September 27, 2018

The Messy Reality Inside the Pentagon, Captured in Fiction

“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.

Read the full review and conversation in The New York Times Magazine.

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