Book Review: The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon

I just finished this incredible novel, The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon by Kathleen J. McInnis. It’s a powerful novel about this woman named Heather Reilly who studied conflict resolution in college and ends up working at the Pentagon because of an academic fellowship opportunity that came up there. At first she is assigned to developing a peace plan for Afghanistan, but due to budget cuts the peace plan gets put on the back burner and she is reassigned to a stressful job in another department, one having to do with military coalitions. Not only that, but Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (aka her boss) Ariane Fletcher, is tough on her and the rest of the team, and not even the toughest generals can out-tough her. Moreover Heather is struggling with the loss of her brother, Jon, in combat, and his sister-in-law, Amanda, is also dealing with the pain of losing Jon, her husband. Oh and one more thing? Ryan, Heather’s fiance, isn’t interesting anymore to Heather and he can’t afford to pay off his student loans (she, too, has student loans she is struggling to pay off). However, even though Heather deals with issues on a personal and work level, she remains tenacious and eventually gains the approval of her colleagues (and even her boss) through her persistent hard work.

This book was a combination of movies: Late Night, Legally Blonde, and The Devil Wears Prada. It reminded me of these three films because all of them, like The Heart of War, feature young female protagonists who lack experience in the fields they pursue but nevertheless conquer this knowledge and surpass their peers in their work. In Late Night, Molly Patel has little experience writing for late night TV even with her experience in stand-up comedy. But when her boss finds she’s actually really funny, she starts to see Molly’s stand-up talent as an asset rather than as a lack of expertise. Also, Molly puts in the work of writing the jokes because if she kept criticizing Katherine’s way of running the show, Katherine was going to fire her. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andy Sachs thinks all of the hype around fashion at Runway magazine is overrated, but Miranda Priestly, her boss, tells her she can accept the culture at Runway or leave for good. When Andy cries, Nigel, Miranda’s art director, tells Andy to snap out of it and just do her job because Miranda is doing hers. When Andy changes her outlook on her job, she dresses like everyone at the magazine and even takes on the behaviors of the people at Runway. Now, of course, while Andy did change her attitude, her job as Miranda’s assistant still consumed her life and she lost that work-life balance that was so essential to helping her be her best self. She ended up losing her friends and touch with herself. However, the film taught me that while you shouldn’t let people talk down to you, it’s also important to be willing to learn new things, even if they’re things you don’t care much about. And in the end, Andy’s time as Miranda’s assistant landed her a new and better job, and the guy who interviews her says that working for Miranda Priestly is tough and that he would be “an idiot” if he didn’t hire Andy because of the hell she endured working as, in Miranda’s words, “her worst assistant”.

In Legally Blonde, there is a similar theme. Elle Woods is this cheerful fashionable woman from Los Angeles whose jerk boyfriend, Warner, breaks up with her before he leaves for Harvard. Warner tells her she’s not smart enough for Harvard Law School and she proves him wrong. At the beginning when she is first in class, the professor doesn’t take Elle’s ambitions seriously just because she writes with a fluffy pink pen and wears cheery attire, but when she meets Warren at a party and he once again tells her she’s never going to be good enough for Harvard and that he’s gotten back with his ex-girlfriend Vivian, she realizes that Warren is a waste of her time and studies hard so she can excel in her classes, and proves to her professors and peers that she belongs at Harvard and that wearing pink and smiling doesn’t mean anything is wrong with her.

In The Heart of War, Heather wonders for the longest time why Fletcher is so hard on her. Fletcher in the book later explains to her that she was so hard on Heather because she herself had that tough kind of training and wouldn’t have been so good at her job if her bosses hadn’t been hard on her, but that because women are held to different standards than men are, and while her being a female boss was seen as overbearing, male bosses would never be told that being aggressive was bad or intimidating. Like Fletcher’s colleagues, Miranda Priestly’s colleagues (and the general public) saw her as this evil ice queen because she was tough to her employees and had no time for shenanigans. Like Fletcher, Katherine in Late Night was a hard boss to work with, but she was hard on her team because she wanted them to do great work, and she was hard on Molly because she herself struggled as one of the few women working in the comedy profession, and wanted to let Molly know that she had to have a thick skin to deal with her male colleagues’ attempts to make her feel like she’d be better off bringing them coffee and cupcakes and not sitting at the writer’s table doing the work she set out to do in the first place. Heather grew from her experiences dealing with Fletcher and realizes that she actually is interested in the kind of policy work she is doing. When her old fiance, Ryan, tries to win her back, Heather reveals she’s been promoted, and Ryan, like Warner, tries to talk her out of doing such work because he thinks it’s a waste of her time to try and go for something challenging. But like Elle Woods, Heather understands that if she were to go back to her life with Ryan, she would probably not have the chance to do this kind of interesting work again. Also, her (Heather’s) brother, Jon, died, and Heather’s mission is to serve her country because of the impending likelihood of war between the U.S. and Afghanistan.

The book also reminded me of the film Arrival because of the theme of diplomacy and international relations. Communication and language is a central theme in Arrival; Louise Banks is a linguistics professor who actually goes to communicate with aliens after a series of mysterious spacecrafts are seen hovering in different places on earth. At first the communication is shaky and the extraterrestrials’ message doesn’t get across to Louise and her party, prompting nations around the world to cut off communication with the aliens. Louise then goes by herself and the aliens finally communicate that they didn’t arrive on earth to start war, but instead to foster a mutual friendship with human beings. Instead of using weapons that can kill people, they want to use the weapon of communication to restore peace to Earth. Louise’ willingness to meet face to face with the heptapods shows how, although dialogue isn’t the only method for effective diplomacy and, in the end, world peace, it should serve as the foundation for the process of establishing bonds of trust between countries.

Similarly, communication is at the heart of The Heart of War. It’s not just a story about a woman who gets any old job working for the government and falls in love along the way. It gets knee deep in foreign policy matters, and for good reason (otherwise, why would this book put such a genius spin on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War?) Heather, despite not having much military experience, uses her studies in conflict resolution to come up with a military strategy that is more nuanced and more thought-out than simply invading someone’s country and blowing up their citizens. When the peace plan for Afghanistan gets cut at the beginning of the book, Heather asks Voight, one of her colleagues, why they would do that, and he tells her that it’s because the war in Afghanistan is over and the U.S. is withdrawing most, if not all, of their troops, so they don’t need many people in that department. Even when Heather tells him that there’s a civil war is going on in Afghanistan, which is all the more reason for the U.S. to take up the peace plan again, Voight tells her to drop the issue if she wants to get on even just an inch of good footing with Ariane. When Ariane assigns her team to Moldova and drops the Afghanistan peace plan, Heather asks why she’s not focusing on Afghanistan. Ariane tells her that the Islamic State doesn’t present any threats to U.S. or its allies, but Russia does, and, moreover, the Moldovan Minister of Defense wanted Ariane to protect Moldova from Russian influence since they were so close and Russia so powerful. Heather tries to reason with Ariane that she can use her experience studying about conflict resolution in Afghanistan to help the team, but Ariane simply doesn’t care.

However, after Heather writes out a thorough, well-thought-out memo detailing the strategy that the team should use for dealing with Moldova, the senior leaders, aka the guys at the main table, the guys who make the big decisions and do all the big talking, the guys that Ariane doesn’t want Heather sitting with and talking about these issues with because she doesn’t think Heather has the experience necessary to do so, begin to rely on Heather for information about the strategies they should use for drafting out the strategy, and eventually she ends up sitting with the guys at the big table, hashing out the most complex strategies with them. Even when Ariane tries to make it seem like Heather did something wrong by speaking up about the issue and not just sitting at her desk and carrying out Ariane’s orders, Heather refused to back down and this is what earned her respect later from Ariane and her later promotion to the peace plan for Afghanistan. Because the team has been so focused on Moldova, they let the issue with Afghanistan drop, but the impending threat of terrorism didn’t go away and the Islamic State of Khorasan in Afghanistan claimed responsibility for the attacks they made on several American schools around the world. When Amanda and Heather watch this news, Amanda tells her that even though Fletcher chewed her out for wanting to focus on the peace plan for Afghanistan, it’s all on Heather to bring this to the generals’ attention because of her prior knowledge of negotiating peace with Afghanistan. When Heather meets with the top leaders, she voices her disagreements with their opinions and instead calls for an approach that involves being aware of what’s going on in the region and also communicating directly with the Islamic State. Because the U.S. government left civilians in Afghanistan to fend for themselves and got distracted with the Moldova-Russia situation, the terrorists in the country took over and dismantled all of the efforts that the U.S. put in before to establish peace in the country.

Heather finds herself conflicted when the generals talk about letting Afghanistan deal with the war on its own because she remembers how Jon died fighting to end the mess that terrorists were causing in Afghanistan, and how, even if the U.S. were to pull out of the country and not risk anymore of its soldiers losing their lives, it would just further strengthen the threat of terrorism in the Middle East, which, as the attacks showed, isn’t just Afghanistan’s problem but the entire world’s problem, showing how we are interconnected even though we live in different parts of the world and that one place’s actions can have a severe impact on other places. Heather calls for the U.S. government to rebuild the Afghans’ trust so that we wouldn’t repeat how we dealt with the Middle East after 9/11, which brought about several negative consequences. Her strategy for Afghanistan requires thinking long term rather than focusing on short term wins for the U.S. When a general at the table asks her if this means she doesn’t want the U.S. to go to war, she answers that it’s more complex than just a yes or no matter and involves working with Afghanistan’s government. He thinks she is ridiculous for wanting to talk to terrorists, but she tells him that they can’t assume they are all terrorists and that stabilizing the region means working together with the people in that region. Similar to Heather, Louise in Arrival takes the initiative to go by herself to communicate with the heptapods even when other people think her doing so is too risky. Her desire to communicate with them openly allows the heptapods to establish trust with her even when the rest of the world sees them as a threat. Both Arrival and The Heart of War taught me that when talking about peace or diplomacy, careful consideration and the desire to communicate without pretense or assumptions is crucial if we want to get anywhere putting our peace proposals in action.

Excellent novel that I highly recommend you read.

The Heart of War. Kathleen McInnis. 371 pp.

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