The Pentagon, Up Close and Personal

It's a structure we've seldom taken the true measure of, since ground was first broken for its construction in September 1941. With its 6.6 million square feet of floor space, it ranked as the largest building in the country until the World Trade Center came along in 1973 -- a position it regained, despite Flight 77, on September 11, 2001. It has five sides, five floors (and two basement levels), and 17.5 miles of corridors.

It's hard even to absorb how big the Pentagon is. Boston Globe columnist James Carroll vividly described it in his appropriately monumental book, House of War, as he experienced it in his 1950s childhood. (His father, an Air Force general, was the first director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and as a boy the Pentagon was his playground.)

There were eighteen dining rooms that served sixty thousand meals a day. There were two barber shops, a drugstore, a vaccination clinic, five 'beverage bars,' each with more swivel stools than even a swift lad like me could set to spinning. There were six hundred drinking fountains, and I sipped from most of them. A clock room had the right time for every place right down to Moscow, Russia. Grown-up men rode three-wheeled bikes with baskets, messengers with their bells blasting -- make way for secrets! In corners stood faded battle flags attached to spears, with streamers flowing from the blades. On the walls hung paintings of warplanes and horses, tanks and dead-eyed men. Parthenon, Pantheon -- I couldn't keep the words straight. Call it Paradise. It was not so much to want for a lad of ten."

Today, 23,000 civilian and military personnel (as well as 3,000 "non-defense support personnel") work in that building. Think of that cast of 26,000 this way: the total is larger than the active militaries of, among other places, Burundi, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ghana, Hungary, Kenya, New Zealand, Norway, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Zambia. And of course, the Pentagon presides over a global "baseworld" (as Chalmers Johnson once called it) with a size and reach unprecedented in history, and over a war state, as well as a state of permanent war, in a fashion that should (but doesn't) stun us all.

The Pentagon has become a fixture, a given, of our American world, as around it has grown up what, since President Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address of 1961, has been known as the military-industrial complex. And yet, except at rare moments, few of us know that it has been the target of, and site of, almost continual protest since the 1960s. Frida Berrigan grew up in the heart of that ongoing protest and in a modest community of mainly religious radicals who, in and out of prison, kept it alive (and to this day continue their unending protests against our state of war). That small group -- her parents and others -- never lost track of the Pentagon's world of war-making and what it has meant for this country and the planet (even when the rest of us did). Berrigan has written a striking memoir of that world, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood, and today, in a particularly vivid fashion in her new post, "Uncle Pentagon," she plunges us into her childhood as a witness to war, American-style.