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Uncle Pentagon

03/10/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015
Digital Vision. via Getty Images

Growing Up in the Shadow of the American War State

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

The Pentagon loomed so large in my childhood that it could have been another member of my family. Maybe a menacing uncle who doled out put-downs and whacks to teach us lessons or a rich, dismissive great-aunt intent on propriety and good manners.

Whatever the case, our holidays were built around visits to the Pentagon’s massive grounds. That’s where we went for Easter, Christmas, even summer vacation (to commemorate the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). When we were little, my brother and sister and I would cry with terror and dread as we first glimpsed the building from the bridge across the Potomac River. To us, it pulsated with malice as if it came with an ominous, beat-driven soundtrack out of Star Wars.

I grew up in Baltimore at Jonah House, a radical Christian community of people committed to nonviolent resistance to war and nuclear culture. It was founded by my parents, Phil Berrigan and Liz McAlister. They gained international renown as pacifist peace activists not afraid to damage property or face long prison terms. The Baltimore Four, the Catonsville Nine, the Plowshares Eight, the Griffiss Seven: these were anti-Vietnam War or antinuclear actions they helped plan, took part in, and often enough went to jail for. These were also creative conspiracies meant to raise large questions about our personal responsibility for, and the role of conscience in, our world. In addition, they were explorations of how to be effective and nonviolent in opposition to the war state. These actions drew plenty of media attention and crowds of supporters, but in between we always went back to the Pentagon.

As kids, horrific images of war were seared into our brains from old documentaries about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and newer dispatches from Vietnam, and later El Salvador and Guatemala. And all of them seemed traceable to that one place, that imposing five-sided building overlooking the Potomac and surrounded by parking lots and sylvan acres of lawns and paths.

Burning Hair and Baby Bottles Filled With Blood

In many ways, I grew up at the Pentagon. Our family never sat for a formal portrait. We didn’t take snapshots at parties or picnics or on vacation. But what we do have is photo albums stuffed with pictures taken at the Pentagon as we protested there year after year after year.

In one of my favorite photos of myself as a toddler, I’m marching down the Pentagon parade ground, holding a bottle of milk in one hand and tightly grasping the hand of my favorite grown-up, Rosemary Maguire, with the other. The pillars of the River Entrance are behind me. Best guess: it’s 1976. My brother Jerry relaxes in a stroller in the background. My mom and other friends are standing nearby. We could be anywhere, but of course we’re not. We’re at the Pentagon and our protest is either just over or about to begin.

Frida (at about two) and Rosemary Maguire at the River Entrance to the Pentagon in 1976. Frida's mom, Liz McAlister, and brother Jerry (in the stroller) can be seen in the background.

When President Gerald Ford requested a post-Vietnam Pentagon budget of $105 billion for 1976, he was asking for an increase of 15 percent in military spending. American nuclear capabilities, already vast, were to be built up yet more, while conventional non-nuclear forces were to be expanded, too. After debate on the Hill, however, Congress cut his increase in half.

These were overwhelming sums to the adults protesting back then.  And yet, even after adjusting for inflation, they seem almost modest today. Nearly 30 years later, President Barack Obama is requesting $534 billion for the Pentagon and another $50.9 billion for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  And this doesn’t even include the more than $12 billion for maintaining and bolstering U.S. nuclear forces, most of which is tucked away in the Energy Department’s budget at a moment when Washington is committing itself to a trillion-dollar, multi-decade upgrade of those forces. 

A snapshot eight or nine years later shows me crouched behind my little sister, then an irresistibly cute toddler of two or three. I’m helping her hand out leaflets to Pentagon employees as they come to work. A woman takes a flyer from her, while grown-up friends hold a banner that reads “Faithfulness to the Covenant Means Disarmament.”

Our house was full of such banners, painted in block letters on sheets. The year might have been 1983 and the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists then stood at three minutes to nuclear midnight. Caspar Weinberger was Secretary of Defense; the Pentagon was, of course, his office; and he had already earned the moniker “Cap the Ladle” for his efforts to increase spending on nuclear weapons like the MX missile and President Ronald Reagan’s futuristic “Star Wars” anti-missile-defense weapons fantasy.

In the picture, I’m in a jean jacket that I loved to rags and wore regardless of the weather, and a regrettable headband with a floppy bow. The Pentagon workers would undoubtedly have refused flyers from me, but they took them with a smile from my little sister. They probably didn’t read them, but getting those tracts into their hands seemed like some measure of success.

When I was eight, 75 people from our community were arrested blockading the entrances to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, a few people towed a broken-down station wagon onto its parade ground, disabled it completely, and left it there with “LAST RESORT” spray-painted on its side in big block letters. “Auto workers are sleeping in their cars in Houston,” John Shields, one of the protest leaders, told UPI, “We are making the connection between homelessness and the lack of jobs because of the mad buildup of the arms race.”

In another photo, taken in April 1985, I walk down the River Entrance steps. I am 11 and soaking wet and grimacing. I still remember the moment.  I’m hoarse from chanting “You can’t wash the blood away!” as a maintenance crew works to scrub down one of the Pentagon’s imposing pillars. They could and did wash the blood away. Their hoses are visible in the background and the pillars are clean. Drawn from the veins of my parents and their friends, the dark red liquid was a potent symbol meant to mark that building with the end result of war. My parents hoped that it would remind those entering of the reality of their work, of what lay behind or beyond the clean offices they labored in and the spiffy suits or uniforms they wore. At the time, the Pentagon was locked in a fierce fight with the CIA and the White House over the wisdom of trading weapons for hostages with Iran and giving the money to U.S.-backed mercenaries in Nicaragua who were fighting a bloody war against peasants, catechists, and communists who wanted land reform, education, and democracy.

Frida and a friend in front of the River Entrance in April 1985, wet from the hoses used to clean off the blood.

Thrown from baby bottles, splattered high onto porous white marble, the blood was hard to wash off. The maintenance guys worked around us as much as possible. They tried not to get us wet. Occasionally, the police would move us out of the way, only to watch us scamper back through the suds and pools of pinkish water.

Sandblasting, power-washing, scraping: it was all tried to get those stains out. Over the years, the columns wore away perceptibly and by that modest measure we marked our success. We were changing the Pentagon, molecule by molecule. It was hard work, but maybe easier than changing the hearts and minds of the men and women who walked through those pools of blood, tracking it onto that building’s highly polished floors.

All those years protesting at the “War Department” -- my parents liked to use the old World War II-era name for it -- so many hours spent pleading, haranguing, imploring, condemning, appealing, and confronting, and not surprisingly, a stilted decorum developed around our acts. Ah yes, you again, it must be Hiroshima Day.

We were the reminder, the tweak of conscience, the minor cost of doing business.  They abhorred us but also tolerated us; they welcomed us as a foil or a challenge. Sometimes, it seemed like a little of all three at once. Looking back now, it’s kind of incredible that “they” let us be there, year after year. Maybe they appreciated our creativity. One thing was for sure: we knew how to make a spectacle.

In the late 1980s, a group of women cut off all their hair and burned it on the Pentagon steps. Wrapped in burlap sacks, they then keened in mourning for the victims of war -- and let me assure you that burning hair does smell like death, like war, like terror. It may be the most awful smell in the world.

At the time, I was a young teenager in love with my long hair and I held onto it tightly as women I admired cut theirs off. (My mother’s hair was already too short to hack away dramatically.) Later, I felt their bare heads in wonder and laughed as one of them tried to lessen or at least neaten the damage with a small pair of scissors and a comb. The stench of their witness lodged in the back of my throat and clung to my jacket for the rest of the winter. This is the smell of the Pentagon, I would tell myself whenever I wanted to toss my coat in the washer. It’s good to remember.

In the early hours of one morning during the brief and devastating first Gulf War of 1991 -- who today even remembers “the highway of death”? -- we blocked the roads leading to the Pentagon with huge piles of broken concrete and rebar. A handful of people with banners stood marking the piles as the “rubble of Baghdad.” The police arrested them, but could hold no one because they had no witnesses to the dumping of all that material. One officer even told my mom that she should get “an academy award for this one! This is the best you’ve ever done!”

In another picture, I am in my late teens, standing at the top of the steps of the River Entrance, along with my brother and another friend. We hold a banner that reads in part “We Remember, We Remember.” I’m squinting into the early morning light and my hand is on my chest. And I do remember, even all these years later, that feeling of dread. I look at the picture and know that my younger self is barely breathing and my heart is racing beneath my hand -- I am that afraid. I still feel that.

Phil Berrigan in front of a "wreckage of war" die-in at the River Entrance. Frida is half-visible behind to the left. Photo taken by Rick Reinhard on December 30, 1996. The banner reads, "The Pentagon Product Is War: Shut It Down.”

Protesting a Pentagon That Is Everywhere 

Ours was not a solitary witness like that of Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison who, in November 1965, set himself on fire under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s window to protest the war in Vietnam. With his wife Anne, Morrison was a war-tax resister and peace activist. He was searching for a way to end that grim war. He died of his wounds.

During the Vietnam War there were also huge crowds on the grounds. As many as 50,000 people marched to the Pentagon in a vast and militant October 1967 demonstration, which included an element of the absurd and mystical, a Yippie ritual of exorcism and “transformation” to levitate the Pentagon.

We did not have huge crowds, but we were steady and predictable. Year after year, my family and community made up for our modest numbers by being the most faithful and regular of visitors, willing to risk prison for nonviolent spectacle and witness against war. And we are still there. Every Monday morning at the crack of dawn, a handful of friends brave the cold (or heat) and a long commute to stand with signs of protest inside a fence-enclosed “free speech area.”

But it’s another, tighter, more repressive age when it comes to the war state.  Leaflets are no longer allowed, nor are photographs. Any activity or demonstration outside of that grassy little spot is met with arrest, which happens often enough without a lot of media or other attention.  

Since September 11, 2001, the nature of war itself has changed. There is no longer really a battlefield except that semi-metaphorical “global” one, nor any clear delineation between civilian and combatant. There are no front lines. War is now total in a new way: in the air and on the ground, human and robotic, online and cyber.  

In the process, the “footprint” of the Pentagon has been transformed. On that September day, of course, Flight 77 took out one side of the building, killing 125 people. As part of the reconstruction of the site, a whole series of security upgrades and physical changes were made so that visitors -- including protesters -- can get nowhere near it without walking a gauntlet of official searches and scrutiny.

At the same time, monstrously huge as it is, the Pentagon is no longer a single place, a single building at all.  In its way, in the post-9/11 era, the Pentagon and the complex of military corporations that service and serve it have spread all over Northern Virginia. You can find a mini-Pentagon in the Department of Homeland Security and another in the State Department, not to speak of countless police departments across the country.

So much has changed, but the Doomsday Clock has again tick-tocked back down to three minutes to nuclear midnight and wars are raging at every turn. It’s been a few years since I paid old Uncle Pentagon a visit. I am long overdue.

Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood (OR Books, 2015). She is a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections column for WagingNonviolence.Org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and is active with Witness Against Torture. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut.

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