How the Pentagon Flies

Start with five multileveled wings, lots of brass nuts and bolts, a crew of 25,000. Fuel it with the international concerns of the American people and the personal ambitions of the entire military establishment. Then cross your fingers.

November 1, 1980

From high above it is possible to view the Pentagon in its entirety: as an office building, a monument, a palace of Mars, a great gray bunker with lawns and magnolias around its defensive perimeter.
Photos by Gregory Heisler

“IT’S A UNIQUE JOB,” said Sergeant Null, “because you don’t know who’s gonna walk in that door.” He pointed to the door of the Pentagon tour office—a whole row of doors, actually, opening onto the Pentagon’s public shopping concourse—and listed some of the people who’ve walked in: Peter Marshall, the host of The Hollywood Squares . . . eleven defense attachés from the People’s Republic of China . . . a four-foot-tall Panamanian Indian chief who once helped the Air Force set up a jungle survival school . . . tourists who combine an hour at the Pentagon with a walk through nearby Arlington National Cemetery . . . military personnel eager for a glimpse of headquarters . . . a mental-hospital escapee carrying a loaded .357 Magnum . . . antiwar protesters with baby bottles full of blood in their purses. All kinds.
On this particular day, however, Sergeant Null—Air Force Technical Sergeant Ed Null, Vietnam veteran and Pentagon tour director—knew what to expect: Cub Scout Pack 698 from Burke, Virginia, accompanied by five den mothers and led by a Navy wife named Barbara Kennedy, whose husband works inside. The kids were so rambunctious that they almost knocked over the scale-model MX missile track in the lobby, but Sergeant Null and the den mothers quickly ushered them into a little movie theater and turned off the lights. The screen lit up with a black-and-white movie that told all about the Pentagon: how it was begun in 1941, when the War Department was scattered all over Washington, and completed sixteen months later for only $83 million; how it contains eighty-five thousand light fixtures and six hundred eighty-five water fountains; how it serves as headquarters for “the gigantic effort required to protect our nation and its way of life.” Then the lights came on, and Sergeant Null began the tour.
First he led the group past a portrait of Jimmy Carter and down the Commander-in-Chief’s Corridor, which is long and wide and lined with portraits of the Presidents. After that came the Air Force Art Collection Corridor, with its painting of the first female to fly faster than the speed of sound. Then there was the Navy Executive Corridor, with its model ships and planes (“My dad flies on one of those!”), and the Marshall Corridor, with its doors marked SECRETARY OF THE ARMY and ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF, and the Army’s Time-Life Art Collection Corridor, with its painting of a soldier in shell shock, and the Hall of Heroes, with its display bearing the name of everybody who’s ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor, and finally the Flag Corridor, with its flags of the fifty states. Sergeant Null was giving his lecture on the rattlesnake flag of the American Revolution (snake on a field of stripes, one rattle for each state) when a Scout mistook one of the state flags for Iran’s. “I’m afraid that would not be up there very long,” Sergeant Null snapped. He was pretty tired by that time. But the Scouts thought it was all terrific, and when the tour was over Mrs. Kennedy gathered them in the concourse and declared, “I had no idea it would be so informative!”


SOMERVELL’S FOLLY: that’s what they called the Pentagon when it was under construction. The name referred to General Brehon B. Somervell, the Army supply chief who got it built. Originally it had been planned for a five-sided site between Arlington Cemetery and the Potomac, but people said it would destroy the view and disturb the dead, so President Roosevelt exiled the project to the far side of Fort Myer. There was an old airport there then, and next to it a swamp-infested no-man’s-land of dumps and rendering works and tumbledown shanties known collectively as Hell’s Bottom. Somervell was not deterred.
The building that went up on Hell’s Bottom was different from other buildings. There was a war on in Europe, so it was put up at fever pitch. There was no time to rethink the original design, so it went up as a pentagon. Steel was needed for battleships, so it was built almost entirely of concrete. When it was finished, on January 15, 1943, the U. S. military had a five-story headquarters composed of five concentric five-sided rings connected by spokelike corridors and surrounding a five-acre courtyard. Surrounded by sweeping lawns, ringed by parkways and cloverleafs, it was the office building of the future—the largest in the world, big enough to hold five Capitol Buildings. But there are no marble facades on the Pentagon, just a facing of grim gray limestone that repeats itself on every side. And, ironically, the part of Fort Myer that once hid the Pentagon from Arlington Cemetery has since been torn down; the graves crowd close now, with only a highway to keep them from sidling up to the edge of the building.


JOKES ABOUT THE PENTAGON are as old as the place itself. You’ve no doubt heard the one about the Western Union boy who went to the Pentagon to deliver a telegram, got hopelessly lost in the maze of corridors, and emerged months later a lieutenant colonel. Invariably the stories focus on its mazelike quality and seem to reflect a fear of being swallowed up. And yet every public-relations handout on the building claims that despite its seventeen-and-a-half miles of corridors, it’s such a marvel of efficiency that you can walk from one end to the other in six minutes or less. Furthermore, these handouts allege, it’s virtually impossible to get lost if you remember the handy room-numbering system: the five rings are lettered A through E; the ten spokelike corridors are numbered 1 through 10; and the first digit and last two digits of every room number refer to the floor and room, respectively. To find Room 3E153, then (that’s the office of the director of electronic warfare and countermeasures), all you have to do is go to the third floor, take corridor 1 to the E ring, and start looking for the right door. It’s a snap. When you get there you’ll find a combination lock where the doorknob should be, but that’s a different problem.

Nobody can agree on exactly where the Pentagon is. Maps say it’s in Arlington County, Virginia, but the mailing address is Washington, D.C., and the area code is Washington’s, too. Once you’re inside, it doesn’t matter anyway; the Pentagon is a world unto itself.

Of course, this numbering system was of little use to the worker who got lost between floors while installing pneumatic tubes and finally crashed through the ceiling into a top-secret meeting. Nor, for that matter, was it of any assistance in figuring out how to evacuate the building’s first suicide, an enlisted man who leaped from a fifth-story window and then lay dead in the courtyard for hours while state and federal officials had a jurisdictional dispute over his body.
Once you’re inside, it doesn’t matter anyway; the Pentagon is a world unto itself. Nowhere is this more striking than in the concourse, the windowless interior shopping mall that’s bigger than two football fields. There are more than twenty stores in the concourse, including a newsstand that offers an extensive collection of paperback escape literature—westerns, sci-fi, spy thrillers, war sagas, and hard-core porn with titles like Woman Aflame (“I got pretty horny when I was in Viet Nam . . .”).
Up a steep ramp and down several corridors from the concourse is the office of Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. A mammoth room overlooking the Potomac, it’s dominated by a nine-foot-long desk used by General John J. Pershing when he commanded the Army and an ornately carved table used by General William Tecumseh Sherman when he commanded the Army. On the table are phones connecting Secretary Brown with the White House and America’s nuclear arsenal; flanking the phone bank are scale models of America’s nuclear missiles on one side and snapshots of Secretary Brown with his wife, kids, and Jimmy Carter on the other. Overlooking all this is an imposing portrait of James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense (1947–1949) and foremost architect of the cold war, who suffered a mental collapse after leaving office and died in a plunge from his hospital window. Forrestal’s gaze in the painting can be followed across the office to a tiny bedroom outfitted with a narrow bed, a sun lamp, and a nightstand bearing yet another phone bank—a place for crisis moments, late at night, alone.
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Illustrations by Robin Jacques

Pentagon Players

Blowtorch Bob and the Persian Gulf

THE THIRD-RANKING MAN IN THE PENTAGON, after Brown and his deputy, former Southern Railway chief W. Graham Claytor Jr., is the Honorable Robert W. Komer, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. A large man, bombastic and ebullient, with wire-rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed moustache, Komer seems to inspire fantasies of Teddy Roosevelt wherever he goes. Many consider him an odd choice for Policy: he’s less a thinker than a doer, a marvel of boldness and energy who can take hold of any project and ram it home. “An engine rather than a steering wheel” is how one highly placed observer describes him. He’s also a shouter sans pareil, so forceful that the Army was once said to be designing a special combat ribbon for officers who brief him. The sobriquet he carries around the Pentagon is Blowtorch Bob.
At fifty-eight, Ambassador Komer (as he prefers to be known) has an M.B.A. from Harvard and experience in every part of the national security complex: the CIA, the State Department, the National Security Council, the White House, and now the Pentagon. During the Fifties, he was the CIA’s chief analyst for the Middle East; later, “a squire in Camelot,” he handled the same region for the NSC under McGeorge Bundy. In 1967, he was dispatched by LBJ to take over the foundering rural-pacification program in Vietnam. This he did with great gusto, setting up a program called CORDS (Civil Operations and Rural Development Support), which sent out paramilitary “revolutionary development” cadres to “cleanse” rural hamlets and used a computerized Hamlet Evaluation System to keep score. There were persistent allegations that his HES printouts bore little relation to reality, but Komer was undeterred. After the 1968 Tet Offensive, he and his deputy, future CIA director William Colby, came up with Operation Phoenix, which employed kidnapping and assassination as tools against the Vietcong infrastructure.
When it was all over, Komer asked himself what had happened. He decided the war had been lost because bureaucracy had acted unimaginatively. He wrote a study for the Rand Corporation called Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. In warfare, he realized, you have to tailor solutions to particular problems.
I asked if there were any other lessons to be had from Vietnam.
“Well . . .” There was a long silence. “I think that one of the key strategic lessons of Vietnam is: Do not allow important diversions of resources to a less-than-vital strategic interest. Vietnam turns out in retrospect to have been an absolutely huge diversion of scarce defense resources. When you look at defense investment alone, what we threw away in Vietnam to no particular purpose amounted, in hindsight, to several years of defense modernization.
“Well, I tell ya, I at least have learned a lesson: Let’s be very careful about overcommitment in secondary theaters. Vietnam was not, in my judgment, vital to our interests. It was vital to the interests of Hanoi. I’m sure that was one of the problems. On the other hand, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the oil of the Persian Gulf is absolutely vital to the free world.”
The good news, then, is that there won’t be any more Vietnams. The bad news is that there may be a Persian Gulf. That’s why Komer has been charged with developing the rapid-deployment force that Harold Brown and Jimmy Carter want ready to use there.
“The trouble,” he explained, lighting his pipe once again, “is the chaos in Iran, together with what many of us perceive as a new wave of Soviet expansionism. The Soviets think they have achieved a military power position that they can now use for political pressure and flowing into vacuums. The Soviets have a horrible tendency to flow into a power vacuum. And think of the political pressure that could be put on Japan or Europe or the less-developed countries if you were sitting on the oil spigot. Plus, if you were running out of oil yourself, it might be good to dominate. The Russians don’t like to buy where they can dominate.
“I don’t see how we can do less than what we’re doing now. In fact, I think we should be doing a great deal more—even at the expense of some of our other commitments. For example, I am a strong partisan of SALT II. Number one, I think we ought to stabilize the strategic nuclear arms race. But number two, if we do not, we will have to devote an additional forty, fifty—who knows—sixty or seventy billion scarce defense dollars to a strategic nuclear arms race, which will inevitably come at the expense, at least in part, of the deterrent power that we can generate for the Middle East, for NATO, for South—er, for Northeast Asia, et cetera. So I’m in favor of SALT II, because I connect it with the Persian Gulf!”
Where the conventional deterrent is a much more useful one, I observed.
“A much more usable one!” Komer declared. And then he let loose with a nice long belly laugh.
As Secretary of Defense, Brown heads the largest bureaucracy in America: three million people, two thirds of them in uniform, operating on a budget this year of $139 billion. (That works out to slightly over 1 percent of the population’s spending 5 percent of the gross national product.) Twenty-five thousand of these people work in the Pentagon, most of them in three of the DoD’s five major components: the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (OJCS), and the military departments (Army, Navy, and Air Force). (The DoD also has defense agencies scattered around Washington and military field commands strewn over the globe.) OSD is a civilian-dominated bureaucracy that sets overall defense policy; the military departments are administrative operations charged with keeping their respective branches manned, trained, and equipped; OJCS is the bureaucracy that runs the war machine. The Joint Chiefs themselves are the link between the National Command Authorities (the President and the Secretary of Defense) and the military field commands.
These three interlocking organizations have run the military since September 1947, when Forrestal became the first Secretary of Defense and the National Military Establishment (as the DoD’s prototype was known) came into existence. Until then, warfare had been the province of two Cabinet-level departments, War and Navy. The National Security Act of 1947, passed amid intense debate in that brief, shadowy interregnum between world war and cold war, formed the basis of the entire national security apparatus that exists today. It established the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency; it formalized the Joint Chiefs of Staff; it put Air Force on a par with Army and Navy and set up the NME to coordinate the three. During the war there had been talk that the Pentagon might be used to store archives, or be converted into a hospital, after hostilities ceased; the creation of the National Military Establishment squelched any such notion.
The watershed event in Pentagon history was the arrival of Robert McNamara, until then president of the Ford Motor Company, in 1961. There had been business-oriented Secretaries before: Neil McElroy, Eisenhower’s second, had been president of Procter & Gamble, and Charles Wilson, Eisenhower’s first, had been president of General Motors. (Wilson is the man who is credited with the line “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”) But McNamara brought in the systems analysts who revolutionized the procurement process with their cost-efficiency techniques, and he brought in the fad for counterinsurgency warfare that helped lead to Vietnam.

The atomic bomb is as American as the cotton gin, the telephone, and the self-cleaning oven. It’s the idea of the laborsaving device applied to warfare. Like other artifacts of American culture, it is both useful and intoxicating. It has also put the Pentagon on a special footing with history.

Brown, a nuclear physicist and former head of Caltech, was named SecDef (as the Secretary is known in Pentagon jargon) by fellow Trilateral Commission member Jimmy Carter in December 1976. During the Kennedy years he was one of McNamara’s whiz kids; like McNamara, he is cool and analytical, jealous of his time, always too busy to philosophize, and so incredibly bright that most people are afraid of him. Yet he was president of Caltech, not Ford. He comes from the science that seeks fundamental knowledge in equation form and applies it to instruments of mass destruction.
To exist on Hell’s Bottom is to be constantly aware of the nuclear possibility. It is part of the place. The Pentagon, the DoD, and the atomic bomb all date from the same decade. They represent different solutions—architectural, bureaucratic, technological—to the problem of how to conduct total war, a problem Grant and Sherman wrestled with on horseback. The atomic bomb is the technological solution. It’s as American as the cotton gin, the telephone, and the self-cleaning oven. It’s the idea of the laborsaving device applied to warfare. Like other artifacts of American culture, it has proven both useful and intoxicating and has proliferate3d wildly. It has also put the Pentagon on a special footing with history.
Keeping the bomb under control is said to be one of Harold Brown’s greatest concerns. This may seem ironic, given his background, but it actually fits a pattern. In Washington it is congressmen and generals, not scientists, who tend to get hairy-chested about our nuclear arsenal. Brown has felt the heat of as many as twenty nuclear explosions. “When you see one of those,” he told The New York Times a year after taking office, “you don’t forget it easily.” He was the chief scientist on the U.S. SALT team throughout the Nixon–Ford years, and although as SecDef he has supported both the cruise missile and the MX missile system, he has also repeatedly proclaimed his dedication to arms reduction as a cheap, safe pathway to national security. Unfortunately, this hasn’t resulted in any arms reduction. As McNamara’s efforts in the same direction were swamped by Vietnam, so the SALT II treaty Brown helped negotiate has been wrecked by tensions over Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Both instances illustrate the difficulty of trying to control the uncontrollable as a matter of defense policy. But then, controlling the uncontrollable seems to be the foundation of American foreign policy as well; so maybe it all fits.
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Pentagon Players

Dr. Gaffney and the Theater of the Absurd

ONE PART OF BOB KOMER’S DOMAIN is the Pentagon’s international military affairs bureaucracy—the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, popularly known as ISA. ISA’s job is to recommend, in conjunction with a host of other offices, which American weapons systems should be sold to what foreign governments. The relationships it develops involve much more than business: with nonallied nations, arms sales give the Pentagon the best opportunity it has to establish dialogue, to develop parallel interests, to exert influence. What ISA actually does, then, is engineer a series of informal alliances using American weapons technology as bait. ISA officials do other things, too (they write policy papers, for instance, and talking points for the SecDef so he’ll know what to say in meetings), but most of their time goes into developing these “security assistance programs.” Sometimes they get rebuffed, as with Pakistan last winter; other times they succeed too well, as with our former policeman of the Persian Gulf, the Shah of Iran.
ISA’s regional director for the sector known as Near East and South Asia—a swath of the globe from Egypt to Bangladesh—is Dr. Henry H. Gaffney, a Boston-Irish Ivy Leaguer who has worked in the Pentagon almost continuously since 1962. Gaffney spent more than a decade doing European theater nuclear work (“theater nuclear” being the term for nuclear weapons based overseas). The culmination of that experience was his establishment of the bureaucracy that decided after he left to deploy 572 nuclear missiles in Western Europe to counter the Soviet Union’s new SS-20s. Now he has a secretary who says “Near East” when she picks up the phone; NATO is across the hall, and East Asia is in the next ring. It’s a small world.
And the United States is the biggest arms exporter in it. This has been particularly true in the Middle East, where the sudden surge of oil money created investment problems for local potentates and balance-of-payments problems for the United States, both of which can be solved by the relatively simple expedient of trading oil for arms. “I’m of a mind,” said Gaffney, “and nobody, not too many people, seem to agree, that any decision-maker has only so many hours in the day, and if he’s sitting there thinking about his new toys and not attending to his country, then he’s in trouble. I think that’s what happened to the Shah.”
As a career civil servant in a position traditionally reserved for generals, Gaffney is something of an anomaly in ISA. A thin man, at once casual and intense, he approaches his work from a perspective few generals share. “There’s only one way to treat it,” he said as he closed the door to his office, “and that’s to regard it as the theater of the absurd. The theater-nuclear problem is obviously absurd. To spend five million dollars building these quite useless weapons of unspeakable military destructiveness defies any kind of humanistic logic. Yet it has a certain compelling logic of its own, caught as we are in historical circumstances. So you have to laugh at it—and you console yourself with the thought that you’re controlling the process.”
OF COURSE IF ANYTHING IS UNCONTROLLABLE, it’s the Pentagon itself. What are you supposed to do with a building that has five sides—two fronts and three backs? That has two superintendents—a DoD “building administrator” and a GSA “building manager”? That has four war rooms—one for the Joint Chiefs and one each for the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force? That has at its disposal a weapon so deadly that its use would trigger the destruction of the people who built all this—that is, us? For the Pentagon is ours. It is the headquarters, as the tour movie put it, for the gigantic effort required to protect our nation and its way of life. It is the culmination of two and a half centuries of communal military experience. It is us, out of control.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t make sense. When you hear the explanation, everything about the Pentagon makes perfect sense. It makes sense to have two building superintendents, because one works for the DoD/tenant and the other for the GSA/landlord. It makes sense to have four war rooms, because the Joint Chiefs’ is a real command post and the others are just “operations centers” where officers from the different services can follow the action. It makes sense to maintain a nuclear arsenal, because to fail to do so, human nature being what it is, might invite disaster of a different sort. It even makes sense, after a fashion, to do all this in a building that has five sides. The problem is, it makes sense only from the inside.
The first thing to remember is that the Pentagon—the Head Shed, the Puzzle Palace—is not just a military headquarters; it’s where science, business, and the military all connect. Officers and civil servants work side by side under a hierarchy of military and civilian political appointees. Lawyers and scientists are everywhere, in and out of uniform, and there’s a constant personnel shuffle among the military, the civil service, and the civilian defense contractors. Business offers high pay; government offers generous pensions and the lure of power. But even in government, the appearance of power is usually greater than the power itself. Everything is done by committee, accomplished by means of an endless process of compromise, filtered through that faceless mass known as the Pentagon.
“What do you mean, ‘the Pentagon’?” a midlevel OSD official once asked me. “Do you mean the political-level officials who are part of the administration and so, in a sense, outposts of the White House? Or do you mean the ordinary officers down in the system? If it’s somebody down in the bowels, they probably don’t count, and if you’re talking about political officials, you are talking about administration policy, not the Pentagon. Ergo, ‘the Pentagon’ doesn’t exist.”


THE PENTAGON EXISTS IN A WORLD of polar opposites: the Blue Team and the Red Team, the United States and the Soviet Union, the free world and the Communist bloc, the Pentagon and the Kremlin. Each requires the other to justify its existence. Self-doubt has no place. That’s why the seventies were such hard years here, and why the eighties look better.
Unlike the service academies, the Pentagon cannot be said to be reveling in the military’s newfound acceptance. It’s too insular for that, too isolated from the outside world, still smarting too intensely from Vietnam. It’s full of colonels and generals who fought there and who will tell you that the problem with the war was the way it was waged. The military wasn’t allowed to do its job, they’ll say, wasn’t allowed to go in there and wipe them out. The war was run by civilians who got us involved and then let the military take the blame for defeat. Beyond this eagerness to hide behind the skirts of civilian authority, there is little sense of the limitations of military power. Instead there’s frustration and lingering bitterness, not healthy emotions for any military. If anything, that frustration has been exacerbated, not relieved, by events of the past year, and the patriotic fervor those events have inspired has been perceived with only grim satisfaction. As for détente—well, most people will tell you that détente never happened here.

When you hear the explanation, everything about the Pentagon makes sense. It makes sense to have two building superintendents, four war rooms, and a doomsday machine, all in a building with five sides. The problem is, it only makes sense from inside.

One thing these events do mean, however, is more money. From a budgetary standpoint, in fact, the invasion of Afghanistan couldn’t have been better timed. The DoD budget is submitted to Congress at the end of January, beginning a period of intense lobbying that lasts for months. The flow of generals and admirals and top civilian officials between the Pentagon and the Hill is so heavy that shuttle buses are set up. Certain House and Senate committees begin to receive extraordinary amounts of attention from the legislative affairs and comptroller’s offices of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and OSD. Special-interest groups—the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Reserve Officers Association, the Retired Officers Association, the Fleet Reserve Association, the Association of the United States Army, the Air Force Association, the Navy League, the Marine Corps League, the American Defense Preparedness Association, the Coalition for Peace Through Strength, the Committee on the Present Danger, the Aerospace Industries Association of America—make profitable use of their contacts with key congressmen. There are only a few of these individuals, but their crucial committee assignments, coupled with the special mystique that surrounds military matters, tend to make military funding their private preserve. Which doesn’t mean that they automatically support the Pentagon; if anything, their fondness for guns, tanks, and action often puts them at odds with the Pentagon’s careful bureaucrats. What many of these legislators really respond to is the Marine Corps, the only branch of the military not headquartered in the Pentagon and, not coincidentally, the only branch still led by warrior-generals instead of the pencil-pushing kind.
For it is a truism of life in the Pentagon that the way to get ahead is to be not a leader of men but a follower of orders. Explanations of this vary: the conventional wisdom attributes it to McNamara, the apostle of management; others trace it back a decade further to General George C. Marshall, who, looking for a model for the Defense Department, chose the corporation. Either way, the Pentagon bureaucracy remains a peculiar amalgam of the military and the corporate, and the officers who get ahead are often those who display corporate attributes to the exclusion of military ones. Thus the Air Force has a chief of staff, General Lew Allen Jr., who has never flown in combat and who hasn’t served as a unit commander since the late Forties.
Whatever its effects on the military, all this certainly lends an oddly peaceful cast to life in the Pentagon. The emphasis on corporate professionalism tends to screen out the nuke-’em-dead Curtis LeMay types, and the influence of military discipline eliminates the political infighting that makes corporate life so taxing. Insubordination is a high crime in the Pentagon, yet bravery is seldom rewarded; for it is not lives at stake here but careers, and the idea of risking your career for your country is not one that is accepted yet. Witness the fate of renegade Air Force official Ernest Fitzgerald, fired years ago for creating a scandal over the enormous cost overruns on Lockheed’s giant C5A Galaxy transport plane. Fitzgerald won his job back in a court fight, but it was a hollow victory: he has an office now and a title and a paycheck, but nothing to do. Most people heed the warning and fall into line. Invariably they find the Pentagon a placid sort of place, secure and supportive.
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Pentagon Players

General Pustay and the Brain That Guides the Sword

LIEUTENANT GENERAL JOHN PUSTAY IS A FORTY-NINE-YEAR-OLD Air Force intelligence officer whose job, as assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is to help the nation’s highest-ranking military officer to do his thinking. It’s an uncharacteristically reflective position for the action arm of the Pentagon; but every sword needs a brain to guide it. The man he assists is Air Force general David C. Jones, a Carter appointee whose good looks have won him the nickname Steve Canyon but who nonetheless has aroused the ire of Washington hawks for “being a patsy” (The Washington Post) on such issues as the B-1 bomber, the Panama Canal treaty, and the SALT II agreement.
Talking with General Pustay turned out to be a curiously lulling experience. He’s a short man, very trim, with a birdlike face and an unassuming manner; his sentences are remarkably, sometimes stultifyingly, complex. When I asked if he thinks we’re entering a new era in world affairs, his face brightened perceptibly. “Yes, very much so,” he replied. “I think it’s the beginning of a rather critical decade for the United States and the Soviet Union. During the first five or six years of this decade, the Soviets are going to be ahead of us in certain dimensions of strategic nuclear power. This doesn’t mean they’re going to be ahead of us to such a degree that it’s going to invite a cataclysmic attack; but they are going to be in a situation where they can sit around their table in the Kremlin and say to one another, ‘We now exceed the United States in these particular criteria, which measure strategic nuclear power.’ Now, what does that translate into? I suggest that it might tempt them into more adventurism.
“What compounds my concern over this problem is that the Soviet Union has acquired a deep-water navy now; they’ve acquired a far more sophisticated airlift capability—we just saw that on twenty-fifth December 1979. So you put those perceptions with that capability, you consider the continued instability in Third World areas, and you’ve got the chemistry for—conflict? Crisis? Yes. That’s what I see.”
I wanted to know if General Pustay considers direct armed conflict between the superpowers to be a viable option in the nuclear age.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “While both sides recognize and fully appreciate the awesome power that’s possessed by their respective nuclear arsenals, I think that this makes all the more relevant your conventional capabilities. If you can be assured of a standoff at these higher levels of conflict, and you know that your adversary is weak at the lower levels of conventional power, and you happen to be motivated by an aggressive ideology, I see that type of conflict as a very real possibility—not necessarily always through surrogates or third parties. That’s why I think it’s absolutely imperative that we continue to have a viable, very strong conventional force structure to complement our strategic structure. To have otherwise, I think, is to invite problems and to invite the very thing I think we’d all like to avoid.”
Nuclear war?
“Nuclear war.”
MOST PEOPLE THINK OF THE PENTAGON as Harold Brown’s empire. Insiders know it is actually David O. Cooke’s. Doc Cooke, as he’s known around the building, is the only permanent Deputy Assistant Secretary the DoD has. Others come and go with every new administration, but Cooke merely adds a new fiefdom to his power base. In essence, he’s the man who runs the building. Theoretically he reports to OSD’s comptroller, but in fact he survives by making himself useful to the special assistant to the Secretary, the man who handles White House contacts, patronage issues, internecine warfare within the Pentagon bureaucracy, and all of Brown’s paperwork. Cooke is a portly man, nearly bald and charmingly toadlike in demeanor, a great backslapper who’s as affable as he is closemouthed. This last quality has caused him to be a figure of some mystery around the Pentagon. Supposedly he knows where every skeleton is buried, but try to get him to show you one: he will chat away endlessly, while on his desk, punctuating the array of medals and awards he’s received during the past twenty-three years, sits a golden hand with the middle finger extended.
One of Cooke’s deputies is Physical Security Director Sam Carmell, who takes care of such things as building passes, ultrasonic motion detectors and other anti-intrusion devices, VIP security, and demonstrator surveillance. He also has charge of the Pentagon’s pulping plant and incinerator, both of which are used to destroy old secrets nobody wants anymore. The incinerator provides 14 percent of the building’s heat; the pulping plant turns out neatly boxed pulp that is shipped to a paper mill in New York, where it’s made into paper products. “You may be wiping your fanny with top-secret material,” Carmell observes with a wink.
Until the beginning of this year, Carmell’s demonstrator-surveillance activity was almost nil. The administration’s call for draft registration changed that overnight. Carmell’s VIP-security business, on the other hand, is always jumping. A few months ago he had the vice-premier of China at the River Entrance at nine o’clock and Miss America (Cheryl Prewitt, a born-again Christian and miraculously reconstructed childhood-auto-crash victim from Choctaw County, Mississippi) in the center courtyard at noon the same day. Miss America even gave him a kiss.
The ceremony for a visitor like Chinese vice-premier Geng Biao is a standard fifteen-minute package handled by the Military District of Washington, the Army outfit that provides military support for the Pentagon. On the morning of Geng’s visit, a stream of cars pulled up to the River Entrance. Then the vice-premier stepped out, accompanied by enough Chinese defense attachés in green Mao suits and caps with red stars to make the whole thing look like a revolutionary ballet. There was a nineteen-gun salute, the Marine Corps Band played ruffles and flourishes, and then Brown and Geng reviewed an honor guard with a phalanx of clanking television technicians hovering underfoot. After the national anthems, Brown introduced his friend to the service Secretaries and the Joint Chiefs. And then everybody strolled arm-in-arm into the Pentagon. It was over so fast that Geng probably didn’t have time to notice the graffiti left by antiwar demonstrators a month before: NUKE THE PENTAGON and THERE’S NO FUTURE.
Power in the Pentagon is concentrated near the Mall and River entrances. The Mall front, facing north, is where the Army and Navy executive offices are located; the River front, facing east, is where the heads of the Air Force, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs all work. Deep within this sector of the building lies the National Military Command Center, a windowless warren of offices sealed off by armed guards to all who lack the special badge. The NMCC is where the Hot Line to Moscow comes in, where the Joint Chiefs have their command balcony, where the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs transmitted Jimmy Carter’s order to terminate Operation Blue Light in the Iranian desert last April 24. It is the military’s holy of holies.
My request to visit the NMCC was denied, but I did speak with several people in it. One of them was Bob Lewis, a NATO control clerk in the JCS C3S Directorate (C3S stands for Command, Control, and Communications Systems). Lewis’s job is to channel top-secret NATO communiqués to the proper action officers. He’s also an ordained minister in the Gospel Lighthouse Church and leader of a Bible study group known as the Pentagon Prayer Battalion. What Lewis teaches is how to live a victorious life through Christ in a country polluted by pornography and rock ’n’ roll and sin of every sort. He also teaches about the end time, about what will happen when Jesus comes.
Three or four years ago, Lewis had an extraordinary vision. He was lying in bed, he told me, neither asleep nor awake, when suddenly it seemed as if he were standing four or five hundred miles above the earth. A message had been sent to the U. S. from an alien nation: surrender or be destroyed. Surrender was of course unthinkable. Lewis saw the missiles arc up from the ocean depths; he heard the wailing of a people without hope. But then, as the missiles began to descend, he waved his hands across the land and through the power of God in his hands the missiles lost their effect and plummeted harmlessly to earth. The nation was saved.
“The Lord doesn’t show us these visions for nothing,” Lewis said as we sat in his office. “I believe we are standing on the threshold of something that is about to happen. I would say it’s something like thirty seconds to midnight before the second coming of Christ.”


The Pentagon heliport, at the sign of the cross, is where the brass is shuttled in and out routinely. It is also the escape hatch from which the Joint Chiefs and the SecDef would be evacuated in case of nuclear attack.

ACROSS A HIGHWAY from the Pentagon is a hillside studded with graves. From here it is possible to regard the Head Shed in its entirety: a monument, an office building, a network, a great gray bunker, a palace of Mars with green lawns and magnolias at the defensive perimeter. Across the river the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol dome sit lined up in the sun like icons on an altar, like ducks in a row. The Pentagon was put here to guard them, and to act in their names.
I met an officer who described the business of the Pentagon as “the control of deadly force.” I was intrigued by this, partly because it reflects the military’s obsession with control and its ingrained sense of self as the Blue Team, the side that never aggresses during war games, but also because it implies that deadly force has a momentum all its own and that the Pentagon is a device for harnessing it, maybe like a prism. It becomes the business of the Pentagon, then, to channel deadly force, that universal given, into such forms as will benefit the corporate entity known as the United States of America. This is a pretty big job, just as the tour movie said. It means playing with deadly force but not letting it get out of hand. It means walking deadly force to the window every once in a while but not letting it fly away. It sounds real hard.
The side of the Pentagon that faces the highway and the grave-studded hill is the heliport side. There’s no grand entrance here, just a small, dingy lobby that looks like a leftover corner of a train station, with dirty yellow walls and a dirty tile floor and some old wooden benches facing a clock. Three sets of glass-paneled doors lead to the heliport, a square slab of concrete with a little control tower at one end. In case of nuclear attack, the heliport is what will be used to evacuate the SecDef and the Joint Chiefs.
For the Pentagon is not equipped to survive the deadly force it’s supposed to control. Unlike missile silos, it can’t be hardened against incoming warheads. A one-megaton surface burst at, say, the intersection of I-66 and Constitution Avenue, a mile and a half away, would leave most of its walls erect; but the remains would be a ghastly shell of empty windows and incinerated interiors. So naturally other arrangements have been made. Thus we have the Alternate National Military Command Center (ANMCC) in a mountainside location known as Site R at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, near Camp David. Like the Minuteman and Titan missile silos in the Midwest, however, the hardened ANMCC is now vulnerable to Soviet warheads. So we also have a Boeing E-4A National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP, pronounced “kneecap”) at Andrews Air Force Base just outside the Capital Beltway. The E-4A is an armed Boeing 747 that has been modified to accommodate enough electronic equipment to permit the NCA and the JCS to run a nuclear war. It seats one hundred eleven people (including an aircrew of five) on two separate decks, and its air-to-air refueling capabilities make it suitable for long-endurance missions.
The three E-4As assigned to the NEACP mission are designed to interface with the E-4Bs assigned to the Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The E-4B is a modified 747 containing Air Launch Control System (ALCS) equipment that enables it to serve an Airborne Command Post mission for SAC, the command (symbolized by a mailed fist holding lightning bolts) that controls the ground and air legs of the strategic triad: the ICBMs and the bombers. (The Navy runs the submarines.) The Airborne Command Post, known informally as the Looking Glass, is SAC’s flying trigger. It has been on continuous airborne alert since February 3, 1961. In a “nuclear environment, ” NEACP and Looking Glass would run the war.
The situation on the ground would be grim indeed. In a book called The Effects of Nuclear War, published last year at the behest of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment examines in deadpan fashion the impact of several conceivable nuclear scenarios, including an attack on U.S. oil refineries by Soviet SS-18s, a “counterforce” attack on our ICBM silos, and a climactic “spasm” assault on American military and economic targets. In the last case, the report predicts fatalities as high as 165 million and notes:
Physical survival of some people is quite probable. . . . The surviving population would lack key industrial and technical skills: on the other hand, rural people and those urban people who would survive are generally hardier than the American average. . . . A lack of medicines would accentuate the smallness and hardiness of the surviving population.
. . . While some degree of law and order could probably be maintained in localities where a fairly dense population survived, the remaining highways might become quite unsafe. . . . Regions or localities might develop their own monies, with “foreign” trade among regions. . . . There is a possibility that the country might break up into several regional entities. If these came into conflict with each other there would be further waste and destruction.
. . . Heavy fatalities in the major urban areas would deprive the country of a high percentage of its top business executives, Government officials, medical specialists, scientists, educators, and performers. . . . The family group would be particularly hard hit. . . . The confidence and credibility of the system will come under severe strains. . . . Survivors may demand more immediate expressions of their likes, dislikes, and needs. . . .
The heliport, then, is the Pentagon’s escape hatch. It will enable the SecDef and the Chiefs to take a widebody to Armageddon. Other plans will go into effect for the rest of us. ♦

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