Last night we kicked off the DC Labor FilmFest’s Whistleblower Film Series with “The Pentagon Wars“— based on the book of the same title by Colonel James G. Burton — which tells the story about the development of the “Unsinkable Bradley Fighting Vehicle.” Colonel Burton is charged with testing the Bradley and pushing it into production as quickly as possible. The problems that he encounters include a bureaucracy that values weapons, industry, and promotions over the troops they’re supposed to serve. Burton discovers psuedo-tests being performed rather than genuine live-fire testing — and no one with authority in the Pentagon who’s willing to take the career risk to push to do otherwise. There are also sheep.
The film is a dark comedy, because, really, is there any other genre that can depict a defense procurement program? See Acquisition as Deterrent to understand more about what I mean, and, oh, our investigations page.
*SPOILER ALERT* Col. Burton’s whistleblowing led to the performance of a live test that revealed significant design problems, including toxic vapors inside the vehicle that resulted when the armor was penetrated by threat weapons. Significant changes to the vehicle were made as a result, doubtlessly saving many lives when the vehicle was used in the first Gulf War. But the epilogue of his story shows why whistleblower protections are so desperately needed: for his work, Col. Burton was forced to retire, and many of the people who tried to prevent him from performing live-fire tests got exactly what they wanted: they were promoted and/or went through the revolving door to find profitable jobs working for the defense industry. Extending the epilogue beyond this film, Tom Devine from the Government Accountability Project (GAP) reminded the audience that the same kind of retaliation against whistlelbowers is still happening at the Pentagon, citing the ongoing retaliation against whistleblower Franz Gayl, who blew the whistle on problems with the Pentagon’s rapid acquisition system that were causing delays in getting enough Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) into the field.
In the discussion afterward, Col. Burton said he gets many calls from whistleblowers asking for advice. There were several whistleblowers in the audience, including at least one that traveled hundreds of miles to be there because he wanted to meet the man that inspired him. But Col. Burton told the audience that while people must do what they believe in, no matter what whistleblower protection laws are passed, no one should blow the whistle unless they think they can withstand the worst thing the system and the bureaucracy can do to you. “After the press and Congress are long gone, the system will get back at you,” he said. “There will be retribution afterwards. If you can’t handle it, don’t do it.”
Col. Burton’s right. But the only chance whistleblowers have to then get justice from the system is by having real protections — beginning with jury trials to hear about cases of retribution. Check out our website for more information, and hope to see you at future films, which will be showing — for free and open to the public — every Thursday in October.
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