History of Pentagon, as told by `a soldier's son,' offers rich memoir but overlooks crucial issues

Review American Military


House of War: The Pentagon And The Disastrous Rise Of American Power

James Carroll

Houghton Mifflin / 704 pages / $30

Two narrative threads weave through James Carroll's history of the Pentagon. House of War is a personal memoir of Carroll's relationship with his three-star general father, who served for years as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Simultaneously, it's a history of the war machine, from the day in 1943 that the Pentagon opened for business, coincidentally the week of the author's birth, to the present moment of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld's "unending war." Its epigraph is from President Eisenhower's impassioned warning that we beware the military-industrial complex whose interests, Eisenhower presciently noted, are antithetical to the preservation of our liberties and the democratic process.

House of War works best as memoir, with its developing trajectory leading to the son's alienation from the father, who serves the Pentagon dutifully until he is fired for not being bellicose enough. When Carroll takes us through the history of warfare since World War II, his book seems banal. Carroll tends to view the growth of the military, not so much as the tool of the defense industries, but as an entity in itself, a flaw that deprives his book of clarity.

Viewing the war machine, as Carroll acknowledges, through the "eyes of a soldier's son," he does not convey how politics is inextricably connected to economics far more than it is to the morality of one individual president or another. Carroll subscribes to the "great man" approach to history, viewing wars as the result of individual obsessions, whether those of James Forrestal or Curtis LeMay. Only with George W. Bush does he finally come to the understanding that presidents may have less personal power than the press would have us believe.

Yet far too often in House of War, Carroll reduces the political to the personal. Nixon was a "madman." Jimmy Carter made fatal errors of judgment. Carroll fails to explore the politically driven assassination of President Kennedy, and what role the Pentagon, or its ally the CIA, may have played. Instead, he contents himself with banalities, such as that a flag draped John F. Kennedy's coffin, and the now-cliched tidbit that Mrs. Kennedy modeled her husband's funeral on that of Abraham Lincoln.

Because Carroll is primarily writing about culture and morality, despite his ostensible subject, the role of the military in American society, he slides into fundamental errors. He joins the "military-industrial complex" to academe, as if academe were the third element in a triad. Rather, it seems that the intelligence agencies, fueling the national security state, much more credibly can be seen to have allied themselves with the war machine and industry in the "unending war" policy under which the Republic is now foundering.

Missing is an anatomy of the relationship between the Pentagon and such organizations as Halliburton and Bechtel. There is no analysis of war in relation to the industries that have so enriched themselves, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or elsewhere. Carroll does not notice that the same Halliburton, which bought Brown and Root in 1962, just in time to profit from the Vietnam War, is the same organization looting America in Iraq. Carroll suggests, unpersuasively, that America's war ventures have to do with "revenge" rather than with economics and furthering the interests of that sector against whom President Eisenhower warned. Readers might be misled into believing that a history of the Pentagon of this length would examine who rules America. You won't find that discussion here. There are occasional nuggets of interest, such as that FDR wanted the Pentagon dismantled after World War II, or that Colin Powell, assigned in Vietnam to investigate what happened at My Lai, found nothing to the charges of massacre there.

House of War comes alive only at the moments of Carroll's personal history. With impassioned rhetoric, this general's son, once a priest in the Roman Catholic church, denounces Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld for having on their hands "the blood of each young American killed, and the blood of many thousands of Iraqis - all those who have died and will die in that misbegotten war." "Perhaps I compulsively seek out personal connections to this story," Carroll writes. He admits that "what drives this book" is not political, but "completely personal." So it is not surprising that Carroll, abandoning the Pentagon's history, is reduced to closing on a sermon, an earnest plea for "another way to live than by killing." This is a fine and noble sentiment, but one less than helpful in conveying to the reader why our Republic has gone so terribly wrong.

Joan Mellen's most recent book is A Farewell To Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK's Assassination and The Case That Should Have Changed History. She teaches in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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