The Pentagon Wars

The Pentagon Wars is a 1998 HBO military comedy film directed by Richard Benjamin and based on the book The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard by Colonel James G. Burton, United States Air Force.

The Pentagon Wars
The Pentagon Wars.jpg
Based onThe Pentagon Wars
by Col. James G. Burton
Screenplay byJamie Malanowski
and Martyn Burke
Directed byRichard Benjamin
StarringKelsey Grammer
Cary Elwes
Viola Davis
John C. McGinley
Olympia Dukakis
Richard Benjamin
Music byJoseph Vitarelli
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
Executive producersMartyn Burke
Danny DeVito
Michael Shamberg
Stacey Sher
Gail Lyon (co-executive producer)
ProducersHoward Meltzer
Gary Daigler (co-producer)
Production locationsWashington, D.C.
CinematographyRobert Yeoman
EditorJacqueline Cambas
Running time1 h 43 min
Production companyHBO NYC Production
Original networkHBO
Original release
  • February 28, 1998 (1998-02-28)


Major General Partridge (Kelsey Grammer) is in charge of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle project, which 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, U.S. Air Force 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 development 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 Bock (John C. McGinley) and Major Sayers (Tom Wright). But then Burton is contacted by Brigadier General Robert L. Smith (Richard Schiff), the frustrated officer previously in charge of the vehicle's development program, 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 United States 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 of the test, Partridge, Bock, and Sayers fully expect to confirm their story that the vehicle is perfectly safe, but are unaware that Dalton and his men have actually made sure that nobody can tamper with the Bradley. During the live fire test, when hit by an anti-tank missile, 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.


  • James G. Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), ISBN 1-55750-081-9
  • Tim Weiner's review, "Corrupt From Top to Bottom", New York Times, October 3, 1993

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