The Pentagon Wars


The Pentagon Wars‘ is a 1998 HBO film, directed by Richard Benjamin, based on a book of the same name (subtitled: ‘Reformers Challenge the Old Guard’) by Colonel James G. Burton, USAF (retired).

Starring Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes and Richard Schiff, the film is a dark comedy describing the development of the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle.

The opens with U.S. Army Major General Partridge (Grammer) appearing before the House Armed Services Committee to defend himself; the story is told mostly as a series of flashbacks. Meanwhile, Congress appoints an outsider, USAF Lieutenant Colonel James Burton (Elwes) to observe the testing of several new weapons in development, including the Bradley in its latest effort to curtail excessive spending by The Pentagon. Burton reports to General Partridge, who is overseeing the Bradley.

Portrayed as an innocent, Burton quickly becomes disillusioned by the ‘real’ way the development process works, in an atmosphere of corruption and/or bureaucratic inefficiency. Burton witnesses generals, including Partridge, reviewing other inefficient (and eventually cancelled) projects with Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger – such as the M247 Sergeant York and the A-12 Avenger II.

Insisting on getting fully up to speed on the Bradley, Burton delves into the mountains of paper documenting the Bradley’s development history: Originally developed as an armored personnel carrier by Colonel Robert L. Smith (Schiff), the Bradley, after being subjected to the changing (and often conflicting) demands of a panel of armchair generals, is transformed into a hybrid of a troop carrier, a scout vehicle, and an anti-tank weapon platform. To make room for the weaponry, its complement of troops is reduced from eleven to six men; and despite its firepower, it has to be made of lightweight aluminum to serve as a scout vehicle.

In the incredulous summation of Burton and his assistant, Sgt. Fanning (Viola Davis), the finished Bradley is ‘a troop transport that can’t carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that’s too conspicuous to do reconnaissance, and a quasi-tank that has less armor than a snowblower, but has enough ammo to take out half of D.C.’ By the time General Partridge is put in charge of the project, the Bradley has been in development for seventeen years, at a cost of $14 billion.

In attempting to meet the demands of his superiors, Smith has labored for eleven years without promotion or advancement; when the Bradley is finally approved, he gets his long-awaited promotion to Brigadier General. Smith is a living example of how difficult, if not impossible, it is to develop weapons in an above-board manner; now, as he acerbically explains to Colonel Burton, since completing weapons is the only path to promotion, or lucrative positions in the private sector, the majority of the Pentagon’s officials prefer to fake test results, and pass defective weapons and equipment on to the troops in the field.

Burton is disbelieving, until he insists on testing whether the Bradley can stand up to fire under combat conditions. Partridge and his two cronies, Colonel Bach (John C. McGinley) and Major Sayers (Tom Wright), manipulate every test result – for example, by filling the fuel tanks with water instead of gasoline, filling the ammunition with sand instead of propellant, and confiscating a cartload of sheep killed by toxic fumes inside the vehicle when its hull combusts. Burton confronts Sergeant Dalton (Clifton Powell), in charge of the testing range, who admits being ordered to manipulate the test results, but bitterly tells Colonel Burton that every officer who tries to conduct honest tests eventually buckles under the pressure to gain his next promotion.

However, Burton refuses to approve the Bradley without a live-fire test, adamant that the current version of the vehicle is a death trap. Eventually, Partridge pulls strings to get Burton fired. But Smith leaks the information to the press, and the resulting scandal leads to the current hearings. Despite Partridge’s denials, the House Committee approves Burton’s request for a live-fire test. The night before the test, Burton visits the barracks on the range, and tells Dalton and his men that, regardless of whatever orders they have received from Partridge or his cronies, it is their duty to their fellow soldiers to make sure the test is performed honestly, driving home his point with an anecdote about the horrific casualties caused by defective M-16 rifles issued to American soldiers during the early years of the Vietnam War.

On the day of the test, which Partridge, Bach, and Sayers fully expect to confirm their side of the story, Dalton and his men have actually made sure the Bradley is in fighting condition. When hit by a Soviet anti-tank round, the vehicle explodes spectacularly. Dalton and his men confide to Burton that they had already put the Bradley in the right state before he gave them the speech. In a postscript, it is explained that the Bradley was extensively redesigned in response to Burton’s demands, which significantly reduced casualties from its use during the Persian Gulf War. However, the system was too strong: Partridge and his cronies earned their promotions and lucrative private sector jobs, while Colonel Burton was forced to retire.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.