A garrison state

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

This history of the Pentagon traces the story of how the United States became besotted with military power.

THE author has won acclaim for his writings, including the National Book Award. This formidable book was written as a scholar-in-residence at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It blends memoir with history - "The lifetime of the Pentagon is my lifetime. I have the eyes of a soldier's son through which I see everything." His story begins with the Second World War and ends with the American occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Against the wishes of both Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the "unconditional surrender" of Germany as the Allies' objective. In doing so, he did more than prolong the war. He heralded "total war" to the neglect of diplomacy.

It is not surprising that the United States went to war in Afghanistan as well as Iraq spurning overtures from the leaders of both countries. Like the rise of the neocons, this outlook had long been in the making - the U.S. was besotted with military power.

The author's thesis, set out at the very beginning, bears quotation in extenso despite its length, for it crisply, eloquently explains what the rest of the world is up against today:

"The Pentagon has been so much at the centre of national life that one could write an entire history of the contemporary United States in its terms. This history aims at less, and will not take on large but tangential questions like the impact of Pentagon racial policies on the civil rights movement, or the restructuring of academia that resulted from the infusion of Pentagon funds into university budgets. The Pentagon had a powerful impact on the American media, but that, too, is beyond our interest here. Relations between the executive branch and Congress were recast when the government's centre of gravity moved across the Potomac.

"Our subject concerns, more simply, the ways in which the accumulation of Pentagon power effected what amounted to a mutation in the meaning of American power, with cosmic consequences both at home and abroad... A classic saga, the story of the Pentagon's rise, marks an ongoing melding of personal and public paranoia, of psychological and political stresses, a process by which unsubstantiated ephemera were again and again transformed into tangible reality.

"Nuclear weapons inform the tale from start to finish, but more as the gods of a new religion than as mere instruments of war. Anti-Communism gives that religion its first theology, and its first heresy hunt. But America's bipolar mindset survives the disappearance of Communism, as the Cold War bleeds into the Global War on Terror, with `evil' making its stunning comeback in the new century, and appeals to religion becoming more overt than ever. Always, the Pentagon remains the nation's sacred temple."

Even a strong Defence Secretary like Robert McNamara was told off when he asked the Pentagon about nuclear war planning. "The subject was secret."

Extremists first came to office with Ronald Reagan in 1981; figures whom his successor George H.W. Bush, father of the present tenant of the White House, called "marginal intellectual thugs". Richard Nixon had warned Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev that "if detente unravels in America, the hawks will take over". They did in 2001 and 9/11 provided an opportunity for acting on their plans. In all this, as the author documents, the Pentagon played along merrily.

In his farewell address on January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower had warned that "the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes." He was alluding to the "military-industrial complex", presided over by the Pentagon. "The Pentagon became the vestibule in which military officers were recruited, in retirement, to become industry executives, who in turn were appointed to be the Pentagon's civilian overseers."

The task which the Pentagon set before itself was not to prevent war but to prepare for it. It was what the author calls "the normalisation of war" after 9/11. The U.S. was "in the grip of vengeance". It attacked Afghanistan. The Taliban was ousted from power but it survived, as did Osama bin Laden. Iraq was attacked next. Thomas Friedman wrote a column in The New York Times entitled "World War III". That tells us as much about the American mood as about Friedman and the Indian journalists who fawn on him.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment