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November 14, 2009


Here are some things I learned about the Pentagon from House of War by James Carroll:

• The building that now holds the State Department was built in the late thirties to house the Department of War. But by the time it was finished the War Department had already outgrown it, so they had to find another location. Since American "diplomacy" and American wars have been essentially the same thing since then, it's a nice accident of history.

• The Pentagon was designed by the architect George Edwin Bergstrom, who also designed the Hollywood Bowl. American show business and American war: two great tastes that taste like unexploded bomblets together.

• Construction of the Pentagon was overseen by Leslie Groves. Groves had spent part of his childhood in the home of famed Indian-killer General Nelson Miles while growing up at Fort Apache, Arizona. Since the U.S. government is now operating on the assumption that the entire world is "Indian Country" this is gratifying historical continuity. (Groves would later also be in change of the Manhattan Project.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at November 14, 2009 03:05 PM

The Department of War was combined with the military and re-named the Department of Defense in 1949. Words are important and it seems to me this was an early step onto the path of our perpetual aggression. Who could argue with a country's need for "defense," after all? The word represents a lie, just as calling hired killers "heroes" does.

Posted by: Rosemary Molloy at November 14, 2009 04:26 PM

Leslie Groves, Jon.

Posted by: par4 at November 14, 2009 06:17 PM

Leslie Groves, Jon.

Thanks, I've corrected that. Lloyd Grove was the old Washington Post gossip columnist. He had nothing to do with the building of the Pentagon, and only played a small role in the Manhattan Project.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at November 14, 2009 07:10 PM

I thought it was interesting that James Carroll's dad was an air force general and that Carroll basically grew up in the Pentagon.

Calling Nelson Miles an "Indian killer" does him a disservice. He was not an exterminationist like his uncle-in-law William Tecumseh Sherman, Phil Sheridan, or George Armstrong Custer (who proved best at exterminating himself and his own men). Miles supported the grievances of the Indians on the Northern Plains that they were being treated harshly and unjustly, to the point of genocide.

Plus, after Miles had been head of the entire army and so commanded more respect than just anybody, he went to the Philippines in 1902 and condemned the conduct of the war and unpunished atrocities by our troops in his report to the War Department.

In short, far from favoring killing Indians or treating the whole world like "Indian country," he didn't even think Indian country should be treated that way, let alone the Philippines or the rest of the world.

It's too bad that fascist prick Leslie Groves ever got to live in his house.

Posted by: N E at November 14, 2009 07:26 PM

Someone in the Bush administration was so enthusiastic about war he tried to have the "Department of Defense" renamed the "Department of war". Its as if the neocons are doing their critics job for them.

According to Richard Rhodes, Groves tried to start a war with the USSR, before they had an appreciable nuclear arsenal, by ordering fake bombing runs against the Soviets. He was hoping to trick them into attacking the U.S. planes.

Something unintentionally similar happened in 1985; the Reagan administration decided to have Nato aircraft "buzz" Soviet installations in Europe. This time the Soviets were not so cool-headed. They decided to launch a nuclear attack if this continued. A KGB agent, against orders, warned the British what was about to happen and the buzzing ceased.

Posted by: Edward at November 14, 2009 08:07 PM

The book is a terrific read, and the message is chilling.

Posted by: bobbyp at November 14, 2009 08:11 PM

Calling Nelson Miles an "Indian killer" does him a disservice. He was not an exterminationist like his uncle-in-law William Tecumseh Sherman, Phil Sheridan, or George Armstrong Custer

He wasn't as bad as them, and in fact I'm sure by the standards of the military of that time (or now) he was one of the more humane. But you really can't have played a leading role in the Indian Wars without killing lots of Indians.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at November 14, 2009 08:36 PM

Sage Cousin of Cousin Jethro:

You are absolutely right in a literal sense, but plenty of Indian warriors were very good Indian killers too in that literal sense. They just didn't have the genocidal gusto that the expression connotes, just as Miles didn't.

There have always been and still are two views in the military--those who favor the most extremely harsh measures, and those who object to them as excessive. That split in the military goes at least back to the Indian wars on the plains after the Civil War. And that split is alive and well today.

Here at ATR, I wage my never-ending OCD battle against lefty conformity by trying to persuade people that those two "camps" within the military are not morally equivalent, just as those politicians who favor one approach over the other are not morally equivalent. It doesn't mean the better group reminds me of Ghandi or Debs, but the worse group is disgusting.

And ruthless.

Posted by: N E at November 14, 2009 09:46 PM

One of my rare moments of partial agreement with NE--in fact, I have more sympathy with his point about the split between decent military types and the ruthless ones than I do with his distinction between, say, Obama and the Republicans. (On the latter, I think Obama is most likely just a more intelligent kind of imperialist, which is still better than the alternative, perhaps.) I couldn't remember the details of Mile's career off the top of my head, but I know that there were some military men involved in the Indian Wars in the west who respected the Indians. Ideally, maybe they should have resigned and tried to work against US expansionist policy from the outside rather than participate, but if one is going to have a military ordered to suppress the Indians, it's better to have a Miles in charge rather than a Custer or a Sheridan.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 14, 2009 11:47 PM

Donald Johnson:

Rare moments of partial agreement?

I agree that "Obama is just a more intelligent kind of imperialist"--apart from the 'just'. I think that "a more intelligent kind of imperialist" is about all he can be. We'll have better choices when we change the structures of our government to make it more democratic. Right now it's all a sham, and it was well designed to be just that.

Posted by: N E at November 15, 2009 12:53 AM

Jon, you're going to love Garry Wills' upcoming book, "Bomb Power."

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at November 15, 2009 01:56 AM

I decided to learn slightly more about this man.

"Miles commanded the troops mobilized to put down the Pullman strike riots." --Wikipedia


Posted by: Save the Oocytes at November 15, 2009 02:09 AM

"I couldn't remember the details of Mile's career off the top of my head," I'm always impressed by the superior intelligence behind the comments here, I mean I searched the four corners of my brain and I could locate nothing about Miles there, nada. I really liked NE's take on the structures of our government, they appear to be broken and a sham to me, too.

Posted by: knowdoubt at November 15, 2009 08:05 AM

StO: You could find much more dirt on Miles this his role in suppression of the Pullman Strike, which probably didn't trouble him in the slightest (though I don't know that.) Miles didn't become the top general in the US army because he was a peace-loving hippy. And even the non-exterminationist faction of the army that favored Christianization instead of genocide was brutal. (So Jon was right.) I'm not saying you'd like Miles, but he didn't favor genocide or approve of the routine commission of war crimes that we put into practice in the Philippines, which many of his peers did. And he voiced his opposition instead of just shutting up about it.

knowdoubt: The Sioux and Cheyenne Wars are a special interest of mine. That's how I first learned something about Miles and other generals. Only later have I concluded that the structures of our government are broken and our democratic processes a sham.

Posted by: N E at November 15, 2009 09:08 AM

NE, I agree that Miles wasn't an "Indian Killer" in the standard sense. But the older I get the less I care about that distinction. He was part of the apparatus that did the killing. He lived to a ripe old age, I assume on the pension from that apparatus, and (according to wikipedia) got to die taking his grandchildren to the circus.

Colin Powell wasn't an Indian Killer in the standard sense either. But in the year 2100, will anyone care about that distinction when talking about Vietnam or Iraq?

Likewise, there were many members of the Wehrmacht who weren't crazy about the extermination program, and even raised objections from time to time. Who cares?

You don't get all the benefits from playing on the team without getting the blame for what the team does.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at November 15, 2009 10:21 AM

I have that book 'House of War'. It is about 550 Pages ( excluding footnotes) , I plodded on until around 450 pages. Then stopped it. It was then that he got around to write about Yugoslav wars. The guy simply repeats standard mainstream propaganda about US looking the other way, Serbs are evil and the only guilty party etc etc. It gave me a big yawn. And I stopped it and moved to reading "Rise of American Air Power".

There are some useful information about US military establishment in the book. But the book could have been cut down to size to around 200 or 250 pages. There are plenty of uninteresting things in that book. They are totally unnecessary.

He writes plenty about his own family, upbringing, his father. And he writes very dryly. I can't believe he is so feted as an author. He can't write like say Alexander Cockburn or Dennis Perrin or Gore Vidal or Norman Finkelstein.

Posted by: Ajit at November 15, 2009 11:06 AM


Okay, common moments of partial agreement. Some of my disagreement is more about emphasis--about Obama, for example, I'd say that with the system we have Obama is the lesser of the choice of evils we're typically given at election time among mainstream politicians, whereas you tend to talk about him as though he really wants to do better if only he could. I take him pretty much at his word--he's never come across to me as being more than an intelligent imperialist smart enough care more than the crazed Cheney types about the opinions of the rest of the world. Obama wants American dominance, but he understands better than the Cheney types that America can't openly spit on everyone else.

Also, I disagree with what I think is your excessive conspiratorialism, though of course some conspiracy theories are true and it's lazy on the part of people (including me) to use the term "conspiracy theory" as a general term of abuse. But I don't want to get into all that--I'm trying to cut down on most of my internet arguments.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 15, 2009 12:25 PM

Something I don't like about Carroll--he's one of those people who has trouble distinguishing between anti-semitism and harsh criticism of Israel. The following is from a piece he wrote in 2006, regarding the Lebanon War--


He's a little better regarding Gaza--this one is from 2009--


The logic seems to be that because Christians have been guilty of so many centuries of antisemitism, Christians should walk on eggshells when criticizing Israel. Which is true up to a point, but in Carroll's case in the 2006 column his guilt about antisemitism lead him into making excuses for Israel. He wrote "Constantine's Sword", which is ostensibly a history of Christian antisemitism, but seems as much about his own guilt feelings (which from what ajit says above, is a pattern that repeats itself in his Pentagon book).

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 15, 2009 12:38 PM

Donald Johnson:

An "excessive" conspiratorialist. Hmm, I can see how you'd think that. I once would have been highly amused by my present views, and I think I could still do a pretty good parody of myself. But once one concludes that the events of 9/11 were perpetrated by elements within or associated with the National Security State WITH COMPLETE IMPUNITY, then a reaction like mine doesn't seem 'excessive.' In fact, as a matter of psychology, people won't reach the conclusion that 9/11 was an "inside job" because ANY reaction they could then have to reaching that conclusion would feel very inadequate to them. Most of us Americans just aren't used to feeling that that powerless. In that respect, we probably really are 'exceptional.'

As for Obama, maybe we just have a different subjective feel for him.

Jonathan Schwarz:

I agreed with your post many months ago about Powell being the biggest asshole in the world, though there is so much competition I did think about it. His utter phoniness puts him on top for me. He is a total liar, and I'm not aware of him ever standing up for a principle, which in my mind sets him apart from Miles.

I know a lot about the settlement of the West after the Civil War, especially on the plains, my
boyhood home. The army's policy was genocidal in conception and for the most part in implementation, and you have a good point about the Wehrmacht, because the policy was nearly as cold-blooded and implemented nearly as ruthlessly as the Final Solution. I say nearly because although the exterminationists deliberately destroyed the basis for the plains tribes' cultural survival, and killed many Indians in the process, they didn't exterminate the tribes.

In part the Eastern missionaries should get some credit for preventing genocide, but in part Generals like Miles and Crook and Pope supported the right of the tribes to survive, though of course not as they had lived before. In the end, once the tribes were defeated, the War Department treated the Indians better than the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the civilians, and the white residents of the West, who often treated Indians like dangerous animals. Which is to say, they killed them. It's yet another appalling story, and to pin the blame on leaders doesn't share enough blame to average people. (This does rather remind of the German habit of calling World War Two "Hitler's War.")

Was Miles a scoundrel because he died as an old man with his grandchildren at the circus? Maybe. I can certainly understand being cynical about him, because gee, there is some basis for cynicism about powerful people, especially the sort who advance their careers by marrying a powerful person's daughter. But Miles did at least sometimes support the victims of army aggression, which Leslie Groves did not. Nor did Miles incinerate a few hundred thousand innocent people without remorse, for which Leslie Groves deserves a special place in hell.

Let's give credit where credit is due.

Posted by: N E at November 15, 2009 03:38 PM

"n fact, as a matter of psychology, people won't reach the conclusion that 9/11 was an "inside job" because ANY reaction they could then have to reaching that conclusion would feel very inadequate to them. Most of us Americans just aren't used to feeling that that powerless. "

There's probably a name for what you're doing here--explaining why people disagree with you by speculating about the psychological reasons for their mental bloc and doing it badly. I do it too, to people I disagree with, and there's a particular psychological argument that's always used against conspiracy theorists which I won't repeat. I said it was intellectually lazy for people like me to dismiss all conspiracy theories as nutty, but it's equally lazy to assume that skepticism of your pet notions must be motivated by fear--you, of course, being the intellectually fearless one who can stare reality in the face.

How would it change my life if I read some Truthers (I have read a little) and became convinced? It wouldn't change it much. It'd change my opinions of how easy it is to carry off a vast conspiracy--I'd feel dumb for doubting it. Feeling dumb has happened before. Helplessness? You mean as compared to the feeling of virtual omnipotence that I have always had?

How would you feel if you became convinced 9/11 wasn't an inside job? Sorta dumb, right? We're on common ground there--being wrong and being certain in one's wrong beliefs, only to turn out to be mistaken, is humiliating. On the plus side, would you suddenly feel like you had much more power to change events? Why would you feel that?

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 15, 2009 10:22 PM

Donald Johnson:

I understand that something isn't true just because there are strong psychological reasons not to believe it. That would make all sorts of nonsense true. But there are very strong psychological reasons to reject the idea that our government commits mass murder. Such ideas do scare people, and though I'm not saying they scare you, that certainly wouldn't be anything to be ashamed of.

My remark just meant that Americans have it drummed into their heads that we are free and independent and a model for the whole world to emulate, so it's quite jarring for most of us to think we might be just another banana republic. Plus, it is disorienting and unnerving to realize that the overwhelming majority of the population goes on about its business in blissful ignorance or semi-ignorance (as you described you would) after the government commits mass murder.

I do find striking your questions: "How would you feel if you became convinced 9/11 wasn't an inside job? Sorta dumb, right?" Actually, it didn't even occur to me at the time that 9/11 might have been an "inside job." And by "it didn't occur to me," I mean that the thought never even entered my mind. That thought only occurred to me a couple of years later after the invasion of Iraq really made me suspect that Americans can be sold anything, and that morality and honesty play no real part in our public life. I certainly didn't expect to conclude what I have concluded about 9/11 when I started examining it, and if the evidence had taken me in another direction, that would have been fine with me. Just six years ago I didn't know what I know now, either about the past century of American history or about the events of 9/11 itself. I'm just a stubborn empiricist, and this is where my mind has led me. I have confidence in my ability to evaluate evidence, including complex technical evidence, and I certainly can smell bullshit when it's nearby.

I actually wouldn't call 9/11 an "inside job" except as shorthand, and I can't tell you exactly what happened. The government has made sure of that, and it doesn't look like that's going to change in my lifetime. So I'm not likely to get the opportunity to find out how I would feel about learning that I actually turned out to have been right about 9/11 before I actually knew anything about it. That experience is almost certainly going to elude me. The government has made sure of that. Of course, in any other type of investigation, the destruction and suppression of evidence would constitute prima facie proof of guilt, but for the most part we're a trusting and patriotic people who don't hold our leaders to the same rigorous legal obligations we impose, for example, on retarded teenagers.

By the way, anyone out there reading who is a devout Catholic looking for inspiration might read Gordon Zahn's biography of Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian peasant who was beheaded in 1943 for refusing to fight in the German army, despite having a wife and two daughters and receiving considerable peer pressure for obstinately refusing to perform even alternative service. He seems to have been a remarkable man for whom faith was a very real presence.

Posted by: N E at November 16, 2009 12:49 AM

Speaking of killing Indians, Robert Jensen has recently written

Over the past few years a growing number of white people have joined the longstanding indigenous people’s critique of the holocaust denial that is at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday.

My late father Colonel Charley was a member of the Mayflower Society (he was descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, which means the poet Longfellow was our cousin). Our ancestors who came to this continent very much wanted to do the right thing, but their conception of what was right was shaped by their upbringing and their particular perspective, of course. It hard out here for someone trying to apply the Kantian categorical imperative.

Colonel Charley was a career Army officer. His military career started when the U.S. had a Department of War, and finished under the so-called Department of Defense - I agree with our first commenter Rosemary Malloy that this name is, in itself, Newspeak. A little-known fact is that DoD was not the FIRST term by which the unified department was known. The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Military Establishment - NME in acronymese - the obviously unfortunate result was changed to Department of Defense in a further reorganization in 1949.

And speaking of acronyms, how about that MICFiC - the

M ilitary
I ndustrial
C ongressional
Fi nancial
C orporate media complex?

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at November 16, 2009 01:17 PM

With all the scholars here, I'll ask a question that's been eluding googling: How many U.S. military died in the Indian Wars? My understanding is that towards the end some of the battles were almost even?

Posted by: Solar Hero at November 16, 2009 03:31 PM

Mistah Charley:

Did you happen to see the Redskins game yesterday? Oops, I forgot my categorical imperative!

By the time a few of my ancestors started having a problem with Indians on the plains after the Civil War, your ancestors in Massachusetts no longer had local Indian problems and took to helping the Indians who were being slaughtered out west. That was hypocrisy, of course, which is the form that good ideas are forced to take in history.

As for acronyms, how about Military Industrial Nuclear Domination and Financial Usurpation by Corporate Kingpins?

Wait . . . never mind.

Posted by: N E at November 16, 2009 04:29 PM

Suppression of evidence suggests guilt, but it could be guilt about lots of different things--incompetence, CIA links with unsavory people who decided to blow us up rather than innocent people overseas the way it's supposed to be, or more foreknowledge than would be pleasant to admit, or something of that sort. I'd be surprised if there wasn't a lot to hide regarding something as big as 9/11, without thinking that it was an American false flag operation.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 16, 2009 06:02 PM

" your ancestors in Massachusetts no longer had local Indian problems and took to helping the Indians who were being slaughtered out west. That was hypocrisy, of course, "

No, that's not hypocrisy necessarily. People in the 1800's are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors 100 or more years earlier. Now if there were impoverished Indians in Massachusetts and they were ignored in favor of helping the Lakota against the encroachment of white settlers 1000 miles away, that might be hypocrisy.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at November 16, 2009 06:06 PM

Solar Hero:

"How many U.S. military died in the Indian Wars? My understanding is that towards the end some of the battles were almost even?"

I don't know that much about the battles before the Civil War, but the plains tribes were great soldiers in their own style of war, and at times they killed plenty of settlers and more than a few soldiers too. Their problem was that the cavalry had superior weapons and therefore usually killed many Indians for every soldier killed. If George Armstrong Cutler hadn't been such an arrogant and ambitious glory-hound and left his Gatling guns AND howitzers behind in his haste to confront several thousand armed Sioux and Cheyenne, he wouldn't have got himself and his men slaughtered. Custer wasn't the first to get himself and his men killed beause of arrogance. Many white soldiers seemed unable to imagine getting beaten in a fight by savages. The same stupid arrogance led to the Fetterman "massacre," which is called that even though the Indians only killed soldiers in the fight. (They did hideously mutilate them, as was customary. The whites did the same thing, including to women and children. The Sand Creek massacre is as sickening as anything you could ever read about, and it wasn't all that exceptional for the Indian wars.)

When the cavalry maintained discipline and wasn't led by fools like General Custer or Captain Fetterman or Lieutenant Grattan, the soldiers almost always won by a wide margin. Not because they were better fighters, but, again, because of their superior weapons. Still, the plains tribes were a huge problem, because they were mobile and good fighters. A band of Indians could travel long distances even in winter, looting and pillaging along the way, and the cavalry usually couldn't catch up to them.

William Tecumseh Sherman knew how to solve the problem. Once the transcontinental railroad was completed, hunting parties traveled to the plains to slaughter the buffalo, and within a decade ten million bison on the Western plains were killed. The plains tribes had nothing to eat and were forced onto reservations in a country so desolate that they starved, died of disease, and became alcoholics in droves. And those were the good times.

Posted by: N E at November 16, 2009 07:37 PM

Donald Johnson:

As for the suppression of evidence, it could certainly be some of all of those things. But in ordinary cases, a defendant doesn't get away with that sort of argument. If he destroys evidence, he better be ready for a bad presumption. Otherwise evidence would always be destroyed, which is exactly what the government does, because despite all the game-playing with investigative commissions and sunshine laws and so on, the government has more or less total impunity to thumb its nose at everyone and cover up the truth. That's the beauty of the National Security State. Modern day conservatives instinctively know and reflexively approve of secrecy, seemingly for appallingly poor reasons, because the real basis for their position is that if the truth were known about much of anything, most people wouldn't approve. Hell, even the consevatives themselves wouldn't approve, which is especially why they don't want to know. In other words, see no evil.

We don't need to get into an argument about the evidence that convinced me of government complicity in 9/11. I don't by any means spend all my time pouring over it nowadays. It's been clear to me for years that Karl Rove was right when he told Ron Suskind: "That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."

What soon came to interest me more now is why people generally don't examine evidence about such things very closely and accept really stupid explanations for facts that obviously point toward more sinister conclusions. Which interested me in what consequences are likely to flow from that. Which has led me to examine the truth about history, the extent to which such events are aberrational (leses than you think), and what, if anything, can be done to deal with this dangerous and unhealthy social situation. The last part of that is the real challenge. I'm not optimistic, but if a tipping point is ever going to come, it's going to be because people stop letting the government keep secrets. Just say 'no'!

As to my hypocrisy comment in another post, upon reflection I agree with your objection.

Posted by: N E at November 17, 2009 12:01 AM