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We have met the enemy and he is powerpoint: NYT on the military

The New York Times had a front pager today on a story that this blog (twice: Dec 22, 2009 and Dec 12, 2009 ) and other blogs has been all over for months — the use of nonsensical Powerpoint slides to guide the US military in Afghanistan. The NYT reproduced the infamous Afghan nation-building spaghetti chart over most of the front page:

“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.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

It gets worse:

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.

…it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan.

What’s bizarre about this is that there are so many high-ranking military critics and yet war-by-Powerpoint continues. This blog’s criticism got a friendly response from high-ranking military also. Yet none of this was enough to stop a practice that would get the military held up to ridicule today in the New York Times.

Indulging in sheer speculation here, is it because Powerpoint is indispensable to make  the military’s assigned task appear feasible when it is inherently infeasible  — to achieve development, democracy, and peace by military means?

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7 Comments

  1. DDF wrote:

    Here is a direct link to a larger version of the infamous spaghetti slide (Courtesy of MSNBC): http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Components/Photo/2009/December/091202/091203-engel-big-9a.jpg

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  2. Ted wrote:

    That chart basically defines the term incomprehensible – I have no idea what is going on there. Also, whoever H.R. McMaster is (I feel like I’ve heard the name before though), he should be promoted immediately. He’s absolutely right when he says that certain problems aren’t “bullet-izable” and to think otherwise is not only arrogant but incredibly stupid. It only serves to dumb down what should be a serious analysis about serious problems. You can’t possibly analyze a complex issue like the system of tribal governance and regionalism with a few arrows and bullets on a chart.

    On your concluding question, I think you are absolutely correct. I wrote on a previous blog of yours that the idea we could centrally plan a well-functioning democracy was surely just arrogance on our part. I think these cute charts let our military leaders delude themselves into thinking that yes, indeed, it is possible to centrally plan a well-functioning, secure, and prosperous democracy. I’ll say it again, foreign entities can’t organize governments (or at least not democracies, obviously dictatorships are much easier to set up). Despite being tried many times throughout the centuries I can’t think of one time where a foreign government was able to set up a well-functioning, healthy democracy in a highly unstable country. History, and I think common sense, tells us that people have to be responsible for their own governments for it to function well. I think the best case scenario (one which I find still improbable) is going to be one where Afghanistan is basically a semi-stable feudal state where the regional tribal lords hold large amounts of power – and from the chart it doesn’t look like we are interested in that outcome.

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  3. Anne wrote:

    “Indulging in sheer speculation here, is it because Powerpoint is indispensable to make the military’s assigned task appear feasible when it is inherently infeasible — to achieve development, democracy, and peace by military means?”

    I don’t think that’s sheer speculation – I think that’s a very fair assessment. I feel the exact same way about “development” in general. The same thing can be said of all our RBM matrices and flow charts (problem-solution-action) that try to capture the entirety of a country situation. This creates the illusion that we can ENGINEER a society into the model we want it to be in. I don’t think we can and so we spend our time on Sisyphean tasks pretending…

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  4. Isaac wrote:

    It strikes me as simplistic to blame PowerPoint solely (or mostly) for the problem. Assume it was made illegal, would we really be more likely to have world peace? I doubt it. PowerPoint has been around only for 20 years! The military mind itself is the problem and in the absence of PowerPoint it would certainly find other ways to “achieve development, democracy, and peace by military means.”

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  5. Robert wrote:

    This is absurd.

    PowerPoint is a tool.

    And like any tool (a knife or a website or Twitter, for example) it can be abused.

    It’s not unlike economists abusing mathematics to make their theories look more believable and legitimate when in fact they have no idea what they are talking about. Does that mean mathematics is our enemy?

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  6. D. Watson wrote:

    You should check out Jeff Danziger’s latest political comic regarding this: soldiers trapped in a web made up of this powerpoint picture.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  7. Matt wrote:

    What seems odd to me is no one has asked what the purpose of this chart was….

    Obviously as a coherent strategy it completely fails.

    But as a brainstorming document showing the complexity and intra-connections between the problems in Afghanistan it does well.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

5 Trackbacks

  1. By uberVU - social comments on April 27, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by bill_easterly: We have Met the Enemy and He is Powerpoint http://bit.ly/a7olDv

  2. [...] Watch is on fire today. First PowerPoint Rangers and now old t-shirts. Bill Easterly asks why sending old t-shirts to Africa along with $1 to cover [...]

  3. By Democracy and Society » PowerPoint Rangers on April 27, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    [...] Ha, ha, ha! I hate PowerPoint and know what it feels like to be a civilian PowerPoint ranger. I agree with General Mattis: PowerPoint makes us stupid. [...]

  4. By Wednesday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath on April 28, 2010 at 9:29 am

    [...] Power point and the military. [...]

  5. [...] PowerPoint makes you dumb(er) [...]

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