Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


House of War by James Carroll




(Highly Recommended)




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James Carroll weaves his personal story with the history of the Pentagon in his new book, House of War. The Pentagon itself was dedicated in January, 1943, the same week Carroll was born. His father moved from the FBI to the Pentagon as an Air Force General, and Carroll grew up inside and alongside the Pentagon. Carroll chronicles the growth in the influence of the military on American policies from World War II through Iraq. Many readers will object and disagree with much of what Carroll has to say. His writing style can become preachy and his personal viewpoints can skim over facts that don’t fit his argument. His prose is written so well that even those who disagree with find pleasure in reading House of War. Carroll’s perspective on the people, the place, and his personal connection to the Pentagon add to the uniqueness of this book. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Eight, “Unending War,” pp. 418-423:




In early May 1997, I drove from Boston to Portland, Maine, every morning for a week to attend a trial in federal court. A man from my past, Philip Berrigan, and five others had slipped aboard the USS The Sullivans three months be­fore, taken hammers to the ship’s weaponry, and poured blood. This took place at the Bath Iron Works, in Bath, Maine, where the recently completed ship was to be commissioned. Berrigan and the others1 made their move in the early morning, and within a few minutes they were arrested by sailors armed with shotguns. The Sullivans is an Aegis-missile-carrying destroyer, named for five brothers who died together in World War II. The protesters damaged the casement for the nuclear-capable cruise missiles. One of the group was an artist named Tom Lewis-Borbely, who had been one of the original Catonsville Nine in 1968.

In support of the Catonsville Nine, I had mounted an exhibition of Lewis-Borbely’s paintings at Boston University in 1970, and he had given me one of them, a view of the Pentagon, which has hung on my wall ever since. Speaking in the hallway of the courthouse, Tom told me that, at the Bath Iron Works, he and the others approached the ship shortly after dawn. Finding it unguarded, they simply walked aboard. “I would say?’ Tom added, as he re­called the ease with which they acted, “that the Holy Spirit led us?’2

Presiding at the trial in Portland was federal district judge Gene Carter, a stern man who had been nominated to the bench by Maine’s Republican sen­ator William Cohen. Carter refused to allow the defendants to explain their actions to the jury. At that, Phil Berrigan, tall as ever but gray-haired now, his face lined, turned his back on the judge, a posture he maintained day after day. The trial was perfunctory. The defendants were found guilty. Judge Carter sentenced Phil to two years in prison, the others to lesser terms. At that, Phil was finally allowed to speak. “The United States has spent fourteen trillion dollars on arms since 1946,” he said. “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.”3

Philip Berrigan, with his brother Daniel, had been famous in America during the Vietnam War, but he had dropped from the news. We saw this. Unlike most antiwar activists of the time, however, Phil had not given up his life of protest. With his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, he had founded a peace commune in Baltimore, and from there he had launched a new campaign. It was dubbed the Plowshares movement, from Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” With Berrigan at its center, a circle consisting of dozens of people carried out sym­bolic assaults against America’s nuclear weapons manufacturing sites and military deployments, including attacks on B-52 bombers, Trident subma­rines, and MX missiles.

The first took place at a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Penn­sylvania, on September 9, 1980, when Philip Berrigan, with seven others, in­cluding Daniel, walked into the factory as the morning shift was changing and “beat” a number of nuclear-tipped Mark 12A reentry vehicles, which were mounted on the nose cones of MIRVed MX and Trident missiles.4 The protesters had prepared a statement: “We commit civil disobedience at General Electric because this genocidal entity is the fifth leading producer of weaponry in the U.S. . . . We wish to challenge the lethal lie spun by G.E. through its motto, ‘We bring good things to life.’ As manufacturer of the Mark 12A re-entry vehicle, G.E. actually prepares to bring all things to death.” 5

Over the next twenty years, about a hundred Plowshares actions fol­lowed, in Europe as well as the United States, at manufacturing plants and at Air Force and Navy bases. More than a hundred people participated in the symbolic “beatings” of weapons, all to be promptly seized and arrested. Such acts, in the military’s view, are sabotage, gravely threatening, yet no one was ever injured not the demonstrators, workers, guards, or arresting officers. Philip Berrigan had been dismayed by the peace movement’s temptations to violence late in the ever more criminal Vietnam War, but with Plowshares he had found a form of protest that was as direct and nonlethal as its objects were denied and murderous. He conducted such raids again and again, and was incarcerated again and again. By the time of his death, in December 2002, he had spent eleven years of his life in prison.

Yet most people took no note of Berrigan’s life after Vietnam. Few under­stood that the obsessive concern about nuclear war that sparked the Freeze movement for a time had gripped Berrigan and his followers with an unre­lenting extremity. The threat of nuclear war that prompted such outpourings in the early 198os would seem to most others diminished after Ronald Reagan began to speak of eliminating weapons, but Berrigan saw through the ways that Reagan had co-opted the Freeze, and unlike most others, Berrigan knew that the nuclear arsenal was still growing. And then, when Gorbachev gave the world serious reason to hope for peace, Berrigan was one of the few to note the one-sidedness of that breakthrough.

From start to finish, the media found the Plowshares actions not news­worthy. That was especially so once the dominant story unfolding in the late 198os and early 1990s was the thaw in the Cold War, and then the end of it.

To those who had heard of the Plowshares protests, Berrigan was a luna­tic, or at best a wild-eyed idealist. He and McAlister, it was said, were frozen in time, unable to surrender the self-anointed grandeur of their Vietnam glory days. Anarchist, terrorist, fanatic such were the words prosecutors rou­tinely applied to Berrigan. I myself was always moved by reports of his ac­tions, but otherwise I took little more note of them over the years than most others. But the Plowshares group that took action against The Sullivans in 1997 called themselves “the Prince of Peace Plowshares.” They took the name, of course, from Isaiah’s title for the Messiah, one Christians had applied to Je­sus. As it happened, I had used the same epithet as the title of a novel I wrote, based on, among other things, the Berrigan brothers’ exploits during the Vietnam War.6 That novel was concerned with the moral problems of war and how to resist it. A loving tribute to the Berrigan wing of the antiwar movement, it also took up the question of protesters who seem to judge the actions of others from a position of ethical superiority. As the story unfolds, the fictional characters, despite heroic acts of resistance to an evil war, are themselves revealed to be flawed human beings.

At the end of the Vietnam era, which coincided with the end of my time in the priesthood, many of us had been forced to confront the “beams in our own eyes,” as the Gospel of Matthew defines hypocrisy. Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because of the usual dispersal that occurs after a time of emergency passes, the once close-knit community drifted apart, leaving many of us with feelings of unfinished business, even regret. So when I read of the Plowshares raid in Bath, and that the group had called itself Prince of Peace, I recognized a coincidence that was also a conscription. The assault against the Aegis missile had been ignored in the press, and by then I was a columnist for the Boston Globe. I felt compelled to write about what the Plowshares collective had done, what they were trying to tell a blithely indif­ferent world.

“We want to tell people what’s going on in this country,” Phil wrote from jail in Maine. “We want people to know that the government has entered a new phase of the arms race we are racing with ourselves. . . The govern­ment is beating plowshares into swords, creating an entirely new arsenal of nuclear weapons.”7

It was true. This was almost exactly ten years after Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan had marked the supposed reversal of the arms race with the signing of the INF Treaty in Washington. It was early in the second term of Bill Clinton, who had objected to the war in Vietnam and who now had had more than four years to reshape American policy. Why had Clinton done so little to dismantle the American half of the Cold War nuclear apparatus? That is our question now.



Philip Berrigan a lunatic, a wild-eyed idealist? No, it was with shrewd realism that he looked at what had happened since the end of the Cold War a situa­tion from which his fellow Americans had universally turned their gaze. We are racing with ourselves. Here is the last legacy of the “arms race of a rather desperate character” that Stimson had warned of. Back then, Stimson had been almost alone in seeing it, and now Berrigan was, too. Ever attuned to the liturgical calendar the raid on The Sullivans took place on Ash Wednes­day the former priest had taken solemn note of the fact that the flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had been lowered from above the Kremlin for the final time on Christmas Day, 1991. Feast of the Prince of Peace.

A month later, in his State of the Union address, President George H. W. Bush declared that the United States, “by the grace of God,” had “won the Cold War.”8 And yet the U.S. arsenal that had been built up and justified by the threat from the Soviet Union had not been dismantled. The much-bally­hooed “peace dividend” had never come. As the Warsaw Pact disbanded, NATO expanded. The newly independent former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine had completely divested themselves of nuclear weapons and embraced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while the United States defied it. Clause VI of that treaty requires the nuclear powers to work toward the abolition of nuclear weapons, but in America, the weapons were still being developed, built, and deployed. For use against whom? To protect America from what? In the second Clinton term, the Pentagon budget began to climb again. And this without an enemy. Why? And why, under President Clinton, had the destruction of nuclear warheads been stalled, when thousands had been destroyed under Reagan and Bush?9 What had been destroyed under Clinton, at the behest of right-wing senator Jesse Helms, was the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, just when its work was most needed.’ 10 Why? These were questions no one was asking.

Except Philip Berrigan and his friends. Susan Crane, one of the Prince of Peace Plowshares defendants, said, “At some point, we must call this charade to a halt. We must say ‘enough’ to Judge Carter and the empire on whose be­half he seeks to send us to prison.” 11 A few weeks after the Plowshares trial in Portland, I happened to be interviewing William Cohen for a magazine arti­cle. 12 Having been Judge Carter’s sponsor as a U.S. senator from Maine, Co­hen was by now the secretary of defense. For the article, I had met with him in his grand third-floor office above the River Entrance, the office into which my father had once ushered me to meet Secretary McNamara.

Returning to the Pentagon as a writer was to be briefly at the mercy of memory: sliding down the polished ramps in my stocking feet, wandering through the rings and corridors as if they were my magic kingdom, drinking from water fountains the very abundance of which had been designed to keep the races separate. In interviewing one Pentagon general, whose office was down the hall from Secretary Cohen’s, I felt a chill on my neck as my eye went to the distinctive wall map showing a projection of the globe, the leather couch in front of it, the way the wall map’s frame joined the wainscot mold­ing, and I recognized the room as my father’s old office.

A few days later, I flew with Secretary Cohen on his Gulfstream jet for a trip back to his hometown of Bangor. We departed from Andrews Air Force Base, having boarded the plane within sight of an Air Force building that had been named for my father. 13 As we flew over Portland, I gestured out the win­dow and told Cohen that Philip Berrigan was in jail down there. An assault on the destroyer at the Bath Iron Works would have registered with Cohen. The shipyard was Maine’s biggest employer; its head was a major supporter of Cohen’s. As secretary of defense, he was working to make sure Maine kept the Navy contracts for the new nuclear warships. I asked him if he had heard what Philip Berrigan had done.

Cohen shrugged. He is a pleasant man, with a reflective manner not given to extremes. “I read about it in the press?’ he told me. “I saw a little, small story about it. I figured, that was still Phil Berrigan. It didn’t strike me as being unusual. I think that there are legitimate ways to protest. Destroying or trying to destroy things aboard a destroyer is not one of them.”

Cohen is something of a poet,14 yet he seemed unaware of the irony em­bedded in his use of the word “destroy.” He went on about Berrigan, “But that’s not how he feels about it. As long as he’s prepared to accept the conse­quences that come with it, I don’t pass judgment?” 15 Such benign dismissal was about as positive a response as Philip Berrigan was likely to draw from any establishment figure in post—Cold War America. Yet he and his band of crazy, ignored, denigrated peaceniks seemed to have been the only ones in the nation to have noticed the stunning anomaly. The Cold War was over for most of a decade but not in America. The arms race had ended when one of its two competitors had simply disappeared but the United States was still running. How could that be?


House of War will leave all readers with unanswered questions, and that’s a good thing. It leads to reflection, especially about the impact of the American military on our country and on the world. Collectively, we need to decide if we want to remain on our current path.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2006



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