As the son of a top Pentagon official, National Book Award-winner Carroll proves uniquely suited to write House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, asweeping look at the institution he calls "the biggest, loosest cannon in American history."

You'd been ambivalent about writing House of War until 9/11. What changed your mind?

I was surprised by the level of grief I felt after the attack on the Pentagon. I also discovered that the groundbreaking had taken place on September 11, 1941, exactly 60 years before. Once I learned that, I saw the time frame in which the book would unfold.

You were also born the same week as the dedication ceremony for the completed Pentagon in 1943.

There's that, but it's an astounding week for several other reasons. Roosevelt and Churchill declared that the war's aim from that point on would be the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. Los Alamos was established. The decision was also made to launch what became known as Operation Pointblank, when the Americans first joined the British in area bombing in WWII. The forces set in motion by those three events had a momentum of their own [building up over many decades], so that by 9/11, George W. Bush is at the mercy of a momentum he's barely aware of.

Is it possible to stop the momentum at this point?

The horrible conflict of the Cold War was rolled back by ordinary people on both sides of the iron curtain. The fact that that standoff ended nonviolently is the great miracle of our lifetimes. It says to me that we can move away from war as the primary way of being in the world.

But the war machine is pretty well entrenched.

Indeed it is: in our economy, in our politics, in academia, in the culture itself. The dismantling of this system is a huge challenge. Politicians don't even discuss it. But Americans can look at Iraq and ask, "How in the world did we come to this?" And the answer isn't just George W. Bush. He's at the mercy of much larger forces that need to be addressed.

Did you know at the outset that your own family's connections with the Pentagon would become so central?

I concerned myself with jumping off from my personal associations to the larger questions. In my youth, the Pentagon was a kind of temple, later a center of demons. Now I'm chastened and capable of seeing it as a place that was home to men and women of tremendously good motivations who participated in the creation of a really undemocratic and dangerous institution.