that.

And then Kennedy becomes the first president to announce that we need a new way.

In a way the most important thing that my book hopes to do is remind Americans that there was a moment after World War II when the leadership of this country was unified in rejecting the idea of nuclear war and determined to put in place structures that would be an alternative to war. Kennedy embodied that powerfully in 1963 in his speech at American University when, having been through the horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he called for a new way of organizing international relations. And he used the word "peace." He was not a softie, he was not a dove, yet he came through to the point where he understood that peace had to be how the nations of the world organized their relations with each other. And his plea was heard in the Soviet Union. Khrushchev ordered that speech to be broadcast throughout the Soviet Union, and within weeks the U.S. and the Soviet Union began serious negotiations on a ban on atmospheric nuclear testing. It was the first arms control treaty, and it was the beginning of the arms control regime that finally ended the Cold War.

The thing that was so moving to me was Kennedy based his belief in peace on our common mortality. We all are human, we all die, we all cherish our children. It wasn't just rhetoric. And of course the fact that it wasn't rhetoric was made all the more palpable that November, when we saw his own mortality.

And the other thing that happened under Kennedy and McNamara was the creation of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which is where your father comes into the story.

It's one of the places where the story is personal to me. Because my father was an officer devoted to the purposes of the Pentagon, I've never been able to think of the people in the Pentagon as anything but driven by high ideals. In the early '60s he was appointed the first director, the founding director, of the Defense Intelligence Agency. [The DIA is the Pentagon's unified military intelligence service, which McNamara hoped would improve the military's intelligence-gathering efforts.]

And the reason for that was a history of intelligence failures in the Pentagon.

Well, the intelligence establishment was at the mercy of the individual turf priorities -- so Air Force intelligence was always seeing enemy threats based on what the Air Force wanted, for example. The immediate cause of McNamara and Kennedy establishing the DIA was the so-called missile gap, which was a belief in the late '50s into 1960 that the Soviet Union was leading the United States by some considerable margin in the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles. It was a complete myth. But it served the purposes of the Air Force. And shortly after the United States launched its first spy satellite, photographs from space demonstrated conclusively that the Soviet Union did not have a massive ICBM force. In fact it had four missiles.

It was such an egregious example that Kennedy and McNamara began to take control of intelligence away from the services. The Defense Intelligence Agency was McNamara's attempt to wrest control of intelligence the way he'd tried to wrest control of the nuclear arsenal. And ultimately I'm not sure he was successful in this effort, either.

It's interesting because intelligence failures have dominated our recent history. It seems that intelligence failures are one of the main stories of the Pentagon.

Well, that's true, and it's a human condition story, really. First of all when you're trying to assess what an enemy is up to you pay your military and your intelligence people to prepare for the worst case. So intelligence by definition is supposed to be an ultimate example of worst-case thinking. The trouble with worst-case thinking is you begin to project threats and imagine threats as if they're real, and you begin to create responses based on those. Pretty soon you forget that you've imagined the threat.

And that's what happened again and again and again with the Soviet Union, which is why we the Americans were constantly taking the initiative up the escalation ladder. The Pentagon was always imagining that the Soviet Union was ahead of us when it never was, with the single exception of Sputnik. That innovation was the only time the Soviet Union beat us, but we were constantly inventing and imagining Soviet threats. Even to the end, when Mikhail Gorbachev was ordering his soldiers back to their barracks rather than to defend the collapsing Soviet Union, the CIA and Pentagon were reporting that it was all a ploy.

We've seen this same thing in relationship to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. We imagine the worst, and then we treat our imagined fear as if it's rock-solid. It's an old story. It's easy to single out George W. Bush and Colin Powell for falsifying intelligence, but actually it goes back beyond that.

You also say that the Pentagon missed the most important reason the Soviet Union was splintering in the 1980s, the people's-power movement in Poland and elsewhere.

The most important factor in ending the Cold War, I would argue, was Solidarity, the labor movement formed on the shipyards in Gdansk. Nonviolent mass movements spread like wildfire in the satellite nations and then into Russia itself. American intelligence completely missed this, which is why at the same time we were funding the Contras in Central America. So we're sending money and arms to the Contras while not supporting Solidarity -- it's the classic case of missing something crucial. And why was that? It was because in the United States we could not imagine nonviolent resistance as a force for change.

We were also funding terrorists in Afghanistan.

Indeed so, funding what effectively what became al-Qaida.

In this culture, the other person who emerges as a hero here -- even though I think that you would like him not to be -- is Reagan.

Yes, the great irony of this history, and certainly not something I expected when I set out to find it, is that the person who did the most to bring about the nonviolent end of the Cold War was Ronald Reagan, the hawk of hawks. And what he did was find it possible to respond creatively to initiatives put forward by the true hero of this story, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Just as Americans didn't recognize how World War II ended, we haven't recognized how the Cold War ended. George H.W. Bush and people after him have talked about us having "won" the Cold War. We didn't win the Cold War. The Soviet Union decided to stop fighting it. And Ronald Reagan was a willing partner that enabled it. It's a very moving and beautiful story.

And this was despite the objections of his advisors.

Indeed so; Reagan was condescended to by his advisors. Only a few days ago there was an Op-Ed piece by Max Kampelman, a leading arms control negotiator for Ronald Reagan, who was reminding people that Reagan himself was a nuclear abolitionist. This is news today because Washington has completely deleted nuclear abolition as an American goal. We're resuming enhancement of our nuclear arsenal and we're looking to develop new forms of nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were committed in principle -- it didn't happen for numbers of complicated reasons I explain -- to the elimination of nuclear weapons off the face of the earth. And in doing that Reagan was just like the great statesmen of the World War II era. Like Truman -- Truman himself argued that we had to find a way to get rid of nuclear weapons. Americans have to remember that.

In fact, we Americans are bound by a treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, clause VI of which obligates the United States to work toward elimination of nuclear weapons.

But under the Nuclear Posture Review under Bill Clinton, we decided that there was a minimum number of nuclear weapons we had to keep.

Yes, that's the "hedge." The hedge was to protect us in case Russia experimented with fascism. What that hedge did was it gave the Russians and the Chinese a reason to maintain their weapons, so there are still thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons, and there shouldn't be. Even a hawk would agree that we don't need thousands -- the deterrence purpose could be served with hundreds, a couple hundred.

And now the Bush administration is suggesting -- or at least not taking off the table -- the idea of using nuclear weapons against Iran.

It's one of the most astounding things in recent months. As Seymour Hersh reported a few weeks ago, American tactical bombers are practicing the kind of maneuvers that are only used to drop a nuclear weapon. Well, even to pretend is wrong, because it violates the most important things put in place by Harry Truman, which is the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable, and we'll never threaten a non-nuclear state with nuclear use. Well, we're threatening nuclear use, and we're apparently engaging in war games.

What do we expect the Iranians to do? Obviously they're going to dig in and accelerate their strategy. This is profoundly destructive. It's a profound betrayal of the government's obligation to protect us. It makes us more vulnerable to nuclear weapons than we were five or 10 years ago.

You really think we are more vulnerable now?

We are, because the non-proliferation regime is in collapse. We aren't in danger of Russia attacking us or China, but obviously the threat from terrorism -- the threat of a nihilist attack on New York City with a dirty bomb -- is real. But where's he going to get that nuclear material? He's going to get it when the non-proliferation regime breaks down. That's what's at risk here. The Bush administration has already given Iran and North Korea every reason to get a nuclear weapon. The Bush administration is sponsoring proliferation, and that's what's making this so risky.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about is the recent criticism of Donald Rumsfeld from former generals. What do you make of this? And how much stock should we put in their criticisms -- what does it say about civilian control of the military if we start listening to generals about whom to fire in the Pentagon?

Well, there's always been some tension between civilians and the brass, and sometimes the generals are less warlike than the civilians. General Marshall did not want to go to war in Korea, Dean Acheson did. The civilian hawks in the early Vietnam years drove the initiative to war. The military are not necessarily hawkish people. The most hawkish person inside the Pentagon in recent years was Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was looking for a reason to fight a war against Iraq.

In this case, with the military increasingly criticizing the administration and the secretary of defense, it doesn't strike me that the criticism breaks down into groups that are less warlike and more warlike. The generals' complaints are mostly about the tactical decisions concerning how to conduct this war. The generals aren't raising a much more basic question, which is why are we fighting an unnecessary war? The generals have a stake in that question. Why did this administration embark on this war when we were not attacked or in danger of being attacked? Where are the generals criticizing the basic decision to abuse the American military to launch an unnecessary war, to launch it carelessly, and to launch it with such disastrous consequences? The United States Army is destroying itself in Iraq. Where is the military outrage?

Do you think that's another consequence of this military bureaucracy -- the generals get a lot out of this war?

It's true. The war rewards, it makes people important, it keeps the national security establishment at the center of government. Of course it generates the budget -- this war is rescuing the military budget, billons and billions of dollars. We're spending more money on our defense than all of the rest of the world combined. The first Gulf War rescued the military at the end of the Cold War. This war is rescuing the military when there were reasons it should have been significantly downsized.

And there's also the bureaucratic momentum of going with the flow in a large, impersonal bureaucracy. Notice the phenomenon that has shown itself again and again. When these men are retired, they find their conscience. Robert Jay Lifton calls it "retirement syndrome." It began with Henry Stimson -- Henry Stimson upon retiring as secretary of war issued his challenge to Truman to share the atomic bomb. Dwight D. Eisenhower did it -- it was when he was leaving the presidency that he challenged the military-industrial complex. Hello? Mr. President, why didn't you challenge it in 1956, why wait until 1960 to do it? Retirement syndrome -- people going out the door, saying finally in full conscience what's horrible about what they've been doing. It's a function of the bureaucracy. People within the bureaucracy feel this kind of loyalty to it. You also saw this with Robert McNamara, who turned against the war in Vietnam but continued to preside over it.

And McNamara told you that his involvement in the firebombing of Tokyo was a war crime.

He did. He observed that if we had lost the war, he and Curtis LeMay would surely have been tried as war criminals.

Finally I want to ask how the Pentagon changed the American people. You say we've become a militarized, "vengeful people." Do you really believe that?

I do. I love my country, and the American people are good people. But we are allowing the government to do things in our name that are wrong, they are criminal. If I could say something really outrageous, I think that the American people today have turned against the war in Iraq for the wrong reasons. They've turned against it because we're losing. We should be against this war because it's wrong and unnecessary. If this war had gone the way Rumsfeld and company thought it would go, Americans would have been fine with it. And that's appalling. And of course if it had gone the way they thought it was going to go, we'd be in Iran today. That's the tragic good news here. This war has gone so badly that the American imperial enterprise has been stalled. Thank God for that.

But, again, we the American people have not reckoned with what we did at the end of World War II. And one of the things that happened on 9/11 is that we looked at ourselves and presumed to think of ourselves as world-historic victims. What we suffered was tragic, and indeed a catastrophe, but on the scale of suffering it was very minor compared to the kind of suffering we've inflicted on other nations, and we're still doing today.

Well, is it possible to change this?

To me the greatest symbol of hope is what happened at the end of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, beginning with Chernobyl. It's a miracle of my lifetime that a nonviolent popular movement led to the demise of the Soviet system. And if that can happen, the equivalent can happen on our side. We have to break the myth of military power. We have to understand that there are many more grievous threats to our nation than those that the Pentagon can protect us from.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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