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Department of offense

House of War The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power James Carroll Houghton Mifflin: 704 pp., $30

April 30, 2006|Max Frankel | Max Frankel, former executive editor of the New York Times, is the author of "High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis."

JAMES CARROLL was born on the same day as the Pentagon in 1943 and he deems it his destiny to destroy that monstrous citadel. He cavorted there as a boy while his father served the ministries of war as they amassed atomic bombs and prepared to drop them on much of humanity. He aspired in college to join the family business in uniform, defending America against communists and his dad's Air Force against the Navy's budget designs. Overcome in the '60s by fear of a nuclear conflagration and by the horrors of Vietnam, he marched around the familiar five-sided factory with Norman Mailer's antiwar armies of the night and let the Berrigan brothers tempt him into the leftist Catholic clergy. Although he soon quit the priesthood, he never gave up preaching, hoping with books and newspaper columns to find peace with his alienated father and peace in the world. These quixotic missions are now woven into a massive memoir of the Atomic Age that lets Carroll hurl thermonuclear bolts against his hated "House of War" on the Potomac, no longer just a building but a metaphor for the evil empire that he thinks his beloved country has become.

Such a sermon needs an Original Sin and Carroll found it in his numerological fascination with the year of his birth. It was in 1943 also that President Franklin D. Roosevelt met in Casablanca with Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill and insisted on demanding the "unconditional surrender" of Nazi Germany. By thus refusing to bargain with Hitler or his less rabid associates, Carroll contends in "House of War," the Allies committed themselves to a war of "vengeance" instead of a negotiable purpose, a decision that culminated in the aerial massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Inexorably, those raids led to the firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, whose horrendous casualties left no moral barrier, once the A-bomb was readied, to the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Carroll's furious rendering of the competing histories of those years, he leaves no room for military imperatives, good intentions or the stubborn venality of enemy regimes. The sin of using nuclear weapons, he is certain, was further corrupted by the desire to intimidate the Soviet Union, and from that moment on it was American perfidy and only Soviet reaction that propelled humanity to decades of unnecessary competition on the edge of the thermonuclear abyss:

"A truth of the Cold War," he writes, "would be that one engine could drive both escalations, Soviet and American, and the engine room was, more often than not, in the bowels of the building on the Potomac River."

Citing President Eisenhower's afterthought, on leaving office, about the danger posed by a military-industrial complex, Carroll expands the indictment to include American universities, labor unions and other contract-hungry political elites, all of whom joined in "a frenzied cycle in which money feeds on fear which feeds on power which feeds on violence which feeds on a skewed idea of honor which feeds on demonization of an enemy which feeds on more fear which feeds on ever more money."

And at the Pentagon, where Gen. Joseph Carroll was then helping the Air Force outgun the Navy in annual budget battles, his son now discerns the bureaucratic equivalent of a nuclear reactor run amok. A-bombs begat H-bombs and bombers begat missiles and missiles begat multiple warheads, and they all inspired risks and attitudes and military doctrines that resulted in the bloodbath of Vietnam -- James Carroll's first mature experience of war. In the ghastly and superfluous cruelties of that conflict, he is overcome with hatred of all war and proceeds to project that abhorrence back to World War II and forward to Iraq.

The result is a massively ambitious history by a man notably lacking a sense of history. He writes as if his father's generation (Tom Brokaw's "greatest") invented total warfare, with no reference to the mythologies of ancient Troy and Egypt and only passing mention of the slaughter of America's native Indians, Sherman's march through Georgia, the Japanese rape of Nanking, the German terror bombings of Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam and London and the Nazis' systematic murder of Jews.

In a most revealing epilogue, looking from his father's grave in Arlington National Cemetery across to the memorials on Washington's mall, Carroll describes the Holocaust museum as resembling a death factory and says it produces "nothing so much as reminders that, perhaps, some wars are necessary." Reflect a moment on that "perhaps." Carroll's failure to distinguish between just and unjust wars even to himself is this book's fatal flaw.

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