The Netflix Show The Pentagon Can’t Stop Talking About

The battle within

From the opening of the show, the backstabbing and turf battles that go on inside the corridors of the Pentagon are torqued for maximum comical effect. But they will also resonate with anyone who paid close attention to the slugfest that went on behind the scenes to establish the real Space Force—which hasn’t been exempt from the parochialism that runs through American military institutions.

The Air Force early on tried mightily to smother the Space Force in its crib, out of fear of losing a key mission and billions of dollars. (The Space Force’s real head himself, Gen. John Raymond, would probably like to forget the op-ed he wrote opposing the idea of a dedicated space branch when he was still in the Air Force.)

In Naird’s alternate world, the battle is still raging against his nemesis, the Air Force chief of staff, who constantly picks on him and his new service and plots ways to get the mission and its budget back.

The Army, meanwhile, only wishes it could stuff both the Air Force—and the Space Force with it—back in from whence they came. (The Air Force was split from the Army in 1947.)

In a candid conversation this month, Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein insisted that his service has buried the hatchet with the Space Force and is committed to its success. (As it happens, Naird’s fictional biography parallels Goldfein’s, particularly his experience being shot down over Serbia in 1999.) But Goldfein, as he looks to the future, also acknowledged that fully healing the rifts is far from guaranteed.

“The test question that will be asked is, ‘What did we build?’” he said. “And if we get this right, we will build two services … built on a foundation of trust and confidence. … If we get it wrong, it is shame on us. We will allow this to become some kind of divisive split.”

A billion-dollar boondoggle

The show also doubles down on the widely held perception that the Space Force is just another black hole for taxpayer dollars.

Members of Congress are portrayed as wanting to know why Space Force exists; they express sticker shock at its sprawling Colorado headquarters and pet programs. On the show, a prominent liberal lawmaker grills Naird on how its massive budget will help her constituents who are on food stamps. Further feeding the perception is a hawkish congressman who is eager to give the new branch whatever it desires. At one point, Malkovich’s character carps that he is starring in an infomercial for the arms industry (two marquee Pentagon contractors get name-checked in one scene; one of them won’t like it).

In reality, the Space Force’s initial budget request was a measly $15 billion, which is a fraction of the budgets for other branches of the military. (The total annual defense budget is more than $700 billion.) Both Democrats and Republicans have worried about bankrolling a branch that could end up being wasteful and duplicative, so its relatively small price tag was crucial for the Trump administration to get buy-in on Capitol Hill.

It was also a way for the Air Force, which will still carry out many of the management and support functions of the Space Force, to keep the new branch from gobbling up too much of its authority—especially its power to acquire more new satellites, rockets and other space systems. Much of the rank and file of the Space Force, at least initially, will be transfers from the Air Force.

And the real Space Force has been authorized to grow to only 16,000 total personnel, which also pales in comparison to the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps, which together total some 2 million personnel. “We’ve got about a hundred, I’m gonna say 110 people, on staff,” Lt. Gen. Thompson, the second in command of the Space Force, told me. “We’re going to be a very small and lean headquarters organization.”

The devilish details

Some of the TV show’s biggest laughs come at the expense of the military’s idiosyncrasies—its obsessive regimen, its rigid adherence to process and protocol, and its well-earned reputation for intolerance to new ways of thinking. The show also nails the extreme preoccupation of the Pentagon with the threat posed by China and the arm’s length, increasingly uneasy relationship with Russia.

The show, created by Carell and Greg Daniels, who also was behind “The Office,” manages to avoid the pitfalls that often turn military viewers off: They don’t do stupid things like call Marines “soldiers”; close observers of the sneak peaks have noted how even the ribbons on Naird’s uniform are spot on.

“Space Force” also captures in sidesplitting fashion some of the most enduring stereotypes of the military: the profligate Air Force that puts ostrich-leather seats in its stealth fighter; the numbskull killing machine who runs the Marine Corps; the elitist but foulmouthed chief of naval operations who swears like a sailor; and the humorless and narrow-minded Army chief of staff. Of course, the poor Coast Guard still can’t get any respect; it ends up the target of more ridicule than even the Space Force.

But the show’s portrayal of military stereotypes is anything but one-dimensional. It is the generals, including Naird himself, who sometimes have to talk the trigger-happy civilians out of a major escalation they warn could spin out of control. There are other flourishes that go well beyond military stereotypes: For example, any base commander who watches the show will thoroughly enjoy the lengths Space Force has to go to protect the wildlife that also lives on the base.

Indeed, amid the jokes, “Space Force” is surprisingly insightful at a time when military culture is as foreign to many Americans as other planets. It poignantly depicts the emotional toll of military life for military families—not simply the sacrifices of those wearing the uniform. While Carell’s character is often portrayed as a buffoon, there are more than a few glimmers of why he has been chosen as the leader. And it makes a pretty solid case for why space inspires so much hope.

“I think part of the reason we’re excited about it is it just represents the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the focus and the attention—sort of a rebirth in terms of space,” says Thompson, the second-in-command of the real Space Force. “You know, there’s a long history of comedy associated with the military and the armed services. I think, you know, we as a culture are sophisticated enough to understand comedy and satire and the desire to enjoy those parts of life and the very serious business we’re engaged in every day.”

Peter Garretson, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a former military space strategist—and one who is eagerly awaiting the Netflix take. “The creators of the show have an amazing platform to educate America about a number of issues,” he says, “from military organization to anti-satellite weapons and international law. Even if it’s a comedy, the potential for people to see those things interact could actually be quite useful. I think they probably realize at this point that there are fewer people in the Space Force than there are on the cast and the crew of the show.”