Last week, for the first time, I got off at that stop on purpose for a Pentagon tour. Anyone can sign up online for a tour, though it takes a month to process a request. Following the Pentagon website’s advice, I arrived an hour before my tour’s start time to clear security. Going through the airport-style scanners took me only about five minutes, so I spent the rest of that time perusing the Pentagon visitor center.
A lobby-like area, the visitor center includes five large kiosks, one for each branch of the U.S. military. Though they once promoted the missions of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force, the kiosks currently serve as a showcase for broken screens — I counted 10 in all. I also found two working screens showing unnarrated footage of soldiers and airplanes, and one broadcasting someone’s Windows desktop background.
Other points of interest in the visitor center include a replica Department of Defense podium where tourists can pretend to give press briefings, and signs in six languages explaining that the tour is offered only in English and that you may not bring a translator or even have a side conversation in a foreign tongue. (The Pentagon website disagrees with these signs, saying a tour group can bring along an approved translator.)
As the tour began, a young, uniformed soldier piled rules on top of rules. “Photos and videos are strictly prohibited,” he said. In fact, if we were caught with our phones out, “that might be the last time you see them.”
Had I accidentally signed up for boot camp? It felt that way, especially when two uniformed military members bookended my group and marched us out of the visitor center in tight formation.
As we entered the main building and passed beneath a “Welcome to the Pentagon” sign, I felt a shiver of excitement. This was the real, actual Pentagon! Like in the movies! That thrill, however, evaporated the moment we stepped inside.
“Did everyone picture the Pentagon looking like this inside their head?” said our guide. “Me either.”
I know I was surprised. The Defense Department, currently burning through a $700 billion budget, has a headquarters that looks, in part, like a dated shopping mall. It’s a suspicious mismatch, like a family living in a dilapidated house to avoid attracting attention to their expensive jewelry or massive nuclear arsenal.
With 26,000 employees, the Pentagon is like a small city, with many stores and eateries, its own post office and DMV, and four Starbucks, our guide said. “Starbuckses? Starbucks? I’m not sure what the plural of Starbucks is,” he added.
That got a wan laugh, but his next joke — one that was about military acronyms — went right over our heads.
“Sorry,” the soldier apologized. “It’s in the script.”
What script? I later discovered that Pentagon guides are required to memorize 33 pages of information and recite it more or less verbatim. (They are also required to throw in at least two fun facts, submitted and approved in advance.)
After transiting the mall area, we walked through many featureless office hallways while listening to our guide recite the history of the building and the military with the same, brain-numbing cadence developed by flight attendants to lull demanding passengers to sleep. The last thing I heard before blinkering out of consciousness was the preposition-intensive mission of the U.S. Navy: “operating on, under, above and from the sea.” (Beside, beyond and between must have been taken by the Coast Guard.)
I started paying attention again when we entered a chapel devoted to the people who died during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon. A small room bathed in eerie green light, it contains panels etched with the names of the dead, and a book for writing condolences to their families. A few tourists wrote notes while the rest of us loitered around, feeling sad. As we left the chapel, the guide pointed out the walls that were destroyed by the aircraft, and noted that they’d been carefully rebuilt so there’d be no visible seam or scar.
As the tour came to a close, our guide told us a final fun fact. During the Cold War, he said, Soviet spy satellites noticed a structure at the center of the Pentagon courtyard attracting large numbers of people. The Russians thought it was the entrance to an underground bunker, he said, but it was actually a hot dog stand. “It was rumored that a lot of their nuclear arsenal was aimed at that building,” the soldier added with a laugh.
That didn’t exactly strike me as funny, especially after seeing the 9/11 memorial, but I chuckled politely and then escaped gratefully back into civilian life.
Pro tip: Put the phone away, or you might never see it again.