Through a Glass, Darkly: Exorcising the Pentagon

James Carroll claims to have left the priesthood in the early 1970’s. House of War suggests otherwise. This history of the Pentagon is Mr. Carroll’s Stations of the Cross, performed in penance for the sins of America’s military-industrial complex.

House of War is not about the Pentagon as an institution or even as a symbol. It’s about the Pentagon as the source of the Original Sin that has poisoned American life for the last 50 years. Yes, the book takes into consideration the death grip the Pentagon has had on U.S. policy and spending. It shows how paranoia and mistrust too often replaced solid intelligence and common sense in our dealings with the USSR. It reminds us that militarism and triumphalism have led to our worst excesses, from Vietnam to Reagan’s meddling in Central America to the FUBAR incursion into Iraq. It shreds the notion that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War and assigns the credit where it’s due, to Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Václav Havel and the millions who followed them into the streets.

But those are the concerns of this world, and like any good priest, St. James wants us to be ready for the next. At times, Mr. Carroll is so preoccupied with totting up the moral cost of American military decisions in the last six decades that he’s shockingly careless about practical consequences, good or bad.

Aspiring to the spiritual plane, Mr. Carroll comes off as inhumanly above the worldly one. Grasping his article of faith (in the words of the book’s subtitle, “the disastrous rise of American power”), fervent in his belief that “the obligation to maintain a moral standard in war is universal” (the attempt to maintain as moral a standard as possible in war is crucial; so is the clarity to understand that the barbarism and moral ambiguity of war does not always allow it), Mr. Carroll displays cavalier moralism to those people who faced the agony of impossible decisions.

In Mr. Carroll’s view, the doctrine of total war as the expression of American power comes into being at the Allies’ January 1943 meeting in Casablanca, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the Allies would accept only the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers. This, Mr. Carroll claims, “meant that the enemy would have no reason to mitigate the ferocity of its resistance … preferring to take their chances even with the brutally immoral tactics of a last stand rather than to accept defeat at the hands of an enemy refusing to offer any terms whatsoever.” And if this weren’t enough to lay at F.D.R.’s door, he adds: “The policy of unconditional surrender … guaranteed that the war would last long enough for the genocide nearly to succeed.” F.D.R., the best friend the Final Solution ever had.

Mr. Carroll finds room for a lot in the more than 600 pages of this book. But not for the sentences F.D.R. spoke after calling for unconditional surrender: “It does not mean the destruction of the population of Germany, Italy or Japan, but it does mean the destruction of the philosophies in those countries which are based on conquest and the subjugation of other people.” Nor does he find room to mention that the mechanization of the Final Solution, spurred by Hitler’s impatience with mass shootings and devised by Eichmann, had been put into place in mid-1942, six months before the Casablanca summit. Mr. Carroll does, however, get around to telling us that the German people believed that “unconditional surrender” meant that the Allies intended to make slaves of the population. How does he know? Well, because Goebbels said so. This is a writer who finds it necessary to misrepresent F.D.R. in order to make a point, but has no trouble taking Goebbels at his word.

Given the historical worthlessness of the World War II sections—and the damage they do to a book that depends on them for its thesis—it’s remarkable that the Cold War chapters read as coherently as they do. Mr. Carroll is best in his portrait of President John F. Kennedy as a veteran Cold Warrior who “made us afraid” and, as someone who came closer to the brink of nuclear war than any other President, “gave us hope of being released from fear.” Only here is Mr. Carroll able to hold two ideas in his head at once, and he makes a solid case for J.F.K. as a man honest enough to respond to horrifying experience by realizing that his country needed to chart a different course.

Mr. Carroll is also convincing on the way distrust between the U.S. and the USSR—the parsing of each gesture for ulterior motives—created a situation in which it was inevitable that policy would be carried out according to paranoid worst-case scenarios.

But—as with his willingness to assign the Allies moral culpability for the hideous excesses of Nazism, fascism and Japanese imperialism—he ducks the question of whether or not distrusting the Soviets was in fact a symptom of paranoia. “The differences between the United States and the Soviet Union were real and serious,” he writes, “but they were political in nature.” Thus, the gulags, the Moscow show trials of the 30’s, Stalin’s purges (which murdered Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam), the system that in one form or another persecuted the likes of Eugenia Ginzburg, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Andrei Sakharov, is, in Mr. Carroll’s view, simply politics by another means. Later he writes of scenarios for limited nuclear war as the normalization of Armageddon. What is reducing totalitarianism to politics (totalitarianism is the negation of politics) but the normalization of repression?

Of course, Mr. Carroll is operating in a loftier realm than the merely factual. “History,” he writes “is, rather, the appreciation of how events relate to each other, if not causally, then mythically.” This is the excuse he offers for some of the book’s woozier musings. For sheer looniness, it’s hard to beat Mr. Carroll on the mystical properties of the date Sept. 11 (Pentagon groundbreaking in 1941; Allende overthrown in 1973; George H.W. Bush proclaims “new world order” in 1990; World Trade Center, Pentagon attacked in 2001). Then, on a roll, he flips 9/11 to 11/9 and comes up with Kristallnacht in 1938 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “Can we,” he asks, “pair the joyous fall of the Berlin Wall with the murderous destruction of the World Trade Center or the attack on the Pentagon? Can we pair 11/9, that is, with 9/11?” Mr. Carroll must have been one of those kids who got stoned and realized that “God” spells “dog” backwards.

There’s a special place in House of War for that brand of hoo-hah, mostly in the way Mr. Carroll writes about the Pentagon: The “holy of holies,” as he occasionally calls it, takes on a demonic life of its own. Mr. Carroll applauds J.F.K. for denouncing “the dangerous, defeatist belief … that we are gripped by forces we cannot control,” but time and again he writes of the forces of war, the intersection of the military, industry and academia, as an unstoppable juggernaut, the White Whale to which one after another of the book’s dramatis personae—from Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, who, bedeviled by paranoid certainties about the Communist takeover, threw himself out of a hospital window, to Robert McNamara, who has given Opus Dei a run for the money in the flagellation department—have, like so many Ahabs, lashed themselves.

The Pentagon is not just a destroyer of men and totem of the apocalypse to Mr. Carroll but also the symbol of his dashed boyhood dreams. He did not join the military as his father had (Carroll père was a senior official in defense intelligence); unable to countenance military action during the Vietnam years, young James went into the seminary—and broke with his father. The Pentagon, which was dedicated in January of 1943, becomes his architectural doppelgänger: “In that week, like the Building’s twin, I, too, was born.”

That he believes in this chronological coincidence, that he thinks it a sign of a special relationship endowing him with special insight, becomes increasingly, embarrassingly clear. “The horrors I did not experience,” Mr. Carroll quotes W.G. Sebald early in the book, “cast a shadow over me … one from which I shall never entirely emerge.” Mr. Carroll adds, “And so also me …. I wrote this book hoping to emerge from the shadow at last, but knowing I probably will not.”

Sebald, born in Germany in 1944, could reasonably lay claim to having the shadow of war hanging over him. What shadow hangs over James Carroll? He lives in a country that never experienced the widespread devastation of a 20th-century war. He’s never seen combat, nor does he mention losing a family member to it. That his family’s history and his country’s history caused him to wrestle with the morality of war is not sufficient to qualify him as a haunted man, a victim.

Toward the end of House of War, Mr. Carroll writes, “That there is a reflecting pool in the center of the Washington Mall may not justify the apparently narcissistic nature of this rumination.” Good guess.

Charles Taylor has written for Salon, The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications. He’s a frequent contributor to The Observer.