The first and last chapters of the 2018 romance novel The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon are set in Afghanistan, but the intervening scenes depict policy, strategy, and operational planning at the highest levels of US military command, primarily at the Pentagon, but also in adjoining locales around Washington, DC, and on a diplomatic mission to London. Mostly fanciful, but containing elements of critique and satire, The Heart of War is by turns entertaining, insightful, and troubling. Drawing on author Kathleen J. McInnis’s own tour-of-duty as a Pentagon analyst, the novel is narrated in first-person by Dr. Heather Reilly, a newly-minted PhD hired by the Department of Defense for her Afghanistan expertise to work as an “action officer,” as wonky plans-and-policy staffers are known in the military bureaucracy. In the first “misadventure” that besets Reilly, she is transferred from her initial assignment to an obscure office led by a civilian woman known as “The Wicked Witch of the Pentagon.” True to her nickname, the Wicked Witch terrorizes Reilly while also relying on her to advance a quirky project to make Moldova the centerpiece of DOD efforts to counter Russian expansionism.
Many more misadventures ensue, but ultimately The Heart of War tells the tale of Reilly’s triumph. On the strength of two memos she authors, one addressing Moldova and the other Afghanistan, she comes first to the attention of the Secretary of Defense and then to the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Rewarded with promotion to an executive-level position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Reilly at novel’s end is diverted from the Moldova project and deployed to Afghanistan, where she is to lead a peace-making initiative in consort with her new-found romantic interest: a hot-shot Army colonel who, as it happens had fought alongside her brother John on a previous tour in Afghanistan. Then and there, as it further happens, John had earned a posthumously-awarded Medal of Honor for saving the Army colonel’s life, so for Reilly to now be united in common cause with a man inextricably linked with her brother represents a fortuitous culmination of family destiny and personal accomplishment. But not one undeserved, the novel explains. As romance blossoms, Reilly’s new beaux tells Reilly her rise-in-the-world has occurred because she has “consistently proven [her]self the best analyst in the room” and because she “cares… in a way that most people can’t even comprehend.”
That’s a lot for the first six weeks on the job, no doubt, and I’ve just scratched the surface of Reilly’s “misadventures,” which are presented as zany mishaps on the way to final glory. Most of them are of the type that feature prominently in “rom-com” movies and “chick-lit” stories, as I understand those genres. While some of them are pretty fantastical (let’s just say that a couple of episodes put the “action” in “action officer”), analysis of Reilly’s mishaps might serve as the basis for an astute assessment of the workplace environment for women at the Pentagon. I’m not the target audience for rom-com and chick-lit, so I’ll pass on mansplaining The Heart of War’s breezy critique of military patriarchy and the contortions it forces upon the woman who work within it. Before moving on, however, let the record show that McInnis’s novel, for all its fantastical elements, is a hundred times more realistic than the contemporary-war fantasies authored by male Army vets such as Brad Thor, Sean Parnell, and Dalton Fury I review here. And I haven’t yet gotten to the parts about The Heart of War I like best. Or which trouble me most.
What really intrigues me about The Heart of War, and what I think McInnis gets mostly right, is the portrait of the extremely competitive work culture within the Pentagon and the entire government apparatus. It’s never just about doing what’s best for the country, or for the soldiers fighting downrange. Instead, it’s about ruthless jockeying for status and position within the bureaucratic hierarchy. It’s about striking hard when the time is right to advance one’s position, which may or not be best for the nation or fighting force, and may or may not be fervently believed in ideologically and politically, but certainly is designed to enhance one’s prestige and career. The Moldova project, at first laughable in Reilly’s estimation, attracts attention as it is bandied about among various Pentagon agencies, the Department of State, the Executive Branch, and foreign allies. While processing through the inside-the-Beltway sausage-making machinery, it accrues a certain amount of possibility as a legitimate way to counter Russian aggression—a real concern—and it most definitely accrues value as a (mixed metaphor alert!) high-stakes poker chip among very talented, hard-driving Pentagon players who are carefully counting cards and reading the tells of their opponents. Not so much the art of compromise, successful fruition of a program, policy, or action depends on careful coalition-building and savvy grooming of highly-placed patrons. In the Pentagon, then, no good idea wins the day on its own merits alone; instead, it must find powerful advocates to battle with powerful adversaries, as in battles between dueling wolf-packs.
Also intriguing about The Heart of War is McInnis/Reilly’s take on all this. In the opening scenes, Reilly expresses stock skepticism at Pentagon foibles. The drab physical lay-out is often described as “underwhelming.” The Pentagon’s mania for Power Point and acronyms is ridiculed. We are told that at the Pentagon “colonels pour coffee.” Reilly gets in trouble for going to the bathroom unescorted and later she screws up and sits in the wrong place at a meeting, ha-ha. Many of the men and women she meets are weirdly-behaved and seemingly selfishly-motivated, at least at first. Eventually, though, Reilly comes around—the system that aids and abets her rise in the world is revealed—mutatis mutandis—to be one that actually makes sense, or at least as much sense as possible. The brutal hazing turns out to be a necessary toughening regimen. The Byzantine bureaucracy turns out to be an ingeniously designed system of checks-and-balances that rewards survival-of-the-fittest perseverance and creative maneuvering. Most of all, the players, or at least the ones Reilly likes best, are not scheming self-promotors or brain-dead dullards, but “the best and the brightest” (hard to believe those words are actually used unironically). They’re super-smart, wickedly funny (in private), highly dedicated and patriotic public servants, and most of the men are decorated combat veterans, as well. They adopt personas as either ruthless ball-busters or cynical black-humorists not just to play the game, but win it.
That’s OK, if a little pie-eyed, offered to us for consideration from the perspective of a woman (the Reilly character, not McInnis) who has implausibly cut to very nearly the top of the Pentagon heap in half-a-year. I never served at the Pentagon during my Army career, but the mortar platoon-leader of my first infantry battalion later became an Assistant Secretary of the Army. Another lieutenant in that unit is now a three-star on the Army staff, and so is a captain with whom I also once served. A fourth officer I knew had come from a position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and liked to proclaim he had once “deployed a brigade to Africa on a buck-slip”; in other words, he had circumvented laborious staffing procedures. That’s a pretty good anecdote, but it’s countered by the one told to me by the Assistant Secretary of the Army, who related that a typical Pentagon scene is four full-bird colonels and three senior level civilians huddled around a computer parsing a word on a briefing slide. I haven’t seen any of those men in years, but they were all great officers when I served alongside them, and I trust and pray they were or are much the same in their Pentagon billets. The Heart of War skillfully portrays some of their world, but an even richer, deeper, more textured look awaits writing by someone who can describe them (and women like them, too), their careers, their decisions, and their concerns in fuller scope.
To close with a consideration of larger imports, The Heart of War sends mixed or confusing messages, sometimes clear, precise, and astute, and other times understated or implied. For example, the novel has little to say about Presidential politics. White House directives barely factor into the decision-making process the novel describes and notions of servitude are expressed in terms of obligation to fighting men-and-women and to the American public, but not as a response to Presidential fiat, welcome or unwelcome. Reilly’s transformation from skeptic to true-believer, academic-peacenik outsider to boots-on-the-ground woman-of-war insider, suggests a rebuke to liberal pieties about national defense and the military. On the other hand, her basic affirmation of Pentagon processes and the valor, integrity, and competence of the career military men and women who execute them contravenes anyone who believes that the modern military is comprised of mealy-mouthed bureaucrats who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. McInnis’s description of Pentagon culture and some of the modern-day Machiavellis who work there offers plenty of ammo to those concerned about government inefficiency—in this view, the Pentagon is a self-licking ice cream cone as interested in perpetuating the forever wars as ending them. Even more so, however, critics of the Washington “swamp” and “deep state,” if they were smart enough to think beyond Pizza Gate and Benghazi conspiracy theories, might use The Heart of War as evidence for their distrust of a slick DC insider culture whose actions are opaque to the larger world. That’s not at all what McInnis intends, but a sharp critic of the contemporary “administrative state” would deem all she describes as major problems, not virtues or necessary evils. For those of that persuasion, that so much energy and brainpower is devoted to constraining Russia, not buddying up to them, would be another problem.
Kathleen E. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon. Post Hill Press, 2018.