The Pentagon by Steve Vogel

The Pentagon: A HistoryThe Pentagon: A History by Steve Vogel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book in August 2008 as part of my ongoing effort to learn more about the American “military-industrial complex”. It turns out that there are not many books on the Pentagon; this was one of the few devoted to it. Admittedly it appeared to be mainly about the actual building rather than the institution itself, but I hoped that a “bricks and mortar” account might nonetheless provide a useful sidelight on the institution, and, having now read it, I feel it has done so.

Steve Vogel’s history of the building is built around three events: its original construction (about 300 pages); the attempted storming of the Pentagon by antiwar protesters in October 1967 (50 pages); and the terrorist strike on 11 September 2001 (80 pages). The remaining 70 pages link up these events with highlights from the intervening years. From a purely structural and, as it were, architectural standpoint, the book is devoted to its bookends of construction and post-9/11 rebuilding, and the rest of the book is a sketch to connect those events, with the drama of the 1967 protest causing this episode to occupy more space than its purely architectural significance would justify.

One thing I was hoping to learn from the book was more about a piece of information I had picked up in James Carroll’s excellent House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, that Franklin Roosevelt, when presented with the original proposal for the Pentagon, had ordered its makers to cut it to half its size, and they had instead gone ahead and built it to full size anyway. To me this seemed like a significant indication of how military power was usurping the prerogatives of civilian power in the U.S., and I wanted to know exactly how it had played out.

Mr. Vogel’s book delivers those goods in spades. He details every twist and turn in the tortuous story of how the Pentagon was commissioned, designed, and built, including the many-sided tug-of-war over where exactly the building would be put and how big it would be. The issues of power and control in any complex project with many strong-willed participants—and the building of the Pentagon was certainly this—become murky. I was reminded of an image that came to my mind from my experience making a TV series: decision-making is less an orderly chain of command than a pack of dogs pulling on a carcass. In this case the carcass was the world’s largest office building and what would become the ganglion of history’s largest and most globe-gripping military force. The participants, from the president on down, were indeed strong-willed, as well as powerful, quirky (in some cases mentally ill), and all too human.

Why is the Pentagon a five-sided building? Why was it built in Virginia instead of in D.C.? Why was it such a departure from the neoclassical architecture of the capital up that point? These and many other questions are answered by the book, and some of the answers were, to me, surprising. The symbolically powerful pentagonal shape, for example, arose from an initial hasty sketch of the proposed building, formed so that it could occupy as efficiently as possible the irregularly five-sided property it was originally intended to occupy. When the site was changed, things were moving too fast to make any major changes to the design other than massaging its irregular pentagonal shape into a regular pentagon—and voila, the Pentagon was born.

Many other things too happened by seeming serendipity. While no aspect of the would-be Pentagon was without controversy and even vehement opposition by influential Americans, the wheels for its construction were thickly greased by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The Japanese were thus able to achieve what no American could: to focus the mind of the Sleeping Giant and get Americans behind the Pentagon project.

And what a project. As one who has worked in corporate project management, I really appreciated this aspect of Mr. Vogel’s book. He delivers a sense of the feel of a large project: the chaos, the urgency, the fear, the interpersonal politics, and yes, the achievements. Whatever your attitude to the institution of the Pentagon—and mine is quite negative—as a feat of engineering and project management at the biggest scale, the construction of the actual building was amazing, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about it.

Steve Vogel’s writing is clear and fluent; he makes the complex project easily understandable and portrays its people vividly and sympathetically. An ex-serviceman himself and a longtime correspondent for The Washington Post, Mr. Vogel does not indulge in flag-waving or overt patriotism in this potentially highly charged topic. He does convey a strong sense of the heroism of people during the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and the trauma suffered by the families of the slain. And he even records the misgivings some of those survivors had upon listening to George W. Bush use the occasion of the dedication of the memorial to those slain to hint at his intention to invade Iraq.

I’m still looking for a really good book about the Pentagon as an institution, for I believe that the increasing militarism of American society necessarily implies a drain of the country’s sovereign power from the White House and the Capitol to the Pentagon—a structure never envisaged by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, before World War II the standing army of the United States was relatively small; afterwards, it ballooned to match its outsized headquarters at Hell’s Bottom, Virginia, and has never really looked back. Roosevelt’s cherished hope that the Pentagon would become a national archive after the war was probably a nonstarter, and the paranoia of the Cold War provided a perfect accelerant for the political cancer of militarism, against which mere presidents, as Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1961, are powerless.

But if there is such an institutional history of the Pentagon out there, or if one comes along, Steve Vogel’s book provides an excellent background document. Form and function are always closely linked, and after reading The Pentagon I feel I know it as a physical place—one in which real people have worked and died. Their problems as workers in the world’s largest office building have been my problems as an office worker: getting lost in the building, commuting, dealing with the crappy indoor climate, the ego clashes of self-important bosses. They’re just trying to do their job. Speaking as a citizen of planet Earth, I feel it’s unfortunate what that job now is. But Steve Vogel has told the story of their building very well.

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