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House of War at Hell's Bottom PDF Print E-mail
Peace News
Friday, 26 May 2006 09:01
House of War at Hell's Bottom

Empire Burlesque - Chris Floyd - It is a grim and dispiriting tale indeed. For more than 60 years, the vast, institutional engines of the Pentagon have permeated and skewed American society toward a harsh, fearful ? and fearsome ? militarism. In almost every case, the inhuman scale of this gargantuan war machine has infected those who sought to master it. Even the officers and officials who entered its service with the best intentions were driven inexorably toward the worst instincts of our human nature by the blood-and-iron logic of a system based ultimately on violence, terror and the world-murdering power of nuclear weapons.

www.chris-floyd.com

Bleak House:
How America was Conquered by Hell's Bottom

Chris Floyd

Empire Burlesque
26 May 2006


It's a familiar image: the American president followed by an aide with the "football," the ever-present attach? case that holds the codes for launching a nuclear attack. But for years, these supposedly supreme Commanders-in-Chief did not have the slightest idea which targets would actually be hit at their order. This occult knowledge was reserved for a small circle of Pentagon officers who called themselves the "guardians of the arsenal" and kept the true attack plans secret from the civilian leadership.

The first civilian to see the plans, during the Kennedy administration, was, ironically enough, Daniel Ellsberg ? the Pentagon consultant who later leaked the "Pentagon Papers," revealing the disastrous lies behind America's war in Vietnam. What Ellsberg found was moral insanity almost beyond imagining. The only plan proposed by the "guardians" was an all-out nuclear strike on every city in the Soviet Union, on the Warsaw Pact nations and China as well, with a deliberately low-balled estimate of 400 million people killed immediately. There were "no intermediate steps, no flexibility, and no warnings" incorporated in the plan, which could be triggered by a range of non-nuclear provocations, some posing no direct threat to the United States at all. What's more, the high priest of the nuclear cult, Gen. Curtis LeMay, reserved the right to launch this genocidal fury on his own, as a first strike, if he suspected the Soviets were preparing to attack.

Civilian control of the military was thus exposed as an empty myth; the center of power in the American government had shifted from the decisions of democratically elected leaders to the imperatives of procurement and militarist paranoia emanating from the five-sided fortress raised up in a Virginia wasteland known as Hell's Bottom.

This is just one of the many chilling stories recounted in James Carroll's important new book, "House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power." Carroll, an acclaimed novelist ? and son of a top Pentagon official ? provides a devastating inside history of the military state-within-a-state that usurped the Republic and now reigns unchallenged in Washington.

It is a grim and dispiriting tale indeed. For more than 60 years, the vast, institutional engines of the Pentagon have permeated and skewed American society toward a harsh, fearful ? and fearsome ? militarism. In almost every case, the inhuman scale of this gargantuan war machine has infected those who sought to master it. Even the officers and officials who entered its service with the best intentions ? and Carroll provides many such instances ? were driven inexorably toward the worst instincts of our human nature by the blood-and-iron logic of a system based ultimately on violence, terror and the world-murdering power of nuclear weapons.

Opened in January 1943 as a supposedly temporary, wartime concentration of military bureaucracies, the Pentagon quickly became the locus of the inevitably brutalizing effect of war, now magnified a thousandfold by the new technologies of mass destruction, especially air power. Although U.S. commanders at first denounced the British practice of "terror bombing" civilians in enemy countries, by 1945, the Americans had embraced it with a vengeance. LeMay, with his young, number-crunching assistant, Robert McNamara, directed a firebombing campaign against Japanese cities that killed 900,000 civilians in just a few weeks ? more than the total Japanese military casualties for the entire war. With this level of civilian slaughter already accepted as deliberate policy, it was hardly a great moral leap to cross the nuclear threshold against Hiroshima and Nagasaki ? or, later, to plan for killing 400 million people at a single stroke.

This savage ethos ? forged in the dehumanizing crucible of total war ? has prevailed against all the many attempts to change it. Even Ellsberg's discovery did little to return the Pentagon, and the nuclear arsenal, to civilian control. The "whiz kid" McNamara was now Pentagon chief, and, repudiating the strategy of point-blank, indiscriminate bombing of civilians he had fashioned with LeMay, he demanded a more "humane" attack strategy, centered on military targets. But as Carroll astutely notes, the "humanity" of this approach was nothing but rank self-delusion; employing nuclear weapons against "military" targets would still inevitably kills countless millions of innocent people. The nuclear genie was in fact an uncontrollable demon: its ravages could not be contained in any meaningful way once they were loosed from the bottle. The turn to "precision" targeting became just another comforting myth that the American leadership told itself.

What's more, in one of the many bitter ironies chronicled by Carroll, McNamara's change to "military" targets actually accelerated the arms race to almost unimaginable levels. Hitting a specific target required far greater precision than simply leveling a city with a load of nukes ? and this in turn required whole new generations of more sophisticated, more stealthy, and more deadly weapons. At first threatened by McNamara's Ahab-like attempt to get the great white whale of Hell's Bottom under control, the Pentagon ? and its procurement partners in the war-related industries ? suddenly found themselves more flush with cash, hardware and power than ever.

The Soviets felt pressured to respond to the sudden U.S. build-up. When Kennedy took office, the Soviets had only four ? four! ? intercontinental missiles in their arsenal, along with 200 long-range bombers, all of them sitting wing to wing in an open airfield, with their nuclear bombs stored in a separate facility. The whole place was a sitting duck ? and why not? The Soviets had no plan to launch a nuclear assault on the United States, and had not sought the capacity to develop one.

The discovery that Russia was virtually undefended against an American first strike was also a product of Ellsberg's revelation. McNamara, shocked by the plans of his old boss for an instantaneous, worldwide nuclear holocaust, demanded a new intelligence survey to detail the precise nature of the Soviet threat. which had been played up as a monstrous, imminent threat to America's existence for years. But the increasing madness of the Pentagon ethos showed itself even here: having discovered that there was no real threat, the nuclear priesthood insisted that this meant America was actually in greater danger than ever! How so? Because the Soviets, knowing their miniscule nuclear arsenal could never withstand an American first strike, must obviously be planning a first-strike sneak attack of their own, to strike a pre-emptive blow at their vastly stronger opponent.

This would not be the last time that the absence of a genuine threat to America would be transformed in the Pentagon's hall of mirrors into an urgent need for more weapons, more fearmongering, more bellicosity ? a compulsive reaction that has constantly turned chimeras of danger into a grim reality. In this case, by the time McNamara staggered out the Pentagon a broken man in 1967, the Soviet arsenal had grown to hundreds of missiles as they sought to match the Pentagon's mountainous nuke-pile. This in turn fueled more "countermeasures" by the Pentagon. The world had moved even closer to nuclear conflagration.

The end of the Cold War made no difference to the Pentagon's corrupting dominance of American policy. The expected "peace dividend" following the Soviet collapse never materialized; the Pentagon simply found new enemies to stir the same public fears and feed its own paranoia: Saddam Hussein, "rogue states," Islamic extremism.

Today, of course, with the never-ending "war on terror," the Pentagon has completely devoured the state, bending the entire government to its will. It commands limitless sources of corporate patronage and political muscle. It trumps diplomacy, it controls the vast intelligence services, with their secret armies, secret prisons, and their secret surveillance of American citizens. It dominates the entire globe, with more than 720 bases strung across the earth. The Bush Regime has also unleashed the "nuclear priesthood," discarding arms control treaties, building a new generation of deadlier nukes ? and once more pressuring Russia, still in the crosshairs of thousands of U.S. warheads, to respond with a new arms race. The bellicose spirit of Curtis LeMay is once more the presiding deity at Hell's Bottom.

And yet, for all of that, only a fool would say that America is safer. Thus we come the bitterest irony of all: the Pentagon ethos ? enthroning "national security" as a supreme value for which the "guardians" are willing to sacrifice millions of innocent lives, the nation's civil liberties, even the planet itself ? has, at every turn, only made America less secure.

This brief look at Carroll's masterful, multi-layered history hardly does the book justice. It should be read in full by anyone who wants to understand how America has reached its present degraded condition ? and how daunting the prospects are for real change in the crippling militarism that holds America in thrall.


[This is a much-expanded version of a column appearing in the May 26 edition of The Moscow Times.]

Last Updated on Friday, 26 May 2006 09:01
 

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