The Pentagon: A History by Steve Vogel 

The Pentagon: A History

by Steve Vogel

Published by Random House

626 pages, 2007



Biography of a Building

Reviewed by David Abrams

If Steve Vogel's new book, The Pentagon, sometimes reads like a catalog of superlatives, it's understandable and forgivable. The five-sided military headquarters -- the world's largest office building -- may have a deceptively low profile as it squats along the banks of the Potomac, but the figures and statistics attest to the fact that the Pentagon is mind-numbingly large. 

The Pentagon has three times the office space of the Empire State Building. The U.S. Capitol can fit comfortably into any one of its five wedges. It covers 34 acres, has 17.5 miles of corridors and seven acres of windows. There are 67 acres of parking spaces. There is more than 3.7 million square feet of office space in the building. By comparison, the Chicago Post Office, the biggest government building in the United States at the time the Pentagon was built in 1943, covered six acres and contained 1.7 million square feet of space. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at 102 floors, had 2.25 million square feet of office space.

It's hard not agree with Vogel, a Washington Post reporter, when he calls the design, construction and occupation of the Pentagon "a stunning accomplishment."

At this point, I should confess full disclosure: for the past four months, I have been one of the approximately 25,000 workers who report to the Pentagon every morning, shuffling through the brightly-polished corridors like automatons. I have a desk in an E-Ring office -- in fact, the precise spot where the nose of Flight 77 struck the building on September 11, 2001. The plane entered and barreled through the wall of my office and didn't stop until it got to the inner C Ring. If I’d been there on that day, I would have been vaporized.  It’s spine-shuddering to think about all those people who once sat where I now tap on my keyboard. Every day, I work with ghosts.

I have not come anywhere close to walking all of the nearly 18 miles of corridors on the building's five floors. I alternately tell people I work in the "womb" or the "bowels" of the Pentagon, but honestly there's little blood-warmth in the building. For all its brightness and efficiency, the place where I spend the majority of my day remains a mysterious, impersonal hive full of strangers passing strangers.

Vogel's book, which can be rightly called "the biography of a building," does a good job in bringing the Pentagon down to a more personal, recognizable level. If you look past the dry patches which would only interest engineering students, you'll find Vogel often builds suspense with a novelist's cliffhanging technique.

The book has three main columns which support its structure: the race to conceive and build the Pentagon in the months just prior to Pearl Harbor; the 1967 anti-war protests which stormed the gates of the building (previously described in Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night), and the events of September 11, 2001.

The majority of The Pentagon is given over to the great wrestling match between the Army and members of Congress over the cost, design, purpose and location of the "War Department Building" in the summer of 1941. As Vogel describes it, the plans for the Pentagon were literally hatched in one weekend and, once construction began, builders often worked faster than the architects and draftsmen sweating over the drawing table in a converted hangar.

Politicians and the public were upset over the War Department's plans to build a new headquarters at the base of Arlington National Cemetery. The country was at peace (most Americans were only faintly pricked by the rumblings of war in Europe) and few saw any need for a costly building which would consolidate military employees under one roof.

The flames were further fanned by the media which viewed the project as a huge money pit which would blight the landscape.  The Washington Daily News described it as a "proposal to carpet 67 acres of Virginia farmland with brick and concrete."

Led by the dynamic Brigadier General Brehon Somervell, chief of the Army's Construction Division and the one "character" who looms largest in the book, the building's planners eventually prevailed over a dramatic, touch-and-go fight on Capitol Hill and at the White House (initially enthusiastic about the project, President Franklin D. Roosevelt later had second thoughts). 

Ground was broken on September 11, 1941 (yes, irony crops up all over the place in this book), and small armies of workers started racing around the clock pouring concrete, grading roads, and sawing, hammering and bolting the columns, beams, slabs and walls.  The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 gave new urgency to the construction (and quieted most of the Pentagon's naysayers). Just 17 months later, the Pentagon was fully occupied.

Unlike so many of Washington's other monuments, the Pentagon is not a pretty building. Critics immediately assailed the structure. "About the building's exterior, the less said the better," wrote Architectural Forum. Newsweek condemned its "simple, penitentiary-like exterior." The New York Times described it as a "great concrete doughnut of a building."  A favored nickname among workers was "the concrete cobweb."

Vogel describes how the miles and miles of maze-like hallways baffled even the greatest military minds.  For instance, there's the oft-repeated and perhaps only slightly-apocryphal tale of a certain future President:

Even Eisenhower was disoriented the first time he tried to return to his office by himself from the general officers' mess.  "So, hands in pockets and trying to look as if I were out for a carefree stroll around the building, I walked," Eisenhower later wrote. "I walked and walked, encountering neither landmarks nor people who looked familiar. One had to give the building his grudging admiration; it had apparently been designed to confuse any enemy who might infiltrate it."

Eisenhower finally approached a group of female stenographers and quietly asked one, "Can you tell me where the office of the Chief of Staff is?"

"You just passed it about a hundred feet back, General Eisenhower," she replied.

 Vogel skips pretty broadly over large chunks of history (blink and you'll miss the Korean War), but his book is less about military history or the decisions which were made by the leaders in the Pentagon as it is about the structure itself.  Because the building was raised in such a fevered rush, the Pentagon eventually showed its wear and tear. By the late 1980s, Vogel writes, "Throughout the building, a sense of decay prevailed. The Pentagon was home to an estimated two million cockroaches, and the ones in the basement were said to have reached fearsome proportions, big enough to 'put saddles on.'  Rats were enjoying a population boom, with an average of four a week caught in the food-service areas." 

The last third of The Pentagon is devoted to the renovation of the massive building, the first phase of which had just been finished when Flight 77 struck on September 11. The fuel-fed fireball may have ripped through the corridors and offices, but the Pentagon remained unbowed and stayed open for business on the day of the attack. Workers immediately started clearing debris and rebuilding work the terrorists had just destroyed.  Known as the Phoenix Project, the renovation (to include the office where I now sit) was finished ahead of schedule and served as a backdrop for the September 11 memorial service in 2002.

The Pentagon still stands: strong, defiant and magnificent in its own unadorned way. Not bad for a building Vogel tells us, was "conceived over a long weekend" and constructed in a "slapdash" rush but ultimately has "proven itself one for the ages." | July 2007


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.