It's like Mardi Gras meets the bombing of Dresden...
Friday, March 27, 2009
House of War Review

I'm really glad this article was in the NYTimes today ( ) because it's the necessary catalyst for writing what's possibly my longest original post on Tumblr (too long for Tumblr, moving it to Blogger) to date.

So first, go click on that link, and at least breeze through that article. If you're too lazy to do that (it's not very long) I'll sum it up for you. The Pentagon has released a report saying that China has upped its military spending, and is seeking to upset the "traditional advantage" that the US has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. It also specifically mentions that China is looking expand its capability into space, which is relevant for reasons you'll see later.

Up until roughly two weeks ago, this article probably wouldn't have caught my attention, but now it does, and reading it makes me angry. Here's why:

I just finished (within a chapter of finished, which is as close as I usually get) House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power- a book by James Carroll chronicling the rise of the US Industrial-Military Complex since World War II ( It's one of the most amazing books I've ever read, and has done more to change my views of US Foreign Policy than anything else I've ever read, ever. I'll try to recap it through a few moderately lengthy bullet points, and try to build his argument without using the requisite 500 pages.

World War II- The book starts with the outbreak of World War II, and Army request for a new headquarters. The Army ignores FDR's command to build it within the city limits, instead choosing to build it across the river in Hell's Bottom, symbolically placing it outside the limits of Washington DC.

Carroll then moves on to an analysis of FDR's call for "unconditional surrender" at Casablanca, against the wishes of Winston Churchill:

Churchill knew that foreclosing any possible negotiation toward surrender, the Allies were making it more likely that the Axis powers would fight to the bitter end, at a huge cost in lives on both sides, resulting in a level ofdevastation that would itself be the seedbed of the next catastrophe. This was so because "unconditional surrender" could be taken by an enemy as promising the destruction not just of its armies but of its whole society.... "unconditional surrender" meant that the enemy would have no reason to mitigate the ferocity of its resistance. It was an invitation to the Germans and the Japanese, as their likely defeat came closer, to fight back without restraint, preferring to take their chances even with the brutally immoral tactics of a last stand rather than accept defeat at the hands of an enemy refusing to offer any terms whatsoever.

Specifically, this both deprived the German High Command of any reason to overthrow Hitler, and furthers complicates the Japanese situation ( Also, "unconditional surrender" breaks down the objection to waging total war, a distinction held since the Middle Ages by the West.

In the Middle Ages, Christian distinguished between bellum hostile, which was war waged among Christians and according the rules of chivalry, and bellum Romanum, which was war without regulation, the sort waged against infidels. If the enemy could be defined as radically evil, then the restraints of morality did not apply.

The distinction is important, and Carroll uses it to lead into a discussion about the goals of the Allied air campaign in the final days of the war. I'm not going to reconstruct the entire argument (this is going to be a record length post as it is), but the culmination of the change in tactics leads to events such as the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Dresden, both with negligible military significance, and both possible war crimes.

Carroll then changes focus, and the middle two-thirds of the book is concerned with the development and deployment of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, and the beginning of Cold War arms race. I'll recap Carroll's opinion on the atomic bomb briefly, and then jump into the Cold War, which is the real focus of this post.

Carroll's position on the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is nuanced (and I believe I'm summing it up correctly as follows):

  • Morally, the dropping of the bomb is problematic, but a majority of the objections against its use were previously compromised (as detailed above), and use of the weapon represents a logical escalation of total war as opposed to a significant shift.
  • The use of the weapon (while probably wrong) was productive in providing a baseline for its capabilities, and a clear demonstration of its horror was an important check against future deployment (especially as the productive power exponentially increased, and mutually-assured destruction came into play).
  • The dropping of the bomb also has to be viewed against the growing threat posed by the Soviet Union. Deployment was as much a clear demonstration of US superiority against the Soviets, as an expedient end to a war largely concluded. "That the bombs would be used so precipitously- as soon as they were ready, well ahead of any possible escalation of battle casualities or invasion of Japan, and without pursuing any of the numerous positive diplomatic signals [Japanese overtures for a truce vetoed by "unconditional surrender"- read the book]- suggests that they would be equally and simultaneously be used to halt Soviet advances in Asia and Eastern Europe."

That said, let's jump to the Cold War, and the real influence of the book on my personal politics.

First, I'll recap my historical position. I've traditionally viewed the Cold War in Good vs. Evil terms; in which the free Christian democracy is forced into a dangerous arms race against the encroaching, communist antagonist until it's eventually brought to its conclusion by Ronald Reagan (RIP). While my opinion might be slightly more nuanced than that, I'm more than willing to admit that this mindset is the default for most Americans based on the context commonly understood: Soviet WWII tactics (clearing fields of land mines with troops), Stalin, 50 million dead,, Jimmy Carter, yadda yadda yadda. To be clear, I'm still pretty unequivocal in my condemnation of communism and the Soviet Union, but as Carroll shows in the book, the primary antagonist of the Cold War nuclear arms race is the US, not the Soviet Union.

First, let's start with NSC-68 (, the document that preeminently laid the ideological groundwork for Cold War policy from shortly after the war up until the 1970's. Two important things contextually for understanding it-

  • What is the role for the Pentagon in the post-WWII world? Obviously demobilization is called for- but serious demobilization will obviously represent an erosion of Pentagon budgets and influence (anathema to Pentagon Brass).
  • Deployment of nuclear weapons was controlled by Truman (i.e. civilian control in the hands of the President), and the Pentagon was arguing for the inclusion of nukes in the arsenal, similar to any other weapon.

So we're forced with an entity that is, in a sense, fighting for its own survival. Now quoting Wikipedia:

NSC-68 made the case for a U.S. military buildup to confront what it called an enemy "unlike previous aspirants to hegemony... animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own." the Soviet Union and the United States existed in a polarized world, in which the Soviets wished to "impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world." This would be a war of ideas in which "the idea of freedom under a government of laws, and the idea of slavery under the grim oligarchy of the "Kremlin" were pitted against each other. Therefore, the U.S. as "the center of power in the free world," should build an international community in which American society would "survive and flourish" and pursue a policy of containment...

Although Kennan's theory of containment articulated a multifaceted approach for U.S. foreign policy in response to the perceived Soviet threat, NSC-68 recommended policies that emphasized military over diplomatic action. Kennan's influential telegram advocated a policy of containment towards the Soviet Union. In NSC-68, it can be defined as "a policy of calculated and gradual coercion." That said, the NSC-68 called for significant peacetime military spending, in which the U.S. possessed "superior overall power"

NSC-68 is important in how significantly it changed US policy, and how completely unassailable it was during the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Arguing that the US approach (initiating the arms race) was flawed was equated with being soft on communism, and being soft on communism was the fastest way to end a political or military career. Back to Carroll:

The postwar American impulse toward disarmament had grown stronger. Soldiers were sent home. Warplanes were dismantled for scrap, ships drydocked. Stringent budgets were imposed on the new Dept. of Defense... The Pentagon... had been built to be temporary, and it might have been, but those who wanted to maintain that power, and multiply it with a... thermonuclear arsenal, were "rescued" when the Soviet Union detonated its own atomic bomb in the summer of 1949.

Forrestal's demise [] by suicide in the same period suggested that the nascent "national security state", with an enemy it defined as if it had theological and ontological reach instead of merely imperialist ambitions, was, at least in part, founded on paranoia. At the same time, owing to the competing pressures of postwar economic dislocation and the reemergence of an instinctive American insularity, the hugely expanded military budget called for by the agitated NSC-68 was almost certainly never going to be passed by Congress. But then, as Dean Acheson- already dean on the national security state- later affirmed with brisk understatement, the Korean War "came along and saved us."

What ties all of this together (and provides some interesting parallels to today) is how the Pentagon substantiates its case for an enemy defined as in conflict both "theologically and ontologically" as a hedge against waning influence, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's recap- The Pentagon, operating separate from Washington both physically and ideologically [further detailed in the book], is fighting to gain control over the use of nuclear weapons, and for its own continued existence. So, in response to the first successful test of a Soviet nuke (1949) and the Korean War, they release NSC-68 (1950)- a self-serving document (in regards to the continued desire for budget and influence) that is the formal declaration of US Foreign policy highlighting a policy of military escalation.

However, the sensationalism of the Soviet test and the Korean War can't last forever (Korean War ends in 1953), so the Pentagon is in constant need of further justification for its budget (over 400% growth between 1947-1953). What do they turn to? The staple of Cold War rationalization, supposed weapons gap.
As early as 1954... Nitze knew America's strategic bomber force was vulnerable, and Sputnik underlined the point. Thus the Gaither Committee emphasized that America's bomber force would soon be overtaken by Soviet ICBMs. The report said that within a year the USSR would have 12 ICBMs ready for use. The Russians were two or three years ahead of of the United States...

...Nitze's Gaither Report was leaked to the press. "The Russians are coming!" was given more credence than ever, only now the Russians had a new weapon... The Washington Post declared "It pictures the Nation moving in a frightening course to the status of a second-class power. It shows an America exposed to an almost immediate threat from the missile-bristling Soviet Union."
But wait, it gets better, let's throw something familiar into the mix- doctored intelligence!
The Air Force had been the main source of all missile gap alerts, beginning in 1957 with the Gaither Committee's and including Stuart SYmington's warning that the Soviet Union by the early 1960s would have three thousand ICBMs... Soon it would be "discovered" that the actual number of deployed Soviet ICBMs was four.
Let's change sides now, and look at this from the Soviet perspective. At this point in history the Soviet Union is faced with the following realities:
  • No meaningful attempt or discussion regarding arms control of nuclear weapons. Any discussion (such as the Baruch Plan, presupposed US nuclear dominance.
  • Open antagonism: the US used (USED!) nuclear weapons against Japan. A majority of the arms build up during the Cold War was related to strike first capability, i.e. incapacitating the enemy before he has a chance to do the same to you. So, from a Soviet perspective, not only is the US openly developing such a capability, but they've already demonstrated their willingness to deploy such weapons (albeit not on that scale).
  • Paranoia in the general public on a theological/ontological level.
What choice does the USSR have but to engage in the arms race? They could just give up any first strike capability, but they're still faced with the open antagonism from a nuclear capable nation opposed on theological/ontological grounds. That's asking a lot.

This is dragging, and I'm getting tired, so I'm going to wrap it up. We'll skip ahead and I'll go on my own tangents.

First, Ronald Reagan, and his "bankrupting of the USSR through the arms race." I've argued this before, but the more I think about it, the dumber this plan seems. Think about it: let's force an enemy state to develop a MASSIVE nuclear strike capability (warheads into the tens of thousands) with the intention that eventually the government will collapse from the spending. What exactly did Reagan think was going to happen with those warheads once the USSR fell? That they'd all be disassembled?

Two, and this is totally tangential, but nuclear weapons seem to me to be the ultimate counterpoint to Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens and the whole science/rationalism over religion crowd. Nukes are the endgame (at least for now, until we make something worse) of violence. Sure the Crusades sucked, and are a giant blot on the history of Christianity, but the Crusades could never end the world. How many people died in the Inquisition? 5,000? How many would die in a serious nuclear confrontation between the US and Russia during the Cold War? Hundreds of millions. Bam.

Maybe I'll wrap this up later... but I doubt anyone is going to read this whole thing anyway. I'm going to bed, four feet of new snow in the mountains this week, and I'm getting up early to go ride.