A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
It isn’t that the United States shouldn’t exercise power in the world. It’s that it only knows how to exercise one kind of power -- the hard brutal power of military force.
We’ve totally neglected the soft power of diplomacy. The State Department should be at the center of American government expenditure and energy. It isn’t.
... And we neglect what really threatens us.
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Author James Carroll is a winner of the National Book Award and an astute columnist for The Boston Globe. He talks here with BuzzFlash about his newest book, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. He connects the dots, gets the big picture, and provides insights that can help us all grasp the reasons for war -- and see how we can find alternatives.
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BuzzFlash: Your latest book is House of War. In our previous interview with you about the book Crusade, we touched upon something that seems to us significant to your narrative in House of War, which is, you have a personal connection to the Pentagon.
James Carroll: I was raised in Washington. My father worked at the Pentagon as an Air Force officer, and I went there with him as a child. In some large way, it’s a building that shaped my imagination of the public realm. I confess that, when the Pentagon was struck on 9/11, I recognized, in a way I never have before, almost the mythic power of that building in my own imagination -- and I think in the imagination of our nation. The building is very much a personal metaphor in my life.
In House of War, I look beyond the myth to really understand the Pentagon as a center of policy and examine the way in which American power has been centered in the Pentagon. The building is a metaphor for me personally, but it is also a center of policy.
That’s important to recognize, because the policies cry out to be more fully criticized. To the extent that we leave the building as an unanalyzed myth or metaphor, the policies themselves go uncriticized. So the Pentagon must be treated very analytically and very critically as a source of American decision making.
BuzzFlash: In the history of the American military, the Pentagon is a relatively recent building -- sixty or so years old.
James Carroll: The ground for it was broken on September 11th, 1941. The formal dedication of the building took place in January of 1943, which was an astounding feat of civil engineering -- the building was constructed in barely more than sixteen months.
BuzzFlash: It is an enormous structure.
James Carroll: Indeed it is. The sheer enormity of it is already a significant question. A bureaucracy of that size inevitably carries its own impersonal dynamic which transcends the capacity of the human beings within it to exercise individual moral agency. That’s one of the themes I explore in House of War -- how the impersonal bureaucracy stamped the policies that were shaped by a succession of individuals, no one of whom was ever able to master the government agency at the center of the Pentagon. That’s one of the issues we have to confront -- that the Pentagon has become its own entity, its own source of power and significance.
BuzzFlash: If we look at the history of nation-states, there is always a tension and a fluctuation between military power and civilian power. In the case of the Roman Empire, civilian and military power were basically one. The military was the vehicle by which the nation-state became an empire. This cuts to the essential issue of a democracy that has civilian leadership. Is the military leading us, and our civilian leadership goes along? What did you come to see about this? You begin your book, I might add, with part of the often-quoted farewell address from President Eisenhower. It warns about the military-industrial complex overpowering the civilian government and becoming a force that could undermine democracy.
James Carroll: The military ethos should not be discussed as if it’s only represented among those who are in uniform. A distinction between military and civilian, as if civilians are less belligerent or less war-minded than "military" people, is actually too facile for what we’re discussing. After all, the most belligerent, war-like people who have shaped American policy over the last sixty years have themselves been wearing business suits, not uniforms. Whether you talk about James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense appointed in 1947, or Donald Rumsfeld today, we see civilians exercising power in extremely belligerent and militarist fashion. And often it’s the people in uniform, those who have firsthand knowledge of the horrors of war, who are most reluctant to embrace warlike solutions.
Omar Bradley did not want to go to war in Korea. He was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States military, one of the great generals from World War II. It’s Dean Acheson, Secretary of State, who was banging the drum for war in Korea. At the other end of the story, we have Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States military in 1991, at the time of the first Gulf War, who is among the inner circle of government leaders the most reluctant to launch that war. Then-Secretary of Defense Cheney was the most ready to. So it isn’t as simple as civilians versus military.
The Pentagon is decidedly under the authority of civilian leadership. But the civilian leaders themselves are at the mercy of a kind of military ethos. That’s part of what makes this complicated.
BuzzFlash: President Eisenhower’s warning obviously came after his career in the military. He was the Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces during World War II who became president. He was a military hero. He’d led the European effort in World War II. Why did he see this coming?
James Carroll: What’s interesting about Eisenhower’s warning, which comes just a couple of days before he left office in January of ’61, is that the thing he’s warning of is the very thing over which he presided as president. He enabled the creation of the military-industrial complex. Remember what had happened in that previous decade. In 1950, the United States nuclear arsenal consisted of about 200 atomic bombs. By 1960, when Eisenhower left office, the United States nuclear arsenal had grown to almost 19,000 nuclear weapons, most of them hydrogen bombs. Eisenhower understood more than anybody, I believe, the futility of that accumulation, the danger of it, the absurdity of it, the meaninglessness of it. And yet he had enabled it.
BuzzFlash: When you say he enabled it, was this something where, in essence, there were forces under him? He wasn’t pushing it, but he went along with it?
James Carroll: In effect -- yes. In the early part of his administration, he was determined to keep the budget down, and especially the military budget. After Korea, Cold War panic about the Soviet Union was at a fever pitch. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, embraced the so-called doctrine of "massive retaliation" -- instead of fielding a conventional force that could match the Soviet Union, which was probably impossible for the United States at that point. We were going to stand against the Soviet Union with our nuclear arsenal, threatening any aggressive move by the Soviets with a massive nuclear attack. "Massive retaliation" was the phrase. Brinksmanship was the word that came into vogue. Dulles and Eisenhower were convinced that their threats to use nuclear weapons against China and the Soviet Union were what brought the North Koreans to the negotiating table finally to end the Korean war and the stalemate.
Eisenhower actually established the doctrine that enabled, especially, Curtis LeMay to run wild with it in the creation of the Strategic Air Command through the 1950s. It was LeMay more than anyone who became the unchecked strategic bomber general who presided over this massive accumulation of nuclear weapons. Of course, with the Air Force taking that lead, the Navy had to compete with it.
And here’s where the bureaucracy comes in. The bureaucracy needed the separate American military branches to compete, leading to the Navy’s accumulation of nuclear weapons in its missile force and submarine force. It wasn’t a national security need that was being met then -- it was the bureaucratic need of the Navy against the Air Force. There was a dynamic set loose in those years, under Eisenhower. By the time Eisenhower really saw it in full flower in 1959-1960 -- he saw the Presidential election determined by Kennedy’s warnings of the so-called missile gap and so forth -- Eisenhower realized what a monster was set loose. That’s what he was warning of.
The lesson for us is that even someone who sees this monster for what it is, is relatively powerless to influence its development. We see that story played out again and again down through the decades.
BuzzFlash: We might explain for the sake of non-partisanship and historical accuracy that JFK won the election of 1960 by a narrow margin, and part of his march to victory was the alleged missile gap with the Soviet Union.
James Carroll: That’s true, and I address that in some detail in House of War. The late 1950s was a time of American panic -- panic that the Soviet Union was coming. The old theme of the Cold War is: "The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming." It was actually the phrase that was on the lips of James Forrestal not long before he committed suicide in a fit of clinical paranoia. But the American political paranoia that Forrestal helped put in place would show up again and again in a fear that the Russians were coming with the massive ability to destroy us. After Sputnik, when the Russians were the first to put a satellite into outer space, demonstrating a mastery of very high-powered rocketry, the United States responded with a kind of panic, embodied in Kennedy’s warning about the so-called missile gap.
There was a missile gap, of course -- and it was hugely in our favor. But Kennedy himself participated in this paranoid mindset. As President later, he saw it the way Eisenhower saw it -- for what it was -- and began to try to do something about it, which is another important part of the Kennedy story.
BuzzFlash: But as a political strategy, it is accurate to say, and worthy of note, that we had a Democratic candidate who won his election in part because he outflanked the Republicans by accusing them of compromising our national security. His campaign created a nonexistent missile gap. He campaigned on the notion that Eisenhower and Nixon, who he was running against, had let the Russians advance beyond us.
James Carroll: Kennedy established a paradigm that the American political system is still at the mercy of, which is you can’t run for high office in this country without claiming the toughest piece of the landscape. You cannot be a candidate for high office while appearing soft, which is a curse that’s now bedeviling the Democrats as they try to figure out how to take a position on the war in Iraq.
The important thing about the dynamics inside the Pentagon as I track it in House of War is that this does transcend Republicans and Democrats both. When you look at the Kennedy administration, the Carter administration, right through the Clinton administration, they’re all at the mercy of this dynamic just as much as the Republicans are.
Carter came into office announcing that his central purpose was to stop the upward escalation of the arms race and begin the reduction of nuclear weapons. He left office having done the opposite. Clinton presided over the greatest opportunity in our history for significant change in altering this dynamic, and he did not succeed in altering it in any real way at all. He kept the American Cold War arsenal and mentality alive and in amber, ready to hand it on to George W. Bush, who has resuscitated it with a vengeance. So the lesson of House of War is that the Democrats and Republicans are equally at the mercy of the dynamic that is set loose in the Pentagon.
BuzzFlash: Let’s shift for a second to another issue which is a very key point, which is the industrial side of the military-industrial complex. We have a military budget of hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Much of this goes to military contractors -- Lockheed Martin, General Electric, Northrop Grumman. They’re getting billions of dollars in contracts to create weapons systems which may or may not work. Sometimes, even after they don’t work, the projects continue. One of the biggest examples of this is the very controversial missile defense system, which has recently come back into news coverage because of the launching of missiles by North Korea.
What is the relationship there? We privatize the production of our military weapons systems that cost billions and billions of dollars. And the companies that are creating the weapons system are lobbying for the defense budget so they can get the contracts.
James Carroll: When Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, he could easily have called it the military-industrial-Congressional-academic-labor-media-cultural complex, because all of the pins of American culture have been brought into this dynamic. What that means is that the nation itself has an interest in keeping the ethos of war going -- an economic interest, overwhelmingly. What this does is it makes us blind to real perceptions of national security. When there are so many rewards that follow on an extremely exaggerated notion of what threatens us from abroad -- when there are so many domestic rewards attached to the threat -- the worse the threat, the more money that flows to industry, the more money that flows to the campaign coffers of politicians, the more money that flows to the grants of professors in universities, the more jobs that flow to labor. The worse the threat abroad, the more reward at home. And here’s the tragedy: When we build our entire economy, culture, and academia around perceived threats that start out as fanciful, the tragedy is the threats then can become real.
We see this at play today in relationship to Korea. Clearly the way to respond to what’s coming at us from Korea is through diplomacy, methods of economic interaction, bringing Korea into the culture of nations. That’s the way to deal with them. What we’re doing is the opposite. We’re isolating them by perceiving the threat in extreme terms, as if they can wipe out San Francisco tomorrow. What we do is we put in place a dynamic that gives them every incentive for going forward to create an enhanced nuclear arsenal -- we give Korea reasons to do the worst. We’re doing that because it rewards so many aspects of our culture to do it. The more that people become afraid of that Korean missile, the more money is going to flow into missile defense. You can see it coming already. Of course, the missile defense is a fanciful illusion. That won’t become real. But the Korean threat indeed will.
BuzzFlash: We build paradigms of national security -- and the Bush administration is masterful at this -- that somehow the only threat to our country is a missile from North Korea, and not the nuclear bomb that’s coming in in a suitcase.
James Carroll: Of course.
BuzzFlash: There’s no anti-ballistic missile system that can stop a bomb that’s going to come into New York and blow up New York that someone floats up the Hudson River. But somehow we create this notion that we’re only vulnerable through ICBMs.
James Carroll: Right.
BuzzFlash: And therefore we have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a missile defense system that doesn’t work.
James Carroll: And we neglect what really threatens us. How many tens of billions of dollars have we spent in Iraq in the last three years? Would American security not be far more enhanced if that money had gone to fund the creation of economic infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza, showing the world, and especially the Arab and Muslim worlds, that the United States stands for human development for people who are impoverished and disenfranchised? Israel would be secure. The Arab world would have a reason to perceive us radically differently than it does today. And the clash of civilizations that bin Laden hoped to ignite would not have happened. Tens of billions of dollars would today be rescuing this desperately impoverished population of human beings who find themselves now at the edge of a literal as well as a moral abyss. The real security threats, in other words, are not being addressed by our military responses. They’re being made worse by them.
BuzzFlash: You combine a wonderful ability to research with a tremendous eloquence and threading the dots together -- also with extreme compassion, as you just outlined at least an attempt at a solution that’s much better than the one we’re currently seeing for the Middle East conflict. But let's go back to your point that it’s not just the companies that are profiting off of the military-industrial complex, but it’s academics, it’s Congress and it’s labor.
Let’s give one example and show how this might work. Let’s say there's a district where there’s a lot of defense industry, it could be anyplace -- like Massachusetts, where Raytheon is. Let’s say the Congress says we need to cut back on some programs. The Congressman goes up to Rumsfeld and says: look, I need this for my district. The union says we’ve got 3,000 people employed at that plant. We would have an economic catastrophe. The mayors in that district go to the Congressperson and say: We need to keep that plant open. Let’s say they’re producing a certain type of rocket, and that private defense contractor uses academic research. They fund research at a major university and that research helps them build this rocket, and create enhanced capabilities for it.
So there we have everything tied together that you said. The Congressperson goes to the Secretary of Defense and says we can’t afford to lose this in my district. Maybe they’re Republican, in this case, and if you want to keep the Republican majority, I need these things funded, and I need the President to sign them. Can you tell the Secretary of Defense to back off and not eliminate this project? The word goes out to the Secretary of Defense: We need those 3,000 jobs because we need this Congressional district, and it’s a close district. If that project is shut down, 3,000 jobs are going to be lost. Research funding is going to be lost. The unions are going to be upset. The mayors are going to be upset. The company’s going to be upset and they give a lot of campaign contributions to us.This is not an unforeseeable circumstance, really.
James Carroll: No. It happens all over the place.
BuzzFlash: We are perpetuating a program that may not work, purely for political purposes.
James Carroll: It’s a perfect summary of the problem. We keep contracts coming to Raytheon for the missile defense program, for example -- because there is a short-term economic or political benefit for such a thing -- but the long-term consequence is to keep alive in the world the ethos of the arms race. Even if the real justification for the American commitment to missile defense is domestic economic benefit, the real consequence is that China and Russia have no choice but to move to escalations of their offensive capability to counterbalance it.
In 1989 to 1991 in this country, there was a lot of talk about the transformation of the American military system into alternative uses. We have to go through the painful process of transforming our economy away from the preparation for war toward the remediation of those things that really threaten us.
What really threatens the security of the United States? The economic and cultural threat of environmental disaster is an obvious one. The threat to our national security of the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor is another one. What was Hurricane Katrina? It was a wake up call on the real cost of sixty years of neglect of American infrastructure. Why was New Orleans vulnerable to that hurricane? Why were the vast population of underprivileged people most at risk? Because for two generations, we have neglected those serious security needs of ours as a people in favor of these spurious false security needs defined by the arms race. The end of the Cold War has given us -- and it’s still here -- a massive opportunity to change the system.
BuzzFlash: Let's consider the perpetuation of weapons systems even if they don’t work, or creating new weapons systems that might not be necessary. If you looked at the military as a company, it’s a huge workforce. You’ve got the Pentagon, and bases all over the world.
James Carroll: The national security establishment is probably America’s number-one industry.
BuzzFlash: So if we look at the Pentagon as an industry of national security -- you don’t advance and you don’t utilize those systems unless you have war.
James Carroll: Yes, it’s true. And let’s be clear on why we go to war. We don’t go to war because of authentic national security issues. We go to war to preserve this dynamic. After the Cold War, the war that saved the system was the Gulf War. The reason we went to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991 very clearly had much more to do with the preservation of the Cold War system in America than it had to do with the threat that was posed by Saddam Hussein.
BuzzFlash: Let’s just talk in terms of product development. If the Kraft Company has a new macaroni product -- you have to test that macaroni product out to know if it’s going to sell or be an effective product. If you develop weapons systems and you don’t try them, what good are they?
James Carroll: Right.
BuzzFlash: You’ve got all these people in the military, and in the companies that are building these systems, who are salivating at the chance to use them.
James Carroll: Meanwhile you’re not developing the alternative ways of exercising power in the world. It isn’t that the United States shouldn’t exercise power in the world. It’s that it only knows how to exercise one kind of power -- the hard brutal power of military force.
We’ve totally neglected the soft power of diplomacy. The State Department should be at the center of American government expenditure and energy. It isn’t. It’s a stepchild to the Pentagon. And that’s why we’re confronted with a crisis abroad.
It’s an absolute nightmare that the fascist and nihilist regime in North Korea should get nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them. But the United States of America has eviscerated its ability to respond to that through forceful and well-organized diplomacy. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the influence. We don’t have the participation in international structures of negotiation to bring any kind of pressure on a terrible regime like North Korea, except the military, which plays into the regime in North Korea’s hands.
BuzzFlash: I want to explore a little further the economic model that worked so well for keeping the general American economic engine alive, which is based on consumption. The business of America, as Calvin Coolidge said, is business. But for a weapons manufacturer looking at the Iraq war, this is a blessing to their profits because it reduces inventory. It means they have to manufacture more. If there’s no war, the weapons systems sit somewhere unused.
James Carroll: Right.
BuzzFlash: But if you go to war and use up forty-five hundred of them, you have to replace forty-five hundred, and you get another contract worth a billion dollars for that forty-five hundred. The defense industry subcontractors could say, we’re going to have to go out of business because you’re not giving us anything to produce.
James Carroll: Right. It says it perfectly.
BuzzFlash: We lost an enemy with the Soviet Union. As you brought up, the Gulf War and Bush I followed on the heels of the Cold War, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in the late eighties. As you said, that brought back the military ethos. In order for the military to exist, we had to have new enemies. If we didn’t have new enemies, then the military would be downsized.
James Carroll: Right.
BuzzFlash: The Bush administration and Karl Rove are brilliant at always bringing in new enemies. It was bin Laden, then Saddam Hussein, then Zarqawi, then he was replaced. We constantly have new enemies. Next it’s North Korea and Iran and Syria. The enemies are popping up faster than a jack-in-the-box. I guess this is my question to you: Does the military-industrial complex -- the house of war -- need a war? As Woody Allen said, just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean that someone’s not trying to kill me.
James Carroll: Right.
BuzzFlash: It’s not that there aren’t people out there who wish to do harm to the United States. But the Bush administration seems to propose a military solution to any perceived threat, however slight -- as we saw in Iraq. Are we creating enemies, in a way, so that the military-industrial complex can continue to thrive and grow?
James Carroll: It’s hard not to draw that conclusion, isn’t it? There’s obviously a human impulse to define oneself positively by defining someone else negatively. So it’s us against them. That’s very basic to the human condition. Especially when people find things to be afraid of, it’s easy to look for an enemy outside as a way of justifying the clinging to a defensive spirit inside.
Having said that, just because it’s of the human condition, doesn’t mean we’re at the mercy of it. It doesn’t mean we have to organize our nation around it. We can change. We have in the past.
And look at the greatest example of that change -- it took place in the Soviet Union, which dismantled itself. Instead of blaming everything on the enemy outside, it actually confronted its own corruptions, and took itself apart. That great event of the 20th Century -- the non-violent demise of the Soviet Union -- is something that we Americans should look much more closely at as a source of hope. Our shallow insistence that we "won" the Cold War means that we don’t actually have to look at what happened on the other side.
After the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, especially, but not just him, and in response to pressures from below, the Velvet Revolution, the Soviet Union offered us a way to step back from the totalitarian impulse. And we should understand that we can do it, too. We can dismantle the structure of a military economy. We can transform our national identity. We can stop being a nation based on the preparation for war. It’s all possible. It happened in the 20th Century and it can happen in the 21st.
And, of course, if it doesn’t, the 21st Century is condemned. That’s what’s at stake here. If we don’t change the way we’re defining ourselves as a people, we’re going to lead the globe right over the edge into the disaster that has been the world’s nightmare since 1945.
BuzzFlash: James Carroll, thank you for your great service to the country. A wonderful book -- House of War.
James Carroll: I appreciate your support. Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview by Mark Karlin.
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House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power by James Carroll -- A BuzzFlash Premium.
James Carroll's columns for The Boston Globe
James Carroll Bio (Answers.com)