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Book Review "House of War" by James Carroll

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Message Mick Jackson

I have just completed James Carroll's "House of War"which is a history of the Pentagon. I should start with a disclaimer - I read it as a CD during my daily commute and I was not planning on reviewing it before I started.

The basic statement of the book is that the Pentagon, almost from its inception, has been a "House of War" intent on propagating its own huge defense (offense) budgets by persistently and erroneously inducing paranoia among administration, politicians, and citizens. Carroll's thesis is that it has largely failed in its wars and that its much touted success of "winning the cold war" is not true. It was the citizens of the Communist world that did that, as well as the Communist systems internal inefficiencies.

I chose to read the book because I had been extremely impressed by "Constantine's Sword" a previous Carroll tome (and Carroll's books are tomes - long and wandering while also being informative and well written). Lurking within each of these massive books is a more readable book 70% of the length, never to be published. "Constantine's Sword" deals with the Roman Catholic church, anti-semitism and much European history.

"House of War" deals with a totally different subject and is focused on a mere 60 years of history. It shares with "Constantine's Sword" much personal anecdotal information. In "House of War" this is more relevant since Carroll's father was a 4-star Air Force general in the Pentagon and Carroll , as a young boy, sometimes used to play in the Pentagon on Sundays when his father was in the office. He also was able to interview many people who knew his father, e.g. McNamara, because of their connection to his father.

The Pentagon was dedicated in 1943, which year also happens to mark Carroll's birth. The book spends many chapters discussing American bombing in WW II leading up to the double dropping of the atomic bomb. In that discussion it is interesting to note that the Americans, initially, were much more reluctant to bomb civilians than the British, but moved quickly to the British position of high level bombing of cities. The death toll of this bombing was very high in some of the cities e.g. the bombing of Tokyo. Curtis LeMay, who Carroll calls his 'dark hero" was an advocate of such bombing and said of the Japanese that there are "no innocent civilians". Hmmm, I thought, that is what Osama Bin Laden might say today of Americans.

The first secretary of defense at the Pentagon was James Forrestal who set the pattern for much of the aggressive paranoid thinking that marks so much of the Pentagon's history. Today, a large statue of Forrestal greets the visitor at the main entrance to the Pentagon. Forrestal was a man who had an obsessive fear of Communism. He saw the nuclear bomb as just an instrument of war to be put under military control, as did Curtis LeMay. As we move on to the development of the H-bomb, and thermonuclear war we meet with Paul Nitze who was to remain a cold war warrior over 35 years and serve with nearly all the presidents during that period. He, along with George Kennan, totally distrusted the Soviets, and yet failed to see the obvious fact that in the development of the A-bomb, the H-bomb, submarine nuclear launch facility, intercontinental rockets, multiple independent nuclear warheads, Anti-Ballistic Missile systems, and many more such defense systems the Russians always lagged the Americans.

Truman, to his credit, firmly placed use of nuclear weapons under presidential control and thus made the use of nuclear weapons much more unlikely. In the book we learn, not surprisingly, that Kennedy put the US on highest nuclear alert during the Cuban crisis. We also learn that Nixon secretly did it three times. No other US president has ever put the country on the highest alert; nor did the Soviets, ever. It does not add much gratification when Carroll relates that in Kissinger's memoirs he relates that he called the White House in the evening and spoke to the "drunk". How close the world was to a nuclear holocaust!!

Carroll joined the anti-Vietnam protestors and was a great admirer of the Berrigan brothers. He marched against the Pentagon in sight of his father's window but was hidden from identification by the anonymity of the vast crowd of demonstrators. Carroll constantly praises Gorbachev in the ways that he responded to the growing civil nonviolent protests to Communist rule.

We continue to the depressing Clinton years, which actually slowed the nuclear arms reductions. It makes sad reading how Clinton was dominated by Powell, then armed services chief. I had forgotten, or perhaps, I never registered the incident when Clinton boarded the aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, and a young sailor did not salute his commander-in-chief. Clinton did nothing in face of this insubordination, and neither did the Navy brass. The Lewinsky affair would have terminated any respect of the military for Clinton, except it was already zero.

The book closes with a discussion of the new Bush doctrine of preventive war. Carroll is careful to differentiate between "preventive" and "pre-emptive" wars. The latter which may be defined as an attack to prevent an certain, imminent enemy attack (e.g. Israel in the 1967 war), may be permissible under international law. The latter never are.

Carroll is optimistic, believing as he does in the power of citizens to effect major systemic changes. I hope he is correct, but I fear that in the US the citizenry, collectively speaking, may be compared to the farm animals that bleat "baa, baa".

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Mick is an immigrant working in the computer industry living in the US heartland. He immigrated from Great Britain about 30 years ago and became a citizen. He likes biking and hiking. He is married with three kids.
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