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Boats 09-27-2018 06:56 AM

The Messy Reality Inside the Pentagon, Captured in Fiction
The Messy Reality Inside the Pentagon, Captured in Fiction
By: Loren Dejonge Schulman - Sept. 27, 2018

A conversation with Kathleen McInnis, author of “The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon” (Post Hill Press, 2018).

“Thank you for your service” is one of the most frequently uttered phrases to those toiling in Americans’ most trusted, but least understood, institution: the United States military. Such displays of gratitude rarely extend to those in the same business but out of uniform. In her first novel, Kathleen McInnis takes on this less explored and more mysterious group: the civilian men and, particularly, women who work in the building responsible for American national security. On the surface, “The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon” draws easy comparisons to “The Devil Wears Prada.” A young woman leaves her job in academia to work for the Department of Defense, partly to help pay off student loans but largely in memory of her brother, who was killed serving in Afghanistan. She has no idea what to expect. Late nights, office conflicts, physical comedy and touching romance ensue. McInnis, a former Pentagon staff member herself, humanizes the usually faceless bureaucrats of the defense establishment but also exposes the inner workings of the war machine in an affecting, if sometimes disturbing, way.

Like McInnis and me, a former staff member for the Department of Defense and the National Security Council, Dr. Heather Reilly enters the Pentagon for the first time as a 28-year-old civilian, joining a team of career bureaucrats and uniformed staff charged with providing strategies, tools and oversight to a military that is deep into the war in Afghanistan. Her reasons for being there are repeatedly challenged by friends, family and colleagues, who say she is too young, too female, too inexperienced, too academic, too pacifist or too emotionally tied to her job to do it properly. Despite their judgments, she stays, though not to build peace in Afghanistan as she originally planned.

Walking the miles-long halls of the Pentagon, Reilly takes the reader through an often-hilarious orientation on how good ideas, and extremely bad ones, can go from being tossed around in an email to a multibillion-dollar, multiyear defense program. This approach adds a layer of humanity to an often dry and difficult question: How does America go to war, or end one? McInnis’s characters are people who signed up to “support the guys and gals downrange” and then find themselves routinely defeated by the bloat of bureaucracy, while coping with their own personal crises. Embedded in office high jinks and relationship meltdowns in “The Heart of War” is the disquieting realization that America’s national-security system is not kind to the generators of ideas that are too complex to explain in a PowerPoint slide. Nor is it an institution that is particularly welcoming toward women.

McInnis sat down to discuss what she hopes readers will take away about the Pentagon’s civilian force, its work-life balance and the American national-security system.

It struck me that there’s not just a divide between regular citizens and the military, but also between the civilian men and women who support them. Was that a factor in you telling this story?

During my time working in the Pentagon, I was on a trip in Afghanistan with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008, and we were flying from one of the provinces outside Kabul into Kabul itself. I was approached by one of the crewmen in the Chinook, who invited me to go sit off the back. It was terrifying, but also a moment of, How did I end up here? I wanted to tell the story of how and why a 28-year-old woman, a civilian, ends up in a moment like that. People perceive the Pentagon as this monolithic place with faceless bureaucrats. I wanted show the world what it is like to be a human in these institutions, a place like the Pentagon that is so high pressure but so rewarding at the same time.

Are there different expectations for how men and women handle work-life balance?

Certainly I found that a lot of people I’ve worked with had serious issues in their personal lives, but in respect to gender, a lot of my male colleagues worked too many hours, and their spouses got frustrated. It’s hard to say whether that targets women in a specific way, at least in my experience. What I do find notable is how women respond to that pressure and respond to those dynamics. Do they become more aggressive, more hard-charging, think more manly than men, I guess, or do they find ways to nurture and care for one another, or somewhere in between? It’s also worth pointing out that I don’t have a family. I’ve heard stories of how hard it is for women to balance family and child-care needs in a demanding role like the Pentagon. And so it does seem to me that there’s something there. I just personally haven’t experienced that component of it.

It may surprise readers outside this field that there are actually a large number of women who work in the Pentagon. How have women’s roles changed over time?

The Defense Department’s cultural roots are in the military, a male-dominated institution with very masculine sorts of organizational characteristics and traits. As a result, as the gender balance has been changing within the Pentagon, the culture isn’t necessarily catching up. When you enter a place as a woman in a culture that’s largely masculine, some women take a hypermasculine approach. Other women are more nurturing. And there’s a whole bunch of different strategies in between. Unless the culture of the Pentagon starts catching up with the differences in gender dynamics, it’s going to remain hard for women to be their authentic selves as leaders.

The book goes down very specific rabbit holes about how the national-security policy process actually works. Do you think readers will be surprised by the real sausage-making?

I think they’ll be surprised by how hard it is to do things. From the outside, you look at Washington and think you hit a button and a decision is made and it’s done. That’s just not the way it is. It’s a human endeavor. It gets complicated, and it’s messy. That’s why this story really lends itself to fiction. As you walk a mile in Heather’s shoes, you start to understand she has no idea what’s going to happen, and readers can experience how alienating but also how rewarding working at the Pentagon can be.

One thing that may come as a total shock to readers is how quickly a good idea or even a really bad idea can go from a notional think piece that you’re just emailing around to suddenly being briefed to the secretary of defense. What’s that like?

It’s funny — things can go so slowly, nothing happens, nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, it happens really quickly. For example, I worked on NATO’s role in Afghanistan. The ministers of the countries that were contributing forces to Afghanistan would meet on a regular basis. During one of these meetings, my boss turned to me and said: “Well, you know we’ve been talking about how we need to bring the whole of government approaches to southern Afghanistan — we’ve been talking, talking, talking. Let’s do something.” I suggested that we do a civilian-military planning cell for southern Afghanistan, and they were like, O.K. And suddenly it was real, and I’m in Kandahar.

I found myself uncomfortably cheering a couple of times as Heather makes progress on policies that she herself knows are actually not that great. How much do you think civil servants get caught up in that pattern, where they are pursuing excellence in sausage-making not necessarily excellence in policy and strategy?

I think when you enter the Pentagon, you’ve got this perception about the way we should be doing business around the world. And then you get swamped with information. The “tyranny of the inbox” thing: It’s just so overwhelming that all you have time to do is answer the mail or write the talking points. Over time it becomes harder and harder to do the deeper dives and strategic thinking necessary to advance better policy, because you’re just so focused on meeting the immediate needs of your bosses.

Heather feels a very deep sense of obligation to the troops who are putting themselves at risk. But right now there seems to be an impression that folks in the so-called deep state are soulless bureaucrats. Which do you think is more accurate?

People have this view that the military can do anything, and because it can do anything, it should do everything. And then they get frustrated when the Pentagon actually cannot do everything. We saw this all the time with Iraq and Afghanistan. “Surely, if the Pentagon cared, this would have been done and solved.” I think that’s one of the surprising things for people to understand, exactly how hard it is to do these jobs and to do them effectively.

There’s another thing: When I was doing my Ph.D. and I said I worked in the Pentagon, people were like, “Oh you must be like Carrie from ‘Homeland.’” Oh, God, no. She brings classified material home and hangs it on the walls. I mean, come on, it’s nuts. A purpose for writing “The Heart of War” was to show the world that there’s this unique institution and group of people that are trying to do the right thing and have their hearts in the right place.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

I hope that readers can walk away with an understanding of how hard it is for us to formulate strategic priorities and stick to them. Where should the balance of priorities be? Should they be strategic competition with China and Russia? Should it be counterterrorism? In helping readers understand how we set these priorities, I’m hoping that they can have a better sense of whether they think we are making the right choices.

The final thing that I was thinking about, especially because today is Sept. 11, is the sacrifice that people make. The World Trade Center attacks set our nation on this path of war. Seventeen years later, we’re still fighting, and that has had enormous implications for service members and their families and their kids. I think that “The Heart of War” invites readers to consider whether the choices we continue to make are the right ones.

About the writer: Loren DeJonge Schulman is the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security. She served for 10 years at the White House National Security Council and the Department of Defense.

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