The Pentagon Wars

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The Pentagon Wars
The Pentagon Wars.jpg
Genre Comedy
Based on The Pentagon Wars
by Col. James G. Burton
Screenplay by Jamie Malanowski
and Martyn Burke
Directed by Richard Benjamin
Starring Kelsey Grammer
Cary Elwes
John C. McGinley
Olympia Dukakis
Richard Benjamin
Music by Joseph Vitarelli
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Executive producer(s) Martyn Burke
Danny DeVito
Michael Shamberg
Stacey Sher
Gail Lyon (co-executive producer)
Producer(s) Howard Meltzer
Gary Daigler (co-producer)
Location(s) Washington, D.C.
Cinematography Robert Yedman
Editor(s) Jacqueline Cambas
Running time 1 h 43 min
Production company(s) HBO
Distributor HBO
Original network HBO
Original release
  • February 28, 1998 (1998-02-28)

The Pentagon Wars is a 1998 comedy film from HBO, produced by Howard Meltzer and Gary Daigler, directed by Richard Benjamin, that stars Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes, and Richard Schiff. It is based on the book The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard by Colonel James G. Burton, USAF (retired).

The film describes the dishonesty associated with the 17-year development of the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle.

Tagline: They aimed to build the ultimate fighting machine. They missed.


Major General Partridge (Kelsey Grammer) is in charge of the Bradley project, that has been in development for seventeen years at a cost of $14 billion. In an effort to curtail excessive spending by The Pentagon, Congress appoints an outsider, USAF Lieutenant Colonel James Burton (Cary Elwes) to observe the testing of several new weapons in development, including the Bradley.

Burton quickly becomes disillusioned by the way the process works in an atmosphere of corruption and inefficiency. He delves into the mountains of paper documenting the Bradley's history and comes to the conclusion that it 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."

Burton's attempts to test the Bradley under combat conditions are obstructed by Partridge and his two cronies, Colonel Bach (John C. McGinley) and Major Sayers (Tom Wright). But then Burton is contacted by Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Smith (Richard Schiff), the frustrated officer in charge of the vehicle’s production, who feeds him evidence on condition of anonymity.

Burton confronts Master 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.

When Burton refuses to approve the Bradley without a live-fire test, insisting that the current version of the vehicle is a death trap, he loses his position and is ordered to Alaska. The report he is asked to write on the vehicle is rewritten by one of Partridge’s lieutenants. Following the army rule book, Burton then sends a memorandum referencing the original report to everyone who is technically involved in the project. This information leaks to the press and the resulting scandal leads to a Congressional Hearing.

The hearing is humiliating to Partridge, who is ignorant of the Bradley overall and has to refer to the project documentation in order to answer even simple questions. The skeptical House Committee goes on to order the test that Burton has requested.

The night before, Burton visits the barracks on the range and tells Dalton and his men that, regardless of whatever orders they have received from Partridge, it is their duty to their fellow soldiers to make sure the test is performed honestly.

On the day itself, Partridge, Bach, and Sayers fully expect to confirm their story that it is perfectly safe, but Dalton and his men have actually made sure that the Bradley is not tampered with. When hit by an anti-tank round, the vehicle explodes spectacularly and stampedes the audience. Afterwards Dalton and his men confide to Burton that they had already become convinced of his sincerity and were with him ever since.

A postscript explains 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.


Historical background[edit]

The book chronicles a broader history from the 1950s to the mid-1980s, encompassing the time when the "Reformer Movement" sought to bring the Pentagon equipment acquisition process to a requirements-based system rather than the then-prevailing equipment-based system that leans on supplier promises.

The reformers were led, philosophically, by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd and Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney, and went on to include members of both houses of the U.S. Congress. They were receiving input from disaffected members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. This largely uncoordinated group used the media to disseminate the true evaluations of equipment acquisitions that were going over budget and over time with lower than expected performance. Meanwhile, they created the atmosphere that led to acquisition of useful equipment such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 aircraft, which were disliked by the "establishment" Pentagon hierarchy.[citation needed]


Some events shown in the film never happened, as the director took artistic license with the original book, which was accurate.[citation needed]

  • In reality, James Burton was a full colonel. His film counterpart's rank was changed to Lieutenant Colonel because director Richard Benjamin felt that Cary Elwes appeared too young to be a full colonel.
  • The line art for the first Bradley iteration is a study for the XM800T IFV.
  • One scene shows that, even as the dangerous, defective version is being produced for American forces, a different version has been designed for sale to Israel. However, Israel never acquired the Bradley. It is true that United Defense did offer a version of the Bradley that was similar to the one portrayed, in that it did have external fuel tanks. While the film says the Bradley was hoped to be sold overseas, this is either a misstatement or it proved a failure as an export combat vehicle. The only foreign user of the Bradley is Saudi Arabia.


External links[edit]