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A Martial Epic for Our Own Time

ISSUE:  Fall 2006

book cover

House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, by James Carroll. Houghton Mifflin, May 2006. $30

In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, the article on “Epic” cites some definitions by eminent twentieth-century English critics. C. M. Bowra says an epic is “a narrative of some length” which “deals with events that have a certain grandeur and importance and come from a life of action, especially of violent action such as war.” The source of its “special pleasure” is that “its events and persons enhance our belief in the worth of human achievement and the dignity and nobility of humankind.” E. M. Tillyard writes that the characteristics of the epic are “seriousness of tone and excellence in expression,” “scope and inclusiveness,” “structural control” sustained throughout, an impression conveyed of the “notable exercise of will,” and a sensibility derived distinctively and characteristically from its own time.

By all these criteria, James Carroll’s House of War, even though it’s not written in verse, qualifies as an epic. It’s long. It’s a narrative, and a very skillful one, moving back and forth smoothly between subplots, but also keeping its abundant events, issues, and personalities in meaningful relation to one another and bringing out of the welter of detail satisfying unities of theme. The story is of undeniable grandeur and importance: the fate of the earth is continually in the balance, along with the welfare of peoples. The virtues on display, and the intellectual achievements, certainly illustrate human dignity and nobility; although the passions and follies on display go far to support a belief in human pettiness and frailty. The expression is excellent: graceful, rhythmic, colorful, allusive, subtle but clear. And it speaks in a voice, articulates a sensibility, very much of its time: steeped in twentieth-century American history, myth, psychology, and popular culture. For all these reasons, even though the Pentagon is, after all, an office building and not the plains of Troy or the banks of the Tiber, House of War moves us, edifies us, chastens us, as an epic ought to do.

House of War is a history of intricate and momentous decisions made by powerful and complicated personalities, beginning with the decision that has shadowed and will shadow all subsequent human life: the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. Involved in that decision were several others: the decision to demand Japan’s unconditional surrender, the decision whether to publicly demonstrate the bomb’s destructive potential beforehand or to use it first in a surprise attack, and the decision about which cities to put on the target list. Though we all know how these decisions come out, Carroll’s masterly account is freighted not merely with gravity but with touches of genuine suspense. I have not read enough of the large literature on the decision to use the bomb to say with confidence whether his moral judgments about it—and about another profoundly disturbing episode, the firebombing of Japanese cities—are valid. But I can testify that they are plausible, deeply pondered, richly documented, and eloquently stated. It is a new century, but we are not through debating this matter.

Hiroshima, though it ended one war, launched another: the Cold War, which is the main subject of this book. It may be, Carroll conjectures, that the essential purpose of bombing Hiroshima was to warn the Russians not to do something they had no intention, at the time, of doing—setting up client states in Eastern Europe—and which they may in fact have been led to do in large part by the effects of that warning, which, at a stroke, destroyed the sense of security they had gained from defeating Hitler. If so, it was a paradigmatic Cold War interaction. One of the lessons of this book—at least I drew this lesson from it; I’d be interested to know whether the author agrees—is that what passes for tough-minded realism is nearly always wrong. Late in the book, near the end of the Cold War, comes an especially instructive passage in this regard:

Reagan’s anti-Soviet inner circle, claimed that the coming to power of a reform-minded leader like Gorbachev showed the success of the Reagan military buildup. In fact, a long-established contrary pattern held throughout the Cold War: military belligerence in Washington strengthened the hand of the paranoid anti-American ideologues in Moscow. Gorbachev’s biggest problem, when he became party chairman, was how to outmaneuver the very people among his own elite who were steadily empowered by Reagan’s militancy. Against those who claim the Reagan military buildup caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, post-Cold War evidence gathered from inside the former Soviet Union suggests that Reagan’s early expansion of the Pentagon budget, together with the blatant threats of US military exercises and aggressive reconnaissance overflights, bolstered the Soviet militants, delaying the thaw that came only when Gorbachev forced it.

Two idealists, Gorbachev and John Paul II, Carroll argues, ended the Cold War, with an assist from the quixotic and sentimental Reagan (the side of him his advisers couldn’t completely control). “Realism” had nothing to do with it.

Between Hiroshima and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall forty-four years later, the Cold War was fought in two theaters: the arms race and the Third World. The competition in weapons systems was the costlier and more dangerous front—once the hydrogen, or fusion, bomb was invented, any use would have certainly caused millions, more likely tens of millions, and quite possibly hundreds of millions, of deaths. The arms race was overdetermined. It was not only a war of nerves and an exercise in game theory; it was also, and crucially, driven by bureaucratic rivalry and defense-industry lobbying. A startling number of weapons were built, it seems, not merely because the Soviets might be planning to build them or might misinterpret a US decision not to build them, but also because the services insisted on a rough parity in shares of the defense budget, regardless of strategic need, or because new weapons meant new jobs, or because defense contractors contributed heavily to political campaigns, or because well-paid positions in private industry awaited legislators and senior military officers after retirement.

In the Third World, too, motives overlaid one another. Communist tyranny was real, even if Senator McCarthy and the John Birch Society said so. But much of the Free World was not free either, except for the activities of American companies and banks. All too often, political freedom was implicitly defined as the freedom to vote for candidates all of whom could be counted on to encourage unrestricted capital flows, foreign ownership of vital resources, privatization of water, health, utility, and banking systems, the opening of domestic markets to cheap (often subsidized) foreign imports, the repeal or lax enforcement of environmental, worker-safety, public-health, and minimum-wage laws, an investor-friendly tax code, drastic reductions in social-welfare spending, and the suppression of labor and peasant activism. This is something House of War leaves mainly in the background; no book can be about everything. But Carroll is clearly aware of it.

What he foregrounds is the drama of policymaking. Synthesizing an amazing variety of primary and secondary sources, plus original interviews, he re-creates the debates, worldviews, personality conflicts, ideals, ambitions, and bureaucratic maneuvers behind the great strategic decisions. Bombers vs. aircraft carriers, bipolarity vs. “peaceful coexistence,” the expansion of NATO vs. a nuclear-free Europe, civil defense vs. disarmament, SALT vs. the Freeze, General Groves vs. Secretary Stimson, Curtis LeMay vs. Robert McNamara, Paul Nitze vs. everyone: these antagonisms are brought to vivid life. So is the ambivalence they aroused, above all in Presidents. So is the anguish they generated in the form of what Carroll, following Robert Jay Lifton, calls “retirement syndrome”: a “tradition of powerful men of the Pentagon attempting to reverse the course of events they had themselves set in motion. But they would make their heroic efforts only as, or after, they left the Building.”

Apart from these achievements of plotting and characterization, several large themes give the book analytic weight. There is the paradox of arms control, which Carroll calls “squeezing the balloon,” whereby “compressing one part expands another. When one method of nuclear development was limited by a treaty,” he writes, “permitted methods not controlled by the treaty would always grow exponentially. Arms control in one area resulted in escalation in another. The Pentagon behemoth would continue to find chutes down which to roll unchecked.” There is what he calls “grooved thinking,” in which “ideology and organizational loyalties and history trump the most acute present analysis” and exercise “an overriding impact on the range of any one person’s possible choices.” Circumscribing every decision, he demonstrates, is the momentum, the inertia, of previous decisions, which create expectations and vested interests that even visionary leadership—scarce enough, in any case—can seldom defeat.

Another theme is the fetishism of toughness. Of all the many characters memorably depicted in House of War—Roosevelt, Truman, Stimson, Acheson, Byrnes, Forrestal, Kennan, Nitze, Groves, LeMay, Eisenhower, Dulles, Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Gorbachev, the Berrigan brothers, the author’s father (Admiral Joseph Carroll), James Carroll himself—none is a woman. That is not the author’s fault; there were none to write about. For of all the momentous decisions superbly recounted in House of War—dropping the atomic bomb, building the hydrogen bomb, the status of postwar Germany, the Cuban missile crisis, the war in Indochina, the ABM, MIRV, rejecting “no first use,” the Strategic Defense Initiative—none was made, or even participated in, by a woman. These decisions have something in common: none of them was dictated, or much influenced, by generosity, solidarity, compassion, historical imagination, or moral courage. In no case were decision-makers willing to sacrifice an advantage, incur a vulnerability, or take any other substantial risk for the sake of creating trust and confidence. In no case did they allow themselves to be swayed by simple revulsion at the potentially catastrophic costs of maintaining credibility, or by the hope that their antagonists would perceive unwillingness to increase destructive capabilities as anything but a sign of weakness, or by any other humane emotion. In no case, in other words, were decision-makers willing to appear, or to be, what in bureaucratic language would be called “soft,” rather than properly rational, unemotional, and “hard.”

“Hard,” “soft”: the terms have an unmistakable sexual resonance. Shaking his head over the Bush administration’s apparent determination to push contemporary China into military competition with the United States, Carroll remarks sadly: “The lesson of a half century—that belligerent posturing designed to intimidate adversaries only prompts belligerent posturing in return; posturing fuels escalation—remained unlearned.” Well, one way to facilitate learning this lesson might be a law—perhaps even a Constitutional amendment—that all general officers of all the armed forces and all senior civilian officials of the Department of Defense—actually, we might as well throw in the Department of State—must hereafter be women. I recognize that the examples of Margaret Thatcher and of the present Secretary of State may make the wisdom of this suggestion appear less than unchallengeable. But all the same, I believe it’s time to ponder the perils of “toughness.”

Let me conclude by commending Carroll’s tact. This long book is rarely angry; Carroll writes more in sorrow and humility than in anger. And it is never simplistic. He is excruciatingly, sometimes exasperatingly, careful to give both sides of all questions, even—especially—where his own sympathies are clear. The past, he insists, is always ambiguous, complex, tragic. He is an admirably reflective, patient, and generous critic.

For anyone who loves America, House of War holds some extraordinarily painful lessons. American democracy is ill; America’s wealth has been partly squandered; America’s most trusted institution, for all the intelligence and good faith and patriotism of most of the people who work there, cannot be fully trusted. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1999, our own Samuel Huntington warned that much of the world now considers the US a “rogue superpower . . . the single greatest external threat to their societies.” Two years later in the same prestigious journal, the president of the American Political Science Association agreed: “In the eyes of much of the world . . . the prime rogue state today is the United States.” From the evidence in House of War, the Pentagon is now something of a rogue institution: too large and secretive, too rent by interservice rivalries, too trapped by the momentum of past decisions, too vital (because of shrewdly distributed military spending) to the electoral prospects of most Congressmen, to control or even fully understand.

But we must control it, and we can only do that cooperatively, red and blue together. The many Americans who trust the Pentagon, who cherish patriotism, piety, and the martial virtues, must be persuaded—not to distrust the Pentagon but to bring it more into line with those values, as well as with other, secular and liberal values. Someone who understands and respects those values—someone, for example, who grew up watching G-Men on television and playing in the corridors of the Pentagon, whose father was a G-man and an intimate of J. Edgar Hoover before becoming an admiral and the first chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, someone who has himself taken both religious and marital vows and raised a family—will succeed far better, we may be sure, at gaining a hearing among our fellow citizens than a rootless scoffer. Few Americans, I’m afraid, will be persuaded by simplistic, angry leftism. But a great many Americans will, I predict, be persuaded and moved by James Carroll’s splendid House of War.


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