The Comedy the Pentagon Wishes We’d Forget
The Pentagon Wars is ridiculous… and true
It’s 1968 and Col. Robert Smith has just wrapped up his presentation. His department has finished designs on a new armored personnel carrier for the U.S. Army—the Bradley fighting vehicle.
The Bradley is fast, light and cost-effective. It’s the perfect troop transport for a modern army. The generals approve the project.
Then one of them realizes something.
“With this gorilla in production I guess there’s not going to be anything left in the budget for my scout,” the general says. He tells Smith to put a turret on top. Make the Bradley a scout as well as an APC.
“How about some portholes along the side,” another general chimes in. “For individual firearms. So the fellas can stick out their guns and shoot people.”
“You know what, colonel?” the first general adds. “We already have the turret. We oughta get the biggest bang we can up there.”
“You can’t hurt anybody with that pansy-ass gun,” the third general says—referring to the Bradley’s planned 20-millimeter cannon.
The Bradley—which began as a simple and elegant vehicle—transforms into a complicated and wasteful beast. Years will pass and the military will spend billions to make the Frankenstein’s monster of a machine work.
The design-by-committee is one of the funniest moments in the 1998 HBO film The Pentagon Wars. It’s also uncomfortably close to the truth.
In the early 1980s, Air Force colonel James Burton was part of a group of reformers who, frustrated by billions wasted on needless research and development, attempted to change how the military did business.
He and his fellow reformers helped create the A-10 Warthog attack jet and improved weapon systems such as the Bradley.
The men he fought against had long careers. Some even went on to high-paying jobs with the same defense contractors they had worked alongside in the Defense Department. Burton retired in 1986 and, in 1991, published his memoirs.
The Pentagon Wars chronicles his reform movement and the corruption within the Defense Department’s procurement process.
HBO turned the memoir into a dark comedy. Cary Elwes plays Burton and Kelsey Grammer is Gen. Partridge.
The film focuses on Burton’s fight to get the military to perform live-fire testing on the Bradley. It also distills many of the book’s personalities into Grammer’s fictionalized Partridge.
The movie is hilarious. Director Richard Benjamin plays Burton’s story for laughs. He looks at the funny side of every situation—from Elwes’ inability to decipher the Pentagon’s many acronyms to a car chase involving a pile of dead sheep.
The movie is fun but frustrating. So much of it is true.
The Bradley fighting vehicle was a weapon system with countless flaws. Part troop transport, part fighting vehicle and part scout—it didn’t do any of these jobs well.
The Army resisted Burton’s requests for a live-fire exercise. Ultimately, Burton got his exercise and proved that the Bradley needed serious changes.
Despite the upgrades, the APC still had problems. It survived the 1991 Gulf War, taking out more Iraqi tanks than the M-1 Abrams. Quite a feat for a troop carrier.
It didn’t fare as well on its return trip to Iraq in 2003. The Bradley proved vulnerable to improvised explosives and rocket-propelled grenades. It’s not an ideal counterinsurgency vehicle.
The Pentagon’s procurement process still produces broken weapon systems. Just look at the F-35.
During our discussion, Kevin mentions the actor Rip Taylor, who is not in the film. Kevin was thinking of the actor Richard Riehl. He also mentions a bungled war game. That was the Millennium Challenge 2002. The man who bested the game was retired Marine Corps generl Paul Van Riper.