Reviewed by Roy Williams / The Age – 2006-07-08 22:59:23
House of War:
The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power
By James Carroll (Scribe, 720pp, $65 ).
Reviewed by Roy Williams / The Age
AUSTRALIA (July 01, 2006) — How should the US have responded to 9/11? Is it naive to imagine that instead of a vengeful and failed pre-emptive war, the tragedy might have given birth to a new era of hard-headed international co-operation, led by a shocked and chastened America? For a short time after 9/11, the US held the sympathy of the world. Why did it squander so much goodwill and make the earth an even more dangerous place?
James Carroll’s persuasive thesis in House of War is that “the Pentagon effect” is to blame. And that George W. Bush and his circle of neo-conservative advisers are best understood as a product of that phenomenon, which has profoundly shaped American society and policy since World War II.
According to Carroll, the Pentagon is like a “metaphysical creature”, a self-perpetuating institution that sustains its near-limitless funding by systematically exaggerating foreign threats and scaring the hell out of American people.
As guardian of the US’s ever-expanding arsenal, the Pentagon has assumed for itself an insidious influence over the nation’s industry, universities, media and government. It has contrived to ensure that since 1946, the US has spent more than $14 trillion on arms. For the Pentagon, 9/11 was “a gift from the gods”.
Carroll’s thesis is radical, but he is at heart a conservative. His father was a senior Pentagon officer, and Carroll himself was a Catholic priest. The book is informed by love of country and sincere Christian morality.
It is also informed by a deep knowledge of post-war history and the key personalities inside the departments of State and Defence during the past 60 years. Most of all, Carroll knows a great deal about nuclear weapons. As he explains the origins of the Pentagon effect, it is a riveting story.
In January 1943, Franklin Roosevelt declared the US’s official war aim as the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers; he authorised allied air attacks on German civilians and he restricted British access to nuclear information, the first step in the US’s attempt to monopolise the Bomb. In the same month, the new Pentagon building, constructed as a temporary measure to house America’s huge war bureaucracy, wasdedicated.
These events set in motion certain malign forces that became inexorable, Carroll suggests, including in the short term “the collapse of restraint” in the conduct of the war. This culminated in the incendiary bombings of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo, which were the forgotten atrocities of World War II, and finally in Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb.
Carroll argues that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were sacrificed unnecessarily (Japan was already beaten) because forces within the Pentagon were determined to assert American power. The bombs were really aimed at the Soviet Union and marked the start of the Cold War.
It is an ironic coincidence that the man responsible for supervising the development at Los Alamos of the first atomic bombs, General Leslie Groves, was also the man responsible for overseeing the construction of the Pentagon. Groves said of Truman’s decision to use the Bomb: “(He) did not so much say ‘yes’ as not say ‘no’.” This observation goes to the heart of the matter.
The rest of House of War is in large part a demonstration that post-war decision-making by US presidents on matters military, especially as regards nuclear weapons, was essentially an exercise in responding to the Pentagon’s agenda. Far more often than not, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, presidents fell in with that agenda to avoid the politically fatal label “soft”.
Bill Clinton receives especially harsh criticism for his failure to capitalise on the opportunity for nuclear arms reduction afforded by the break-up of the Soviet Union. His failure, as with that of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, was essentially a failure of will, an unpreparedness to resist the pull of “domestically inspired toughness”.
But on a few momentous occasions, the occupant of the White House did say “no”, acts of rare moral fortitude that may have saved the planet. The first was Truman. He did much to escalate the Cold War but in 1951 he refused repeated urgings to use nuclear weapons against China and the Soviets over Korea.
At the other end of the Cold War, late in his second term, Ronald Reagan defied his hawkish advisers and went against much he had seemed to stand for, by responding positively to Mikhail Gorbachev’s moves for peace.
The 1987 agreement on the elimination of intermediate range nuclear missiles from Europe was a turning point. Carroll gives most credit for ending the Cold War to Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II, as well as the peace activists of the East and West, but he is careful to record Reagan’s crucial, if unlikely, role in the process.
Carroll’s true hero is John Kennedy and he details a chilling inside story of the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK ignored screeches of “appeasement” from the generals to negotiate a Soviet withdrawal. He also recounts the less well-known occasions when Kennedy refused Pentagon advice to use nukes in Laos, and to launch a nuclear first strike against Russian targets during the height of Cold War tension over Berlin. He lauds the achievement of the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. While he is not blind to Kennedy’s failings, Carroll clearly sees him as the most thoughtful, eloquent and courageous American president since World War II.
In his memoir of the Cuban crisis, Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy explained how JFK’s conduct was influenced by reading a book about the outbreak of World War I, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.
According to Robert, JFK told him: “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time. If anyone is around to write after this, they are going to understand that we made every effort to find peace and every effort to give our adversary room to move.”
It would be wonderful to think that a future president might read Carroll’s book and take from it the same lesson.
Roy Williams is a Sydney lawyer and writer.
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