“Most Americans know roughly as much about the U.S. military as they know about the surface of the moon,” writes Rosa Brooks in her enlightening new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon. I confess: I’m one of those militarily clueless Americans, which is why I committed to reading Brooks’s book. I thought it might fill the gaping holes in my knowledge, as I always found military history too dull and dry to swallow, even in small doses. But the book I approached as a medicinal fix turned out to be a savory treat.

We’d been planning our Thanksgiving-week trip to Paris for months, so imagine our dismay—a deeply uncomfortable mix of horror and annoyance—when we heard the news, on November 13, of the terrorist attacks there. Should we go or cancel? We talked and talked about it for several days before opting to stick with our plan. Friends were encouraging us to go—the stepped-up security would make Paris safer than ever, they said, and the Parisians would be so glad and grateful to see us—but what really decided me was remembering the days following 9/11 in New York.