Bureaucrats in the Defense Department: An Ethnography

pentagon metro

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

Comedians have gotten a lot of mileage out of the plodding pace of bureaucracy. It’s such a common criticism that even Disney is in on the joke: “Zootopia” had its choice of any animal, but chose to portray bureaucrats as painfully slow-moving sloths.

It’s funny because it’s true. Bureaucracies are excruciatingly slow.

This sluggishness comes from two factors: the need to build consensus among multiple stakeholders and a constraint-driven structure. From my time at Headquarters Marine Corps, I still remember the yellow routing sheet with its dozens of departmental signature blocks, each representing someone who needed to sign off on my policy paper before it could be presented to a decision-maker. I would affix my paper to the routing sheet and send it to the next office for approval — then gently remind them days later to act on it. The process is often slow, ideas are sometimes starved to death, and the results are rarely satisfying.

Sluggishness also comes from an emphasis on adhering to process. Private firms can use profits to gauge the effectiveness of their actions, but bureaucracies have fewer ways to link actions to outcomes. Measuring adherence to process is one of the most common. Bureaucrats are constrained by rules, standards, and metrics. Changing them to meet the needs of novel situations takes time.

Academic explanations of bureaucracy’s plodding pace can be dry reading. But Kathleen McInnis’ new novel Heart of War makes these theories incredibly vivid. The novel’s protagonist, Dr. Heather Reilly, an anti-war activist whose brother died in the war in Afghanistan, is forced to take a job at the Pentagon to pay off her student loans. Throughout the narrative, Reilly faces the same stations of the cross that I did during my Pentagon experience, but attacks them with greater gusto. Her novel shows that that bad policy is not often an intentional result, but rather a product of institutional constraints and inertia that many noble-minded bureaucrats try to overcome daily. Policymakers and their staffs should be mindful of these limitations and account for the unintended effects of bureaucracy in their work.

Take, for example, the process of consensus-building. In one chapter, Reilly and her mentor use a box of doughnut holes to rally support. In another, she unleashes an underground memo with undiluted, trenchant analysis that ricochets across the Pentagon and grants her instant credibility with generals and senators, to her boss’s dismay. Ideas do not advance through bureaucracies on their strength alone. Doughnut holes or rogue memos are required.

The concept of bureaucratic constraints is personified by Reilly’s boss, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Ariane Fletcher. The author draws Fletcher’s character in appropriately blunt strokes: She is high-strung and results-oriented — if the results come from what she considers appropriate organizational processes. Fletcher repeatedly upbraids Reilly for her rogue memo and practically explodes when another uncensored memo accidentally reaches a senator. The senator finds it valuable, but Fletcher is focused on following process, and the quality of the ideas is less relevant.

The Heart of War is an excellent ethnography of the bureaucratic tribe, not to mention an engaging read with fast-moving dialogue and wry humor. But the book truly excels at conveying the eccentricities of the Pentagon itself. Early in the story, Reilly effortlessly (and inadvertently) takes apart a policy idea from a more influential staffer in front of a four-star general. One can almost hear the collective gasp in the room as she points out a critical flaw in the staffer’s plan. The general agrees and invites her to present her own proposal. We cheer for Reilly, but the irony is that ultimately Fletcher foists a plan on her subordinate and forces her to propose it even though she doesn’t believe in it. The result is a delicious description of bureaucratic battle, where the office or group that one is a part of matters more than the quality of the idea being considered. Clearly, policymakers benefit from competing ideas. Yet having engaged in this peculiar form of combat, I know some staffers feel a certain pugilistic desire to tangle with other offices regardless of the issue. We should wonder if that conflict distorts the quality of the ideas that are generated.

In some cases, the book portrays the policy ideas themselves as quite superficial. Reilly’s takedown of the influential staffer’s idea comes from an obvious oversight that would be evident to anyone who passed high school world history. Elsewhere in the book, Reilly is derided as a useless academic for writing detailed talking points for the secretary of defense. Told to water them down, Reilly gives in to bureaucratic inertia. She borrows an old, previously approved set of talking points and simply changes the name of the country to the one being discussed.

However, the reader gets a clear sense throughout the novel that any shallowness of ideas is not because Pentagon staffers lack creativity or expertise. Instead, the author blames organizational constraints: placating multiple stakeholders, overwhelmed staff working dreadful hours, the need to follow process, and, as Rachel Webb wrote in these electronic pages, a tendency for Murphy’s Law to ruin everything staffers try to create. This contributes to the often insular, uninspired, and homogenous ideas that Ben Rhodes once attributed to the foreign policy “blob.”

McInnis’ portrayal offers a full-throated defense of the noble intentions behind the Pentagon’s faceless bureaucracy. Reilly, whose brother died heroically fighting the Taliban, feels a deep obligation to prevent other families from experiencing such loss and feels privileged to provide for her nation’s defense. Her awe is evident when she enters the Pentagon for the first time, when she walks across the tarmac to board the secretary of defense’s plane, and when she flies over Afghanistan and gazes below at the land where her brother took his last breath. Although Webb argues that young civilian professionals “haven’t gone through the moral decision to work in defense,” I disagree. My interactions with them lead me to believe that many have given at least some thought to the moral elements of defense work. Like Reilly, many conclude that they would rather affect change and support the troops from within the bureaucracy.

In the end, the reader is left frustrated with the bureaucratic maze that Reilly tries to negotiate. Is U.S. defense policy doomed to be slow and ineffective because of institutional constraints? I closed the book wondering what can be done to improve the policymaking process. McInnis offers no prescriptions. She is writing a novel, not a research report. But perhaps dramatizing the process in such vivid detail is part of the solution. McInnis is able to do something that former Sen. Elizabeth Dole recently encouraged all policy wonks to do: Tell a story that brings  policies to life because “stories have the ability to touch listeners in a way that the cold hard facts, on their own, never can.”

McInnis’ novel is an entertaining read for former staffers like me, who can empathize with Reilly and chuckle at the insider references. But it can be more. For Pentagon insiders, reading this book might prompt some to rethink how they perform aspects of their jobs. Understanding the reasons for bureaucratic slowness and lassitude is a first step towards fighting its most detrimental effects on policy. For outsiders, it is a sympathetic depiction of hardworking civil servants. Both categories of readers may be inspired by The Heart of War to think more realistically about the Pentagon and its role in policymaking.


Jonathan Wong is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He previously served as a Marine Corps infantryman (and reluctant manpower analyst) from 2001 to 2011. Twitter: @jonpwong

Image: Sari Dennise