House of War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The son of an Air Force general who served as the first head of the national defense agency, James Carroll grew up in the shadow of the Department of Defense, often roaming the corridors of the Pentagon and personally observing the military elite of the early Cold War years. Like many “military brats” during this patriotic era, he had an idealistic vision of the United States’ role in the world, and he daydreamed about following in his father’s footsteps. Becoming disillusioned with the Vietnam War, however, to the dismay of his father, he joined the peace movement and became a vociferous critic of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Following his ordination as a Catholic priest, he increasingly identified with the liberal and pacifistic currents within the Church, eventually joining the militant protests of Catholic priests cum peace activists Philip and Daniel Berrigan.

In House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, Carroll actually tells two overlapping stories: first, the phenomenal growth of U.S. military power since the Pentagon’s construction during World War II, and second, his own personal experiences and reactions to the dramatic events of this history. Some readers will probably find that the highly personal aspect of the book adds to its charm and human qualities. Other readers, however, will think that such an emphasis on his own experiences detracts from the seriousness and objectivity of the book.

The history of the Cold War, or the conflict between communist and capitalist powers from about 1946 to 1991, is commonly interpreted from two alternative schools of thought. Proponents of the so-called orthodox school usually defend U.S. policy as a defensive reaction to communist aggression, whereas “revisionism” almost always blames the United States as the aggressor. House of War unquestionably belongs to the second category. Although Carroll concedes the authoritarian nature of the Marxist-Leninist political system, he argues that U.S. policymakers’ concern for Soviet objectives were “overblown” and that the Soviet Union was never a real threat to U.S. security. Happy to assume the peaceful intentions of Soviet leaders, he insists that the Cold War and the U.S. expenditure of $14 trillion in military spending were unnecessaryresulting from false perceptions, capitalistic greed, and Pentagon officials’ quest for personal and institutional power.

Even Carroll’s critics will have to concede that he has done an admirable amount of research for the book, which has almost a hundred pages of endnotes and twenty pages of bibliographic sources. The book is based on a large number of published works, including scholarly secondary accounts as well as memoirs and published documents. Carroll also conducted personal interviews with several of the important participants. Some historians, no doubt, will criticize the book for its lack of archival research, but given the numerous researchers and gigantic literature that has been published during the last half century, it is doubtful that more use of archival materials would have added much to the book.

With his assumption that history is shaped by human beings, Carroll emphasizes the policies, character, and decisions of individual leaders. As one might expect from a former priest, Carroll’s strong moralistic temperament predisposes him to look upon history as a battle between the forces of good and evil. When discussing the peace movement, he is willing to justify rather extreme measures. For instance, he writes favorably of the actions of Philip Berrigan and five other activists of the Plowshares Movement who slipped aboard the USS The Sullivans in 1997 to use hammers on the destroyer’s weaponry and pour blood into the control system. He approvingly quotes Berrigan’s statement at trial: “Our government has intervened in the affairs of fifty nations and has violated the laws of God and humanity by designing, deploying, using, and threatening to use atomic weapons.”

Carroll begins House of War with the Casablanca Conference in January, 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, contrary to the wishes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, announced that the Axis powers would be required to surrender unconditionally. Because this demand eliminated the possibility of a negotiated peace, it logically implied a threat of total destruction. Before this time, Roosevelt had expressed moral repugnance at the British practice of bombing civilian targets of military significance. At Casablanca, nevertheless, the U.S. and British governments agreed to cooperate in bombing operations, with the two objectives of progressively destroying Germany industry and undermining the morale of the German people. The linkage of these two objectives, Carroll convincingly argues, provided a justification for the large-scale killing of civilians as collateral damage, which is the basis for his...

(The entire section is 2032 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 11 (February 1, 2006): 4.

The Economist 379 (May 27, 2006): 81-82.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 4 (March 1, 2006): 218.

Library Journal 131, no. 5 (March 15, 2006): 85.

The New York Times 155 (June 7, 2006), E1-E10.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (July 2, 2006): 17.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 15 (April 10, 2006): 63.

The Virginia Quarterly Review 82, no. 4 (Fall, 2006): 259-263.