HOUSE OF WAR
By James Carroll
(Houghton Mifflin, 526 pages, $45)
Any book with a subtitle that refers to “The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power” bears a heavy burden of proof—to show that the exercise of American power has indeed been a disaster. This would seem a difficult case to make, given that over the past six decades the U.S. has presided over an unprecedented expansion of free governments and free markets across the world, kept the peace in Europe and East Asia after centuries of disastrous conflicts, and defeated such monstrous regimes as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Russia and Baathist Iraq. The true disaster would have been if, as in 1914 and 1939, America had failed to exercise its power.
James Carroll does not bother to confront any of these obvious points in his lengthy diatribe against the “garrison state.” An erstwhile Catholic priest turned moralistic writer (of novels, nonfiction books and a Boston Globe column), he simply assumes as his first principle that American power is indefensible and then unspools a long narrative of America’s conduct since the 1940s to illustrate the point. His case should be familiar to anyone who has read anything by such far-left luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Jonathan Schell, or Seymour Hersh. It goes like this:
The bombing of German and Japanese cities, culminating with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a war crime akin to the Holocaust. Thus “America’s mid-twentieth century initiation into world power was as much in the state of mortal sin as its birth in slavery had been.” America continued sinning by building more atomic bombs and targeting them on the Soviet Union. Good ole Joe Stalin simply wanted to live and let live—if only we had let him. “By portraying Stalin and his system as warmongering monsters,” Mr. Carroll writes, early hard-liners like George Kennan and James Forrestal “helped push the Kremlin in that direction.”
Mr. Carroll spends an inordinate amount of space on Forrestal’s tortured psyche—the first secretary of defense committed suicide in 1949—to suggest that anyone else who hated and feared communism must have been equally deranged. Richard Nixon, among many others, is portrayed as a warmongering nut job. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, was a warmongering simpleton whose role in the fall of the Berlin Wall was minimal. How original. Mr. Carroll bemoans “Reagan’s childlike inability ever to have mastered the broken logic of nuclear deterrence”—after having spent many pages claiming that deterrence was illogical and immoral.
A few themes emerge from this impassioned narrative. One is that America can do no right. Mr. Carroll has the gall to castigate President Gerald Ford for imposing “a punitive embargo” on Vietnam “in violation of America’s obligations under the Paris Accords”—without ever mentioning that the sanctions were a wan response to Hanoi’s invasion of the south, a much bigger violation of the accords.
Another theme is that war, at least as waged by the U.S., is never justified. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait should have been “handled as a diplomatic crisis.” The 9/11 attacks should have been addressed with “an internationally coordinated law enforcement effort.”
A third theme is that the true heroes of the Cold War were not the soldiers, spies and statesmen who fought communist expansionism but antiwar activists—like, well, Mr. Carroll—who tried to impede their efforts. In a book full of too many offensive statements to count perhaps the most infuriating is Mr. Carroll’s comparison of the nuclear-freeze movement in the West with the Solidarity movement in Poland. He actually labels nuclear-freeze organizer Randall Forsberg “an American Walesa”—as if it were just as courageous to protest in Central Park as it was behind the Iron Curtain.
Such tortured logic pervades House of War. Mr. Carroll wants to argue that in the post-1945 era “the Pentagon usurped controls over the levers of the American economy and culture, over science, academia, and politics.” This is belied by two inconvenient realities. First, there is no “Pentagon viewpoint”—different members of different military branches often have conflicting views, as Mr. Carroll notes on many occasions. Second, whatever the views inside the Pentagon, the major decisions about war have usually been made elsewhere. For instance, in the 1990s, senior generals opposed humanitarian interventions in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, but the Clinton administration acted anyway. Mr. Carroll blithely waves away this problem by proclaiming that “the arrival of ’human rights’ as the latest justification for war represented another triumph for the Pentagon.” Huh?
The most interesting parts of this dreary (if smoothly written) tirade concern the author’s difficult relationship with his late father, an Air Force general who was the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Mr. Carroll already told that story in a previous tome, An American Requiem (1996). Here he incessantly cites his parentage and his childhood visits to the Pentagon to lend unwarranted authority to antimilitary and anti-American pronouncements of the sort that undoubtedly drove his dad batty. “I have the eyes of a soldier’s son, through which, unfortunately, I see everything,” he writes with mock humility. (Note that “unfortunately”—oh, what a curse omniscience is.) In reality he sees nothing beyond his own ideological blinders.