Murphy’s Law and Learning to Love the Pentagon


Kathleen J. McInnis, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon (Post Hill Press, 2018).


When you start working in the Pentagon as a young civilian or contractor, there isn’t a handbook of what to expect.

Several have successfully written handbooks for military officers entering the Pentagon. Assignment: Pentagon is well recognized as a great source. It offers plenty of sound advice for anyone in or out of uniform, from how to give briefings to understanding the process of the bureaucracy. Still, it comes from a solidly uniformed perspective and is aimed at people who aren’t at the start of their careers.

War on the Rocks has some helpful articles on what it’s like to work in the building, whether for junior officers or for millennial Harry Potter lovers. But this is more advice aimed primarily at servicemembers. In another example, “Don’’t Run in the Pentagon,” provides great guidance, as well as the literal lesson not to run in the building. Unless America has been bombed, running in the building is never appropriate. No matter how many stars your boss has, he does not want you to be that executive officer.

Some people will recommend literature from a given service’s professional reading list to understand how officers think. But you can only glean so many lessons from A Message to Garcia, Meditations, and The Peloponnesian War. Others will recommend seeking out experiences that will bring you into the fold. Think tank events, fellowships, and evening mentoring at Sine’s are all useful. Yet none of these things fully prepare you to work in this atmosphere coming from the outside.

Murphy’s Law is perhaps the best guide for what to expect in the Pentagon: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. If you can get lost on your way to an important meeting, it will happen. If the network can go down for a full day when you have a staff package due, it will happen. If you can miss the shuttle to Capitol Hill, it will happen.

If I could hand each new young employee on my contract a book to understand what Murphy’s Law can really mean in “the Building,” it would be The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon. Author Kathleen McInnis’s protagonist, Dr. Reilly, proves Murphy’s Law is truly at work. Her job starts with a far too common problem in hiring: the bait and switch. She is brought in to work on Afghanistan, which she studied in her doctoral program, and ends up in a newly reorganized “Coalition Affairs” office. In quick succession, Reilly ends up trying to build a coalition of allies that has to include Moldova.

Throughout the book, McInnis introduces the reader to Pentagon jargon. She doesn’t hit you with it the way the building will if you start working here. From being “frocked” to “death by PowerPoint,” a “bootleg copy,” and “happy-to-glads,” Reilly learns all the jargon, and no one chastises her for not knowing the terminology. She even earns herself a call sign in an embarrassing fiasco involving the Pentagon Force Protection Agency in her first week. McInnis even finds a way to teach the reader the proper way of using a challenge coin (hint: it’s not as a paperweight).

A tight cast of characters shows the bigger picture of what really makes the building tick. Col. Tom Voight is Reilly’s Air Force counterpart. He offers the pithy lines and dark humor so many of us recite in some way each week, like “It’s an act. If I don’t pretend I like being here, I might lose the will to live.” Their relationship shows how civil-military partnerships can make an office work efficiently. Reilly’s own sister-in-law is a staffer for an intrepid Sen. McClutchy, depicting the ins-and-outs of how dangerous and beneficial it can be to have friends in Congress. Lastly, our fictional deputy assistant secretary of defense of coalition affairs, Ariane Fletcher, is the “villain” turned mentor by the end.

Only one element of the story unmoored my personal empathy for the protagonist: her big pendulum swing of a love life. After realizing her cross-country engagement with a vegan isn’t likely to survive her year assignment in the Pentagon, she ends up having a one-night stand with a Navy commander. Both sides of her romantic struggle were extreme cases. While these extremes might reflect to the experiences of some, I found them distant from what I know and have read about what dating in Washington is like for women. However, it does provide comic relief in a story that would otherwise only be about Pentagon antics.

At times, the story is motivated by the character’s medal of honor-earning brother’s death in Afghanistan. This drives highly conflicted feelings about going to work for the Department of Defense. While most servicemembers are long past their ethical and moral crossroads about service by the time they reach a Pentagon tour, the same does not hold for civilians and contractors. Those that have not served in the military may not have ever considered working for defense — but ended up there because they failed to get a job with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, think tanks, or academia. While several Department of Defense civilians intended to go into the field, oftentimes, recent graduates are not as aware of those opportunities. Many of these young professionals, like Reilly in the story, have not gone through the moral decision to work in defense. Having to explore that potential moral dilemma while you are on the job is not ideal. While we are familiar with seeing civilian intelligence community officials in novels and on television, McInnis does well showing the unique defense civilian experience of deciding to serve the United States.

Swearing an oath to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution is seen as a sacred rite for servicemembers and holds meaning throughout their careers. Some services even reiterate that oath at every promotion ceremony. For civilians, it happens in some drab cubicle farm, with no fanfare, as if nothing ever happened. For contractors, it never happens. But as Dr. Reilly experiences, that oath is still significant. Ending up in the Department of Defense for whatever reason, choosing to stay and actively participate is still answering the call to service. Choosing to work every day to fight for the best resources, capabilities, and support for those “downrange” is a commitment.

At its core, Heart of War imparts the atmosphere of the “misadventures” or Murphy’s Law that can occur on a daily basis working in the Pentagon. The author successfully sends the message of how difficult it is to get policy accomplished. She also challenges whether we’re always making the right choices, and how we invite criticism to existing policy and strategy. McInnis successfully depicts the emotional trials of deciding to work for the military for non-servicemembers. It adds something that was missing among the increasing number of veterans writing about their experiences in the 21st century Department of Defense. McInnis completes that story, showing what the experience can be like for the growing number of young civilians or contractors drawn into public service.


Rachel Webb is a senior policy analyst at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Her current work focuses on nuclear policy, NATO policy, and strategic deterrence. The views above do not reflect those of SAIC, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Air Force.

Image: Smythe Richbourg/Flickr