Advancing, the Creeping Enemy

by wjw on May 1, 2010

What is this, you ask? It’s the entire Afghan war reduced to a flow chart and put on a PowerPoint slide.

Of what use is this slide, which was presented to General McChrystal as part of a staff briefing?

Well, none. But it sure looks like it contains a vast amount of information, doesn’t it? It actually looks as if it might mean something! But it’s empty of actual useful information.

Up till now, our military has been intermittently stymied by an elusive enemy, dubious allies, uncertain policy, media overexposure, and politicians whose sole exposure to an “afghan” was dozing under a comforter.

But now, the military is under serious threat by a new, insidious enemy, which is slowly constricting and paralyzing our entire enterprise. I refer, of course, to PowerPoint.

The amount of time expended on PowerPoint, the Microsoft presentation program of computer-generated charts, graphs and bullet points, has made it a running joke in the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat . . .

Last year when a military Web site, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, “Making PowerPoint slides.” When pressed, he said he was serious.

“I have to make a storyboard complete with digital pictures, diagrams and text summaries on just about anything that happens,” Lieutenant Nuxoll told the Web site. “Conduct a key leader engagement? Make a storyboard. Award a microgrant? Make a storyboard.”

. . . Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

Captain Burke’s essay in the Small Wars Journal also cited a widely read attack on PowerPoint in Armed Forces Journal last summer by Thomas X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel, whose title, “Dumb-Dumb Bullets,” underscored criticism of fuzzy bullet points; “accelerate the introduction of new weapons,” for instance, does not actually say who should do so.

Yes, it looks as if the U.S. military has been rendered helpless by their own PowerPoint addiction, their vital institutional organs punctured by bullet points.

Can’t we find some help for these poor victims before it’s too late?

Ken Houghton May 1, 2010 at 4:07 pm

I repeat what I said at AngryBear: b*llsh*t.

If you don't understand that slide, you don't understand the 50,000-foot view of what you're fighting–which is what a General is supposed to be able to see.

(Note, btw, that McChrystal said something like, "When we understand this slide, we will win the war" to which the only two reasonable reactions are (1) I was told we already won the Afghan war and (2) No, sh*t, Sherlock.)

"Yes, it looks as if the U.S. military has been rendered helpless by their own PowerPoint addiction, their vital institutional organs punctured by bullet points."

Exactly. And since we believe that now, what are we to say of all the Generals and Commanders of yore, who used maps to show them where they believed troops of all sides were, and planned accordingly?

Dave Bishop May 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I was in the middle of putting together a PowerPoint presentation and I thought, "I'll just take a break now and see if there's anything new on Walter's blog …".

I kid you not!

dubjay May 1, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Ken, I defy =anyone= to understand that slide. If winning the war depends on understanding that slide, then the war is lost.

The slide expresses the relationships between organizational structures. It doesn't tell us which of the structures is important, it doesn't tell you whether the connections are valuable or superfluous or meaningless, and there's no way to derive recommendations from the information presented.

The whole point of graphic presentation is to make things more understandable. This graphic presentation is an epic fail. It's so bewildering that comprehension just falls through the cracks.

The maps that generals use are different. They're simple. They feature our forces, the terrain, and the enemy's forces (as we understand them). They make things simpler so that rational decisions can be made.

This slide doesn't make things simple, it just makes them impossible to understand.

Ralf the Dog May 1, 2010 at 11:25 pm

After looking at that slide, I understand that things are quite messed up. That might have been the point.

Here is a simplified version for you:

Afghanistan -> Hell.

p-dub May 2, 2010 at 1:44 pm

That graphic looks like a "mind-mapping" software was used to create it.

Ain't gonna embellish on that. That should be sufficient.

Lance Larka May 2, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Ralf, I think you meant

Afghanistan <- Hell


Ralf the Dog May 3, 2010 at 12:57 am

What is wrong with mind mapping software? I know many very organized people who use mind mapping software. I know some who are so organized, they spend seven or eight hours a day organizing their desk.

You have no choice but to respect someone who has their paperclips organized on three axis. (With charts to prove it.)

First, they are color coded. Blue is for customer support and production issues. Yellow is for things related to meetings. Red is for things related to organizing your desk.

Front to back, they are sorted by the number of times they have been used. Lastly, they are sorted by size.

Ty May 3, 2010 at 7:10 am

This takes me back to my consulting days, when building thick books of powerpoint slides was how we produced our 'product'.

I am not nostalgic.

p-dub May 3, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Absolutely nothing wrong with using mind-mapping software; I've used it myself. Awesome way to get your thoughts in order.

Just taking a look at it indicates the state of their mind(s)….

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