IN THE NEWS
In the business world, the phrase "death by PowerPoint" refers to a professional presentation during which the speaker numbs the audience with far too many PowerPoint slides, often crammed with far too much detail. In the US military, particularly after the Iraq war, "death by PowerPoint" may acquire a much different connotation.
Regularly, I've made the argument here at Arms and Influence that the US military has absorbed some bad habits from American business culture. While other parts of the national security community are equally guilty of making these mistakes, the military usually pays an especially terrible, bloody cost for these errors. .
However inappropriate PowerPoint may be for drafting and commncating battle plas, that's exactly how top military and civilian leaders used it in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. Here's a disturbing quote from Thomas Ricks' Fiasco:
[Army Lt. General David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn't get Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: "It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense…In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."
That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld's amateurish approach to war planning. "Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology—above all information technology—has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionall governing the preparation and conduct of war," commented retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a former commander of an armored cavalry regiment. "To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness." It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer's glossy sales brochure to figure out how to repair an engine.
Ricks reproduces one of the PowerPoint slides that Joint Task Force IV, the group initially responsible for explaining how "Phase IV" (the occupation) would work. I defy anyone to make sense of this graphic, which was supposed to depict the political outcome that, Clausewitz-style, military action against the Ba'athist regime was supposed to manufacture.
You can't blame the problems of the occupation of Iraq on some unnamed functionary who couldn't use PowerPoint effectively. The problem was using PowerPoint at all. Anyone experienced with this tool could explain the obvious deficiencies, when used as a replacement for planning documents:
- PowerPoint slides are talking points, not the conversation itself. PowerPoint slides are supposed to help organize and illustrate what the speaker is saying. They are not, however, the complete communication. Therefore…
- PowerPoint slides are not self-evident. Since slides provide the mere skeleton of an argument, not its actual content, people who have read the slides but not heard the presentation normally cannot figure out what the speaker is trying to say.
- PowerPoint slides always change. Anyone who has had to present the same information multiple times usually varies the content. William Jennings Bryan constantly revised his famous Cross of Gold speech, refining it with every iteration. Every speaker gets tired of using the same words and intonation, so for sheer novelty value, the content will change.
- PowerPoint compels the most superficial reconsideration of your own position. While PowerPoint forces you to organize your thoughts to some degree, it does not ignite a reconsideration of your own argument the way a written document does. PowerPoint provides a thumbnail sketch of what you might say; written documents make you actually say it. Not surprisingly, authors of written documents find themselves altering their opinions as they write. For example, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, in writing the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, found his position changing as he wrote his opinion.
In contrast to the loose, mutable medium of PowerPoint, the US military normally uses rigorous, well-established ways of drafting, reviewing, and communicating decisions. For example, a battalion commander might ask his staff to draft two or three options for a particular operation. Each option must have enough substance to delineate the assumptions it makes, the means through which it will achieve the operational objective, its pros and cons, the risk the battalion assumes in following it, and the fall-back plan. Not only do these options require a lot of words, but they also need a lot of diagrams, including the position of each unit at different points in the operation.
Once the options are drafted, the lieutenant colonel commanding the battalion has to actually read them. In fact, his subordinates need to be ready to answer pointed questions and hear blistering critiques. Even in the heat of battle, the battalion CO and his staff frequently have to make sufficient time to for this process.
Once the battalion commander reaches a decision, the next step is to communicate it down the chain of command. Company, platoon, squad, and fire team leaders need to understand what's expected of them. While their exact contribution to the overall plan may not always be obious—for example, while a battle rages back and forth, soldiers often complain about the number of times they have to take the same hill—what's expected of them at this particular moment needs to be completely clear. Some of the most famous errors in military history—for example, during the battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Richard Ewell 's failure to take Cemetery Hill—can be blamed on unclear or conflicting orders.
Keeping these realities of warfare in mind, it's easy to understand why military communications have a particular form and substance. To reach this primary objective, in this specific area of operations, these particular units are expected to attack or defend. At specific points in time, they are expected to have achieved these measurable goals (a particular enemy unit retreated, a particular town successfully defended, etc.). The plan assigns clear responsibility for different tasks, such as providing fire support for maneuvering units, to specific units. Everyone understands when the plan is complete, when particular results have been achieved. In case of failure, the plan explains what to do next, or assigns responsibility for improving the next steps to particular individuals.
The language of military communications may be dry, unimaginative, and redundant, but that's exactly what it needs to be. Individuals under fire don't have the luxury to perform literary interpretation. In drafting these plans, commanders and their staffs might realize that they have overlooked key details, or failed to make the objectives and responsibilities clear. In a PowerPoint presentation, the speaker can pick up the slack during the presentation itself, or during the Q&A section at the end. In combat, no such opportunity to ask basic questions like, What did you mean by that?, presents itself.
The Iraq disaster did not happen because someone in the JTF-IV planning group or the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) couldn't write a good PowerPoint presentation. The problem was that anyone used PowerPoint to plan a war. Ricks is absolutely right in saying that only the most careless individual, in love with information technology for its own sake, would misuse technology in such an obvious fashion. Unfortunately, these are the people who planned and executed the Iraq war, and many of them are still prosecuting America's wars.