Interviews June 2006

The American War Machine

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

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.

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