“Here we have the ground zero cafe,” says Bart Ives, gesturing toward a white frame building standing in the open center courtyard of the Pentagon. “It’s a hot dog stand.” Ives, a boyish forty-seven-year-old environmental protection specialist, flashes me a smile that acknowledges the irony of selling wienies right in the heart of the biggest military complex known to humanity. Trying to be polite in spite of being harried, he tells me he doesn’t know when the snack bar picked up the snappy nom de guerre, “but you can be sure it’s still somebody’s ground zero.”
Sitting in the epicenter of so much power, the cafe looks adamantly innocent and idealistic. It is plain and temporary-looking, as if some military precept dictated that making any design statement beyond the most faceless government-issue variety would be unseemly. The cafe has been there in one form or another since the building was constructed between 1941 and 1943, and the official designation always has been just the generic “center court snack bar.” This austerity reminds me that the military is an order apart from ordinary, profit-driven American life, and the Pentagon is its chief monastery.
It’s 11 a.m. on a balmy Friday in September, but no one in the courtyard is standing in line for a hot dog or even strolling about. Civilians and soldiers in immaculate uniforms hurry along the pathways that crisscross the courtyard, heading toward doorways in the five sides of the inner A ring. The Pentagon still seems to breathe that original air of emergency, that sense of urgent industry in defense against great danger that caused it to be built in the early days of World War II. “I liken it to walking into a hurricane every day,” says Ives. “It’s a very high-energy place that makes a lot of demands on individuals, and in this era of downsizing it’s even more intense.” For the past four years, Ives, one of the many civilian employees of the Pentagon, has been president of the Pentagon Meditation Club.
We walk the endless bare corridors of the “biggest office building in the world,” pass spools of fiber-optic cable as big as up-ended cars, and I learn there is enough such cable in the Pentagon to wrap around the earth five times. The atmosphere is all business; space is tight. There are pockets of polished-brass dignity like the “Hall of Heroes,” honoring Congressional Medal of Honor winners. Even the most casual observer knows, with the same precision that is the pride of the military, that the real power – like the famous subterranean War Room and all that fiber optic cable, once wired—is buried, not for show.
When the Pentagon was built, President Roosevelt stipulated that no marble was to be used in the construction. It was not to be a monument to war, not a Reichstag, but a headquarters of defense. Defensiveness—and a feeling of terrible scarcity—pervades the Pentagon like a gas. Connected to vast projects, people fret about downsizing and tough budgetary times. Housing approximately 25,000 workers and operating on a budget this year of close to $253.7 billion, the Pentagon buzzes with the message that they don’t have enough manpower or time or money to do everything that needs to be done to make the world safe.
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