Interviews June 2006

The American War Machine

James Carroll, the author of House of War, on the inexorable momentum of the Pentagon.
book cover

House of War [Click the title
to buy this book]

by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin
672 pages

As a young boy, James Carroll saw the Pentagon as his playhouse—“the largest playhouse in the world.” While his father worked late, as a high-ranking intelligence official in the Air Force, Carroll would roam the empty corridors, sliding down the ramps connecting the building’s five concentric rings; running from water fountain to water fountain, drinking from as many as he could; examining the war memorabilia tucked in various corners; and getting lost in the labyrinthine vastness. Later on, as a seminarian and peace protester, the building came to mean something quite different to him: it was the brain center of the hated Vietnam War, and, even more ominous, of the nuclear madness that threatened the human race. In House of War, a book that is part history, part memoir, and part polemic, Carroll sets out to tell the story of “the Building”—a sprawling bureaucracy, Carroll argues, that is not only more powerful than the civilians who would seek to contain it, but that has “apparently broken loose from the constraints of human will.”

Carroll’s narrative opens in January 1943 with the dedication of the Pentagon. That very same week, Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the Allied goal in World War II would be the unconditional surrender of the Axis forces, the government established the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, and the Air Force okayed the first bombing runs against German cities—reversing its policy against targeting civilians. “These three events,” Carroll writes, “were the beginning of a new American spirit of total war that culminated not only in the total destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, but also, ultimately, in the Cold War doctrines of massive retaliation and mutual assured destruction.” Even before World War II was over, Carroll argues, the leaders of the Pentagon viewed Russia as the new enemy and nuclear weapons as the tool of choice to use against it. In Carroll’s telling, the United States was primarily to blame for the Cold War’s dramatic escalation, because our government consistently ignored signals that Moscow was willing to step back from the conflict. The fact is, he writes, the Cold War was convenient, first because it could be used by the Army, Navy, and Air Force to justify competing and ever-higher defense expenditures, and later because it came to serve as the economic engine of the country—the “military-industrial-congressional-academic-labor-culture” complex of which Eisenhower warned. Carroll argues that every president who has come into office determined to sap the power of the Pentagon has instead been defeated by it. And now, even though the Cold War is over, our defense establishment continues to expand—as we build more nuclear weapons and turn to a doctrine of preventive war. “The Pentagon, world capital of a twenty-first century Pax Americana that assume[s], like Thucydides, the permanence of war,” he writes, “at last [has] a function worthy of its monumentality.”

James Carroll is the author of ten novels, including Mortal Friends and Secret Father. He is also the author of the best-selling Constantine’s Sword and American Requiem, which won the 1996 National Book Award. He lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall.

We spoke by phone in May.

Katie Bacon


James Carroll
James Carroll

It seems to me that your book challenges a lot of received wisdom we have about the past sixty years, and that people may have a strong reaction to your depiction of the United States as more blameworthy in the Cold War than Russia was, or to your strong criticisms of our actions during World War II. Have you thought about how people are going to react to the book?

Well, I think there’s a large misconception in the American consensus that I see myself challenging. It’s the dichotomy between what’s called “realism” and, if you want to be pejorative, “soft idealism” or “moralism” or “pacifism.” The conventional wisdom, certainly the established narrative of the American post-Cold War and post-World War II story, is that the realists were right and the others were wrong. I think this whole notion is wrong-headed. What’s described as realism was a wild misperception of the reality that the United States was faced with from the beginning to the end of the Cold War. In the beginning of the Cold War, realists, typified at that point by George Kennan, saw the Soviet Union as a mystical totalitarian threat that was a challenge to the United States all over the globe. It turned out to be a wildly exaggerated notion of how threatened we were by the Soviet Union, and even George Kennan moved away from that perception.

The Soviet Union in 1947, 1948, and into 1949 was simply not the threat that American foreign-policy makers imagined it to be. At the other end of the Cold War, the realists were insisting that Mikhail Gorbachev was just another trickster Russian—we couldn’t trust him, his perestroika and glasnost were going to be a Russian trick, a Russian deception. And, of course, those realists, typified by, say, Casper Weinberger or Jeane Kirkpatrick, were entirely wrong about Gorbachev. The realists today have taken us into the Iraq War, another example of a wild misperception of what actually threatened the United States. My book challenges this dichotomy between realism and idealism. It’s true that I’m able to be categorized as—well, what’s the pejorative word?—a “peacenik.” But I would argue that the peaceniks, especially in the later years of the Cold War, got it right about how the Cold War might end. The realists got it wrong. So, that’s the largest challenge to the conventional narrative that I’m aware of. Of course, I expect the defenders of the realist position to take strident offense at House of War.

Why were the realists looking for an enemy after World War II? You’d think people would have taken a deep breath and said, “Okay, we defeated Germany, now we can relax a bit.”

You would. That was Truman’s impulse.  He ordered a radical demobilization of the American military immediately at the end of World War II. I explain in House of War that the most important thing that empowered this kind of political paranoia was the budgetary competition between the United States Air Force, newly established in 1947, and the United States Navy, both vying for a shrinking military budget and especially vying for control of the new atomic bomb. The weapon they used in their contests with each other was to exaggerate the threat from the Soviet Union. The United States Air Force could make its case for a new fleet of intercontinental bombers by exaggerating the threat from Moscow. Similarly with the Navy. That contest basically resulted in the creation of massive forces that were far in excess of what was actually needed at the time. The most fateful consequence, of course, was that those people who wanted to maintain a monopoly on the atomic bomb were empowered by this intraservice rivalry. In the late forties, the United States should have been seriously pursuing international structures of control for the atomic bomb, and we didn’t. We chose to imagine that we could maintain an indefinite monopoly on the bomb—a belief that was based on faulty intelligence, a faulty assessment of the Soviet capacity to build a bomb of their own. In fact, the Russians exploded an atomic bomb in May of 1949. It was only then that the Soviets posed a major new threat to us. By then, the Soviets were responding to what they had seen coming from us. They had seen, first of all, not only that we had the bomb, but that we were prepared to use it. Joseph Stalin was a monstrous tyrant, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he would have madly pursued a strategic nuclear arsenal of the sort that he eventually went for if he wasn’t stimulated to do so by what he saw happening in the United States. That’s the second point that I make in this book, one that is no doubt controversial. I lay out the debate of historians on this question, and it’s a serious debate—much more serious than most Americans realize.

About what Stalin would have done?

About, really, what the origins were of the Cold War. And to what extent American fears of Soviet imperial reach exaggerated what was real and, therefore, in effect became self-fulfilling prophecies. I accept the reading of the Cold War by historians sometimes called “revisionists,” who see American responsibility for the onset of the Cold War as much more significant than traditionalists do. Traditionally, we’ve talked about the Soviet moves against Eastern Europe and Asia as if they were completely unjustified, far in excess of normal security reach, and representing a kind of quasi-religious, global totalitarian ambition to take over the world. I accept the reading of historians who think that the moves that Moscow was making at that point were much more properly understood as normal defensive postures, attempts to shore up its security border in Eastern Europe and to the east with China. So it was our wildly overblown perception of what their aims were that led us to mistake what was really a civil war between two factions in Korea as a global conflict orchestrated in Moscow. Post-Cold War archives reveal that that overblown view was simply wrong. Moscow was not calling the shots when North Korea invaded South Korea. Similarly, we misread the meaning of the revolution in Vietnam, seeing Ho Chi Minh as a puppet of Moscow when he was no such thing. We went to war in Vietnam to oppose Soviet communism. Well, the Vietnamese were not tools of the Soviets, much less of the Chinese. We also saw Ho Chi Minh as a puppet of Beijing when, of course, the ancient enemy of Vietnam has always been China. We had an inability to perceive the fissures among the various nations on the other side of the Iron Curtain: we missed the meaning of Tito’s break in Yugoslavia, we missed the meaning of the Chinese break with Moscow, we missed the meaning of the traditional enmity between the Vietnamese and the Chinese.  All of those mistakes were the result of this global paranoia that was put in place at the end of the 1940s. So, that’s my perception, I’m clear about it, and you’re right to indicate that these are controversial assertions to this day. This is unfinished history. History has not made final judgments on these questions, and if my book can move the arcane debates of a small group of historians to a broader public, that alone will be a good thing.

Were you dealing with new documents here, new revelations that are coming out about the Cold War? How much of the information you relied on for the book has just come out recently?

I don’t claim to have done much in the way of original archival research, but I’ve read pretty much all of the historians who have done the archival research since the end of the Cold War, and there’s quite a lot that we understand now that we didn’t understand before 1989. Joseph Stalin’s intention in those early years is one of those things. It’s also very revealing to raise the question of why the Communists finally agreed to come to the truce table in Korea in 1953. Eisenhower, early on in his administration, made a not-so-veiled threat to use the atomic bomb to bring the Communists to the table, and they came to the table and he and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, concluded from that the usefulness of what they came to call atomic brinksmanship, which was part of what fueled the massive build up of the atomic and nuclear arsenal in the fifties. But post-Cold War archives suggest that a much more important factor at that very moment—although one not particularly noticed in the United States—was the death of Joseph Stalin in February of 1953, not long after Eisenhower became president. Stalin was succeeded by men who were determined to defuse what they saw as a growing and exceedingly dangerous competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Their signals were more or less ignored in Washington. Eisenhower refused to accept the initiatives that came not only from the Soviet Union but from Winston Churchill, who was, again, prime minister of Great Britain, and wanted to take the death of Stalin as an occasion to step back from the ferocious competition, especially in nuclear weapons, that had started by then. Because Eisenhower didn’t step back, that competition really took off at that point.

The most important detail of early Cold War history that I’m aware of is the fact that the U.S. went from an atomic arsenal in 1950, consisting of about 200 weapons, to a nuclear arsenal in 1960 consisting of about 19,000 weapons, mostly hydrogen bombs. And that was an accumulation of nuclear weapons that was entirely irrational. It was generated by those realists I was talking about before, but it was incredibly unrealistic and dangerous beyond anyone’s ability to measure it. And, of course, the thing that makes it truly horrible is that 19,000 grew over the next couple of decades to something more than 60,000. Between the Soviet Union and the United States, we accumulated well in excess of 100,000 nuclear weapons. It was a madness that has yet to be reckoned with, and a danger that has yet to be reckoned with. That alone, I argue, gives the lie to the apparently cool, rational rhetoric of the so-called realists. Look what those people put in place. I give the leaders of the United States and of the Soviet Union full credit for keeping the Cold War cold. They did not have the dreaded nuclear conflagration, thank God, but some of the managers of that Cold War success, including, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, are quite explicit in attributing our getting through the Cold War without nuclear war more to luck than to any successful strategy.

One of the things House of War takes note of is the way in which many, many figures who created the Cold War nuclear nightmare denounced it upon their retirement. McNamara’s a case in point. Robert Jay Lifton calls this “retirement syndrome”: men who—and they’re almost always men—construct this really quite dangerous and inhuman system of nuclear destruction, and when they resign from responsibility for it, quickly denounce it. In addition to McNamara, the most important figures who did that were George Kennan, the foreign-policy expert Paul Nitze, and most famously, of course, President Eisenhower, who, having presided over the creation of the nuclear arsenal consisting of those 19,000 weapons, on his retirement from the presidency denounced the entire system as what he called the “military-industrial complex.”

It seems like a lot of these people weren’t able to come to moral terms with what they had created until they had actually left those positions in which they’d created them. Certainly, the Pentagon as an entity has never considered the moral aspect of what’s been done with nuclear weapons.

Well, it’s true. My argument is that a momentum was generated in the Pentagon that was made up of several factors. One was the bureaucracy of the Pentagon itself; it’s this impersonal, transpersonal force that’s beyond the ability of any one human agent to control or at times even to influence—so there’s the phenomenon of a mass bureaucracy where there is very little in the way of personal responsibility. Secretary of Defense William Cohen told me that he thought of the Pentagon as Moby Dick, the great white whale, and he thought of himself as Ahab, lashed to the whale’s back by tangled harpoon lines.

That’s an interesting admission for a Secretary of Defense to make. He made that while he was Secretary of Defense?

He did. He was describing his inability to take control of this massive bureaucracy. He wasn’t being critical of it the way I am, but that’s the image he used. And I think Moby Dick is a very good image for it, a classic American image, the great white whale—a force, in Melville’s terms, of pure evil. What’s evil about the Pentagon? Not the work of the individuals there. I think that the Pentagon has been staffed over the decades by people like my father: people of good intentions, real patriots, in many cases, selfless people trying to do the right thing. But they were all at the mercy of this momentum I’ve described, partly a bureaucratic momentum, partly technological, partly the result of technologies that no one understood as they were implemented. We didn’t understand what nuclear weapons would do to us as a people when we began to accumulate them. The ways in which we control nuclear weapons are very fragile, very hard to define. We have the myth in America that the president is the one in control of the nuclear arsenal. It’s really not true.

I thought that was an interesting point. There is this strong belief that the president is the only one who can set these off, but it seems like that really isn’t the case from the way you’re describing it.

Actually, a moment’s thought reveals the falsehood of that because what the president is going to be confronted with is a recommendation from a military figure saying, “It’s time to push the button.” The president has no independent way of making an assessment of his own as to whether what’s happening is real or not. So, this notion that the “civilians” are in charge is a myth. And, of course, that’s one of the things we see being laid bare today as, more and more, we openly depend on the military to exercise power in our culture—the military taking full and complete control of the intelligence establishment, symbolized by General Hayden’s appointment as head of the CIA; the military now being invited to take control of our immigration services, symbolized by putting soldiers on the border with Mexico.  What happened here? The United States of America is at the mercy of a militarized momentum that is transcending the ability of any individual or group of individuals to master it.

The most poignant example of this that I uncovered in the work I did in this book was the story of Jimmy Carter, who came into office as president in 1976 giving a very stirring and, I would say, moving inaugural address in which he defined the main priority of his administration as getting control of the nuclear arms race and reversing it. Jimmy Carter, in his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told them that he wanted to get the nuclear arsenal down to 200, which was plenty of weapons to maintain deterrence. Carter had been a nuclear submarine officer. He was the only president who’d ever looked this monster in the eye up close. He was an expert on it. He knew that the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons was madness, and he said he would do something about it. And do you know what happened? Four years later, he went out of office having added to the nuclear arsenal—not having brought it down at all.

That embodies the tragedy right there. Why did that happen? It wasn’t because Carter was callow or fickle or weak. It was because Carter, too, was at the mercy of this upward escalation, this momentum that would’ve gone on unchecked, I believe, except for the totally unexpected arrival on the scene of Mikhail Gorbachev. And Mikhail Gorbachev found a creative and willing partner in Ronald Reagan. Unexpectedly, Reagan, to the horror of his hawkish inner circle, and Gorbachev, to the horror of his, together cooperated in stopping the upward growth of the nuclear arsenal and, second, actually agreeing to treaties that began the arms-reduction process, which went on, then, for the next two administrations. Reagan and George H.W. Bush presided over the reduction of the American nuclear arsenal by half, which was an astounding and wonderful turn in the story. The tragedy—again, here goes that momentum—is revealed powerfully, then, when the ultimate peace president took power, William Clinton, and he presided over the elimination of almost none of the American nuclear arsenal at a time when the Soviet Union was effectively dismantling itself. By the time George W. Bush came into office, this impulse to disarm had not only lost power—it had in effect been forgotten. People in Washington no longer talk about nuclear-arms reduction.

Or maybe the public assumed it had happened.

Indeed they did. But we’re still in possession of many thousands of nuclear weapons, and many thousands more than are needed for any rational purpose. And now the Bush administration is actually taking steps to add to the nuclear arsenal again, with a new generation of nuclear weapons, which of course sets off terrible consequences in other nations. Want to understand why Tehran wants a nuclear bomb? Just examine what’s happening in Washington. The United States is becoming the nuclear proliferating nation. It’s an appalling story. But I don’t just fault the Bush Administration here. I’m not playing partisan Democratic politics. I fault the entire American system, which is headquartered at the Pentagon. It takes a pliant Congress that is enriched by the vast treasures that Congress appropriates for the Defense Department, which then make their way back to Congress in the form of lavish campaign donations from defense contractors. What Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex is of course the military-industrial-congressional-academic-labor-culture complex. An entire society now depends on the energy that’s generated in the Pentagon, and that’s really the subject of House of War.

Is there a danger that we’ll bankrupt ourselves doing this, as the Russians did trying to keep up with us?

I’m not an economist, but I know that whether we bankrupt ourselves economically or not, we’ve already, I would argue, gone a long way toward a kind of moral bankruptcy, which is why America is regarded, even by our former friends, as a rogue nation to fear. But more than that I think what we’re doing is stimulating in other nations defensive actions that promise disastrous consequences for the rest of the century. Cheney’s belligerence with Russia recently is a case in point. The belligerent finger wagging toward Moscow generates a defensiveness that only empowers the extremists in Moscow. I’m not saying that there aren’t bad people in Russia who we want above all not to come to power, but we empower them by our belligerence. The same in China; we’re in danger of embarking on an arms race with China as we begin to move our nuclear arsenal into outer space. Well, the Chinese are not going to ignore that. They’re going to try to match it. And so forth. A replay of the Cold War is what’s possible at this point, and the thing that makes it so tragic is that it’s so unnecessary—it didn’t have to be this way.

Do you see anyone on the horizon, in terms of who might run for president, who could effectively deal with this? It seems like what you’re saying is that almost every man who’s been president since the emergence of nuclear weapons has been subsumed by the Pentagon.

True. But the great hope in that Cold War story, of course, is that it was mass movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain that ended it. Solidarity, beginning in Poland in the East, and, I argue, the freeze movement, beginning in the early 1980s, led by a young woman from MIT, Randall Forsberg, generated a massive grassroots American movement against nuclear weapons, which finally influenced Ronald Reagan. I said before that Reagan found it possible to cooperate with Gorbachev, against the advice of his hawkish inner circle. The reason Reagan was prepared to do that was because he was politician enough to understand the will of the American people, as manifested by millions and millions of people signing on to the freeze movement. That manifestation of popular will, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, I believe was the crucial factor in the change that the leaders of both sides underwent. That leads me to say today that, no, I don’t see leadership. I don’t see Republican or Democratic candidates who seem to grasp the terrible abyss toward which we’re headed with our present military policies.

But I do believe that there’s a growing movement of mass awareness in the United States, sparked especially by disillusionment tied to the way the Iraq war is going. The Iraq war is a manifestation of all this. The United States of America spends more on its military than all the rest of the world combined. And what has that bought us? We’re fought to a stalemate by a group of ragtag nihilists in Iraq, and we have an army at risk from them now. Despite all of the treasure that we have lavished on our military, it was not able, as Rumsfeld and company predicted it would be, to just roll into Iraq and take it over. This situation in Iraq reveals the foolhardiness not just of the present policy but of the whole American policy that depends on war as our main way of being in the world.

This is a book of history, but it’s also a book where you don’t pretend to have an objective point of view. What spurred this choice? Was the book written with a particular audience in mind?

It was an inquiry and an argument. I was trying to understand what to me were a couple of mysteries, the largest of which was, How was it possible after 1989, after the nonviolent collapse of the Berlin Wall, when peace was breaking out all over the world, how was it possible that the United States of America alone was immune to the new idea? At the time when South Africa, and Ireland, and Israel, and Palestine, and the Philippines, and Central America—all of these places that were riven for years, if not decades, by war—found it possible to bring conflicts to conclusions nonviolently. And the nonviolent miracle at the time, of course, was the nonviolent demise of the Soviet Union. Yet the American response to all of that was an immediate reaffirmation of war as the principal mode of being in the world. We went to war in Panama within days of the end of the Soviet Union. And then in 1991 we abandoned diplomacy all too rapidly to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

I really did set out to try to understand how America was immune to this outbreak of peace. This book is an answer to that question. The book is also a plea. I’m in earnest when I say that we have to find another way to organize the world than around war. The reason I feel that way so strongly is because it’s the lesson I took from my father, who said as much to me, even before he retired from the United States Air Force. Here he was, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a man privy to all of our secrets, and fully privy to what threatened. And he took me aside one day and shared his fear and his despair. And he said, if we don’t change the way that we’re conducting ourselves as a nation, the world is doomed. And I believe that. I believe it more than ever.

So this book also tries to explain and understand that impulse, an impulse that I didn’t get from any of my peacenik friends. I got it from my father, who was the farthest thing from a peacenik; he was a military man through and through, and yet he saw through this. And I would say, by the way, that he was typical of the whole strain of his generation who saw it this way. One of the tragedies of contemporary American life is that there are so few people in leadership positions who seem to understand how important it is to move away from war. Well, they understand it, of course, but only after they retire.

What was it like for you to research this book and dig into the records and learn about your father’s involvement in the Cold War?

I had written a memoir of my dad, but it was mostly from memory. In this book I submitted even my memories to the discipline of research. So I checked the sources to find out as much as I could about his career. I consulted with historians of the Air Force and the Pentagon, and I interviewed a good number of people. I confess it was a deeply moving experience, and I was also relieved again and again that my father was constantly showing signs of the deep humanity out of which he acted and the deep virtue of his motivations. I see the goodness in him and in many of his peers. I’m left feeling a profound debt of gratitude toward the men who presided over our side of the Cold War. For all the things I criticize, it’s fully clear to me how well they handled the challenges, and how difficult it was, especially at key points over Berlin, over Cuba, over Vietnam, to keep the Cold War from turning hot. And I’m left feeling grateful to my father and a lot of men of his generation. Alas, I have less confidence in the generation of people who are making decisions today, because I don’t see signs that they fully understand the dangers of what they’re doing.

There’s a sense of carelessness about it, though at the same time you wonder, How could they not care?

I never thought I would be nostalgic for the look of anguish in Robert McNamara’s eyes as he presided over press conferences during the horrible Vietnam War. There was something tragic about McNamara. For all the ways in which I fault the decisions he made as secretary of defense, it was clear at the time and it’s ever more clear since how deeply capable he was of feeling the anguish of what he was doing. I don’t have any comparable sense of such a depth of awareness or feeling from his successor, Donald Rumsfeld, who strikes me as smug and self-regarding in ways that are unconscionable given the suffering that he is presiding over, especially the terrible position in which he has put well-motivated and, one could say, heroic young men and women in Iraq.

I wanted to ask you a little more about your father and that thread of the book. In an interview about An American Requiem, you said, “It’s clear to any reader of this book that I haven’t quite finished grieving.” Was writing this book part of that same process? Has it helped?

My deliberate intent in House of War was to write about a public institution and public questions, and if I have occasional references to my own and my father’s story, I hope it’s at the service of the public implications of those personal moments. My father is useful to me and I hope to the reader of House of War to bring a large and sometimes superhuman institution down to size and to see it really through the eyes of one person, so we can understand what it’s like for one human being to be swept up in this monumental and almost transhistorical phenomenon—the Pentagon.

Did you know when you started that the book would focus mainly on the nuclear aspect of the Pentagon’s power over those years?

I assumed that the nuclear issue would be central, but I didn’t understand, really until I got to work on it, what the main threads would be. I start the book talking about one week in January 1943, when Roosevelt declared unconditional surrender as the Allied war aim, which by the end of the year generated a savage act of what one historian called unconditional destruction, especially in Japan. Another thing that happened that week was that Los Alamos was fully up and running. Then the third thing that happened that week was that Roosevelt and Churchill agreed on a combined bomber offensive, with the RAF and American Air Force jointly bombing German cities. The first American attack on a German city took place only a couple of weeks later. So, unconditional surrender, atomic bomb, strategic bombing of cities all began the same week, and they all began the week the Pentagon was dedicated, together forming a momentum centered in this building that carries forward to this day. And I did discover a powerful point of personal connection, because I was born that week, too. So for my purposes it struck me as powerfully symbolic that I’m almost the same age as the Pentagon. I feel yoked to it, as if we were siblings.

We have this idea of the “good war” and the greatest generation that fought it which has such a hold on our culture. As the last of that generation dies off, do you think Americans may start to do a better job of dealing with some of the moral issues brought up by that war—the justifiability of dropping the atomic bomb, of firebombing cities in Europe and Japan, of seeking unconditional surrender? All of those are things we haven’t really dealt with. Do you think we ever will?

One of the things that sets us apart from all other nations, certainly in the twentieth century, is that we did not experience war in our own homeland. Unlike the Europeans, we were not savaged by war, and I think therefore it’s easy for us still to have a very romantic notion of what war involves. But there is this terrible moment in every war where one side or the other, and sometimes both, begin to be taken over by what can only be called a killing momentum, where all questions of honor and restraint and humanity go out the window and savage acts of violence take over. That’s the story of warfare. And even the United States of America, even in the good war, that happened to us. I track that to Roosevelt’s mistake of adopting a policy of unconditional surrender.

But what I’m talking about is what happened really in the last six months of the war, against Germany and Japan. The United States has never reckoned with the havoc we caused in the cities of Germany and Japan in those last six months when the war was all but won, when there was no question anymore of our ever being defeated by either Germany or Japan. We took off on bombing campaigns that were horrible beyond any American’s ability to reckon with, then or now. We killed something like a million civilians in the last seven months of the war. We haven’t reckoned with that kind of violence, that kind of brute inhumanity. The kinds of crimes that we would never ever ever commit on the ground, we committed routinely from the air. We didn’t even pretend to distinguish between military and civilian targets in Japan, so that by the time the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki was made, we were morally blind, paralyzed. We no longer had the capacity to understand exactly what it was that we were doing. So of course we dropped the atomic bomb. That was almost anti-climactic considering what we had done to fifty or sixty other Japanese cities.

World War  II is not the good war. And the more Americans cling to that myth, the more dangerous we are as a people in the world. It’s only because we cling to such a myth that we could think that going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq was a reasonable and even humane thing to do. Look at what’s happened. Afghanistan is a shambles, the Taliban are coming back, the people are more impoverished than ever, and al-Qaeda is as much a threat to us as it ever was. And now Iraq—the disaster of Iraq, the threat of violence spilling over into Iran. I began by talking about realism. We Americans have to be realistic about what warfare is. And if we are, or if we could be, we’d be much less quick to leap in.

Presented by

Katie Bacon, formerly the executive editor of The Atlantic Online, is now a freelance editor and writer living outside of Boston.

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In