“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.
[Main article continues below]
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.
[Main article continues below]
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.
[Main article continues below]
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.”