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House of War
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House of War

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by James Carroll

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From the National Book Award–winning author of An American Requiem and Constantine's Sword comes a sweeping yet intimate look at the Pentagon and its vast—often hidden—impact on America.

This landmark, myth-shattering work chronicles the most powerful institution in America, the people who created it, and the pathologies it has spawned. James


From the National Book Award–winning author of An American Requiem and Constantine's Sword comes a sweeping yet intimate look at the Pentagon and its vast—often hidden—impact on America.

This landmark, myth-shattering work chronicles the most powerful institution in America, the people who created it, and the pathologies it has spawned. James Carroll proves a controversial thesis: the Pentagon has, since its founding, operated beyond the control of any force in government or society. It is the biggest, loosest cannon in American history, and no institution has changed this country more. To argue his case, he marshals a trove of often chilling evidence. He recounts how "the Building" and its denizens achieved what Eisenhower called "a disastrous rise of misplaced power"—from the unprecedented aerial bombing of Germany and Japan during World War II to the "shock and awe" of Iraq. He charts the colossal U.S. nuclear buildup, which far outpaced that of the USSR, and has outlived it. He reveals how consistently the Building has found new enemies just as old threats—and funding—evaporate. He demonstrates how Pentagon policy brought about U.S. indifference to an epidemic of genocide during the 1990s. And he shows how the forces that attacked the Pentagon on 9/11 were set in motion exactly sixty years earlier, on September 11, 1941, when ground was broken for the house of war.

Carroll draws on rich personal experience (his father was a top Pentagon official for more than twenty years) as well as exhaustive research and dozens of extensive interviews with Washington insiders. The result is a grand yet intimate work of history, unashamedly polemical and personal but unerringly factual. With a breadth and focus that no other book could muster, it explains what America has become over the past sixty years.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A prodigious historical synthesis, with pressing importance for our times, and also a deeply engaging story."—Tracy Kidder, author of My Detachment: A Memoir

House of War is a masterful achievement...[Carroll's] prose is elegant, his viewpoint bold."—Howard Zinn, author of The People's History of the United States

"[Carroll has] the historical depth, elegance of style, and moral complexity to have taken the full measure of [the Pentagon]."—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

"One cannot understand the impact of the Pentagon on US foreign policy...without reading James Carroll's House of War."—Lawrence Korb, former Undersecretary of Defence under Ronald Reagan

[An] unequivocally mesmerizing account. . . . Certain to be one of the most talked-about nonfiction books of the season."

Booklist, ALA

"[James Carroll] brings to shocking life the truth of Randolph Bourne's dictum: 'War is the health of the state.'"—Garry Wills, author of Nixon Agonistes and Henry Adams and the Making of America

"Altogether excellent, and essential for understanding the birth of America's empire." Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"An aggressively compelling history." Publishers Weekly, Starred

To a person, our editors pronounce this provocative, profoundly unsettling history of the Pentagon "unputdownable." National Book Award winner James Carroll draws on exhaustive research, extensive interviews, and personal history (his father was a prominent Defense Department official) to chronicle the rise of both "the Building" -- a graceless five-sided edifice looming over the Potomac -- and the powerful institution it has come to symbolize. Sure to be one of the year's most talked-about books, House of War is a wag-the-dog cautionary tale that exposes the dangerously unchecked power of America's military establishment.
William Grimes
Although House of War presents itself as a history of the Pentagon, it is not. Rather, it is a highly detailed, often repetitious recounting of American foreign policy, especially nuclear policy, from the 1940's to the present, with the building looming darkly in the background, like Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. The Pentagon is a metaphor more than a subject, explored most convincingly when Mr. Carroll describes his personal relationship to it.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Carroll would make a perfect NPR morning-show host, his sensitive, low, smooth voice the perfect background noise for sleepy yuppies getting ready for work. Reading his own book, a study of the Pentagon's outsize influence on postwar American life, Carroll is soothing and inoffensive. His reading is so uninflected that it veers on indistinctness or narcolepsy. Early-morning drivers should probably avoid listening to Carroll, for fear of being lulled into sleep. And yet, careful attention reveals a fine, subtle reading. Carroll lets his words speak for themselves, avoiding underlining or emphasizing specific words or phrases in his text. For some readers, that might be a recipe for being driven crazy; for others, it will allow for an uninfluenced reading of the text, whereby readers can listen as they might read-picking out their own points of emphasis. A little more emotion, though, probably wouldn't have hurt. Simultaneous release with the Houghton Mifflin hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 10). (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Most Americans may assume that the Pentagon plays a central role in formulating not only U.S. military but also foreign policy, yet this was not always so. Carroll (Constantine's Sword) argues that America's emergence as a nuclear superpower catapulted the defense establishment to the forefront in shaping military and foreign policy and, consequently, domestic policy. He contends that the Pentagon's influence is now virtually unchecked, beyond even the direct control of the commander in chief. Chronicling the ascent of America's military establishment from 1943 to the aftermath of 9/11, Carroll uses the Pentagon as a metaphor for a U.S. political culture that values military power over human rights and seeks to project U.S. influence and values abroad by force, if necessary, whether invited by other countries or not. Such values are a stark departure from America's past, when the public feared a large, professional military and imposed strict civilian control to limit the extent of its influence. With such broad and controversial claims, Carroll's theses will be disputed, yet his argument is well documented and persuasively made. He also relates his personal struggle to come to terms with the values of his father, a general who served in the Pentagon and later in the FBI as a counter-espionage agent and consistently supported the defense establishment's positions. Certain to be a widely read and discussed book, this is worthy of space on the shelves of all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 1/06.]-Thomas J. Baldino, Wilkes Univ., Wilkes-Barre, PA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The biography of a vast building that "came to possess agency-the capacity to act in ways that transcended the wills and purposes of the people who claimed responsibility for the Defense Department at any given time."National Book Award-winner Carroll (Crusade, 2004, etc.) grew up in the shadow of the Pentagon, the son of an Air Force general; like many military brats of his generation, he dreamed of taking his place there one day, then found himself outside, protesting war and aggression. His book tells three interwoven stories. The first is the history of the building itself, constructed as a military annex during WWII; its groundbreaking took place, eerily enough, on Sept. 11, 1941, 60 years to the day and nearly the minute when American Airlines flight 77 would crash into its south wall. The second strand is the history of the military-industrial complex that the great building would inspire; by Carroll's careful account, the place seems to have legitimated a culture born in WWII that dismissed as standard operating procedure the targeting of civilian populations for military ends, the active intervention in the affairs of sovereign nations in order to maintain American suzerainty. Two hallmark moments in this amoral history, when the military became a fist of civilian policy that threatened sometimes to overwhelm the body, occurred on Sept. 11: one in 1973, when American-trained and -backed forces overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile, the other in 1990, when George H.W. Bush declared the existence of the "new world order . . . [whose] purpose his son would attempt to fulfill, beginning exactly eleven years later." The third element of thisgrand narrative is Carroll's own story, a life marked by gruff nods from Curtis LeMay and the eventual distancing from a father whose ideals his son no longer shared. Altogether excellent, and essential for understanding the birth of America's empire.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.69(d)

Read an Excerpt



1. Hell’s Bottom

A year after the Al Qaeda attack, at a rededication ceremony on September 11, 2002, much was made of the post-9/11 repairs having been completed in a mere twelve months. No one seemed to know that the entire Building had been constructed from start to finish in less than sixteen months. It was made of cement for which 700,000 tons of sand were dredged from the Potomac riverbed next to the site. The river’s edge is key to the Building’s impression, evoking a forbidden temple of the timeless past, as if looming over the ancient Nile.1 The picturesque lagoon that sets off the River Entrance, like a plaza waiting to receive the barge of Cleopatra, is a vestige of that dredging.2 Relatively little steel was used in the construction—those ramps instead of elevators—because it was needed just then for bullets, shells, and tanks. Planners took for granted that once the war emergency had passed, the hulking edifice would be handed over for civilian use: a depot for government records or—and this is what my mother told me, which is why I always believed it, even after learning it was a myth—a facility for the care of wounded and disabled veterans, the ramps built for wheelchairs and gurneys. The largest hospital in the world. My mother’s devotion to this idea was sacralized when my brother Joe was stricken with polio, making her a haunter of hospitals, a connoisseur of ramps. Joe’s polio, in turn, transformed into worship her devotion to the similarly stricken, but nobly unbowed, President Roosevelt. He was photographed visiting the Building just before its completion in January 1943, but there is no record of his using a wheelchair there.
In fact, Roosevelt was deeply conflicted about the Pentagon. As assistant secretary of the Navy during WorldWar I, he had ordered the construction of barracks-like “tempos” all over Washington, and these eyesores were still there twenty years later, despoiling especially the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. The structures were a source of self-rebuke to Roosevelt. The War Department alone occupied seventeen separate facilities around Washington. To consolidate the offices in one handsome place, FDR had personally overseen the construction of a new headquarters building at 21st Street in Foggy Bottom, but no sooner was it completed than World War II broke out. By mid- 1941, the Army had mushroomed to a million and a half men; the new headquarters was instantly inadequate, and senior Army officials told the president they would never use it.3 Though its entrance was decorated by a huge, undiplomatic martial mural—helmeted soldiers in combat—the building would become the headquarters of the State Department, which it remains to this day.
The size of the space was not the only issue. The freshly empowered Army wanted its new building to be set apart from the so-called Federa West Executive Area, apart from entanglements with, and the limits of, the seat of government. In a time of peril, the Army was not about to be treated as just another bureaucratic function, alongside Interior and Commerce and Indian Affairs. The Army would transcend. Senior military officials immediately began scouting sites outside the city—this despite the explicit terms of congressional appropriations for construction within Washington.4 A site in Virginia appealed to the Army because, for one thing, District of Columbia architectural supervision would not hinder the mammoth scale envisioned by departmental planners. Yet even across the river the initial site selection proved controversial. The D.C. Fine Arts Commission, chaired by Roosevelt’s cousin Frederick A. Delano, reached across the Potomac to denounce the “flagrant disregard”5 of context in the Army’s wish to build at the western end of Memorial Bridge. The site was then occupied by Arlington Farms, an agricultural research facility—all that was left of Robert E. Lee’s original plantation, the rest of which had long before been seized by the federal government to serve as the national cemetery. Recovering from the punitive impulse of that requisition, Washington had, in the 1920s, established a symbol of reconciliation between North and South by aligning an axis along Memorial Bridge between Lee’s becolumned mansion atop the hill at Arlington and the Lincoln Memorial, which was completed in 1922. Joined to Lincoln in this way, Lee was thus linked along the Mall to George Washington and the Capitol. The proposed new War Department building, just below the Lee mansion and directly on that axis, would destroy the geographic symbol of national reconciliation.
When that was pointed out too President Roosevelt, he ordered the War Department building moved about a mile downriver. At the same time, considering the architects’ plansssss for the hulking structure, FDR ordered the size of the building reduced by half. Among other considerations, the president expressed concern for the psychological effect on those who would be employed amid such dominating impersonality.6 He also affirmed that, after “the present emergency,” the War Department headquarters would be returned to Washington where it belonged; no permanent headquarters building would be necessary in Virginia. Roosevelt found himself declaring that the Army could make do, as the Navy would, with yet more tempos. (The Navy Annex was constructed to be temporary, but to this day it sits on the Arlington ridge, above the Pentagon.)When the general in charge of the project objected to these terms, the president said, “My dear General, I’m still Commander-in-Chief of the Army.”7 The general complied, but only partially. The new downriver site was accepted—an unsightly shack-ridden wasteland called Hell’s Bottom. It was a former airfield and railroad yard littered with abandoned tin hangars and rusted-out boxcars. But without Roosevelt’s knowledge, the general declined to reduce the size of the Building, and with the help of Virginia congressmen, he protected the appropriations needed to make the construction permanent. By then the Building’s architects, led by G. Edwin Bergstrom, who had also designed the Hollywood Bowl, had completed drawings for the upriver site at Arlington Farms. The original design for that now abandoned location called for a simple rectangular footprint, but access roads required one corner of the rectangle to be cut off, leaving an asymmetrical five-sided building. What Bergstrom did was to even up the five sides, producing—voilr—the Pentagon. When the site was moved downriver, the polygonal shape was no longer required by the limits of the roadways, but such was the hurried pace of the project that the architects did not change the design. Eventually Bergstrom and others would mythologize the pentagonal form of the War Department headquarters as an echo of Napoleonic-era fortress architecture.8 The true, entirely mundane origin of the design would be forgotten.
Over the next year, more than a hundred architects and nearly as many engineers worked around the clock in those abandoned airplane hangars, turning out drawings for the more than fifteen thousand laborers, who often didn’t wait for specs. Pearl Harbor was attacked almost three months after groundbreaking, and from then on the already quickened pace of construction was redoubled. “How big should I make that beam across the third floor?” one architect asked another, who replied, “I don’t know. They installed it yesterday.”9
• *
• Supervising all of this work was a Corps of Engineers colonel named Leslie R. Groves, who was forty-five years old when appointed to head up Pentagon construction. He was a burly, corpulent man whose belly protruded like lips over his brass-buckled belt.10 A man of the job, Groves was an important military manager. In charge of the Army’s crash building program across the country (in 1940 the Corps’s construction budget skyrocketed from $20 million to $10 billion), he had already purchased half the lumber in the United States.11 Born into an Army family four years after the Battle of Wounded Knee, in 1890, which marked the end of the Indian wars, Groves had spent part of his childhood at Fort Apache, Arizona, living in the house of a man famous for killing Indians.12 His lifelong hero was General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose “march to the sea” across Georgia legitimized the spirit of total war, which after the CivilWar was unleashed on Native Americans.
Groves began as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but when his older brother died in 1914—of a disease contracted at the same Arlington Farms that would much later be the first site proposed for the Pentagon—Groves transferred to West Point. From then on he wore a mustache, which did nothing to soften his stern, unfriendly demeanor. Work in the Corps of Engineers was essentially a matter of management, and Groves proved himself again and again. By the time he was put in charge of Pentagon construction, his most notable prior service had been in Nicaragua, developing plans for a second (never undertaken) canal across the Central American isthmus.13 As the Pentagon neared completion, Groves was promoted to brigadier general, although for a reason having to do with his next project, not this one. Among his last decisions in Arlington was one that provided the new Building with separate eating and lavatory accommodations for “colored people” and whites. The dining areas for blacks would be in the basement, and on the other floors, at each corridor junction, double toilet facilities would be built, separated by race. When President Roosevelt visited the Building shortly before its dedication, he asked why there were so many lavatories (more than two hundred), and he was told that the Army was abiding by Virginia’s racial laws. Roosevelt had issued an order prohibiting such discrimination throughout the U.S. military only six months earlier, and he told Groves to get rid of the Whites Only signs at once. Groves obeyed. Because he was overridden by the president, the Pentagon would for a long time be the only place in Virginia where segregation was not allowed.14 Within days of Roosevelt’s visit to the new War Department headquarters, at an understated ceremony presided over by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, the Pentagon was dedicated. Wartime exigencies eclipsed such a formality in the memoirs and memories of witnesses. Honor guards would have mounted battle flags in mahogany stands, and portraits of former secretaries of war would have been unveiled. One imagines the Army band playing martial music. Perhaps a ribbon was cut. It was January 15, 1943.15

Copyright © 2006 by James Carroll. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

James Carroll was raised in Washington, D.C., and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-
in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast.

His critically admired books include Practicing Catholic , the National Book Award–winning An American Requiem , House of War , which won the first PEN/Galbraith Award, and the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword , now an acclaimed documentary.

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House of War 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I cannot improve on Dr. Williams¿s endorsement of this fine history. One little personal note involves my taking part in the demonstration in October 1967 that Mr. Carroll describes. Like him and like Secretary McNamara, I found the demonstration disgusting, but I knew no other way to voice my disgust with our failed strategy in Vietnam. The entire narrative felt personal because this history is the history my generation experiences.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As good as any history I can remember ever having read. The story of how the culture of our country, once pretty innocent, has come to glorify militarism and becone indifferent to the misery we specially noble people create. And such good writing.