- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Richard L. Russell
Best Defense guest columnist
The winds of curriculum reform are blowing mightily on the campus of the National Defense University, the pinnacle of Professional Military Education (PME) in the United States. The changes appear aimed, in part, at infusing the curriculum with lessons learned from the last decade of war.
One reform measure — which no doubt is not in the docket — would be easy to propose, extremely beneficial to PME’s quality, and of lasting intellectual benefit to graduates as future military leaders: banning PowerPoint on campus. PowerPoint has become so acculturated and institutionalized in the military writ large that it retards the quality of research, analysis, planning, operations, strategy, and decision making at all levels of command. The banning of PowerPoint in PME for use by students, faculty, administrators, and guest speakers, however, would be horrifically difficult to implement given its powerful hold over the minds and practices of today’s military.
Numerous serious strategists, practitioners, and soldier-scholars over the years have bemoaned and warned of the dangers of the military’s PowerPoint obsession. These warnings from the lips and pens of serious strategic thinkers should squash any belittling dismissals that PowerPoint’s use is not an issue for serious curriculum reform. Marine General James Mattis, former combatant commander of Central Command and no one to mess with on the battlefield, publicly commented, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” Accomplished conventional and unconventional warfighter, best-selling author, and soon-to-be three-star general H. R. McMaster observed, “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.”
PowerPoint masquerades as serious research and analysis, but it is anything but. It should be used as a tool to provide audiences with the highlights or conclusions from extensive bodies of research and analysis. In other words, PowerPoint should be just the tip of the intellectual iceberg. In the daily reality practiced high and low in today’s military, however, there are little to no substantive research papers and analyses behind the endless torrent of PowerPoint briefings. The briefing slides themselves are the beginning, middle, and end of thought and study.
The routine use of PowerPoint bullets relieves officers from the intellectual burden of actually writing full sentences and complete paragraphs and stringing them together to create actual substantive research and analyses. T. X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel with a doctorate in history from Oxford University, recalls that before PowerPoint, “staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper…. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision.”
The military’s infatuation with PowerPoint, moreover, does not endear senior officers to their senior-most civilian counterparts. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates — a practitioner-scholar exemplar — wrote in his superb memoir, Duty, that “PowerPoint slides were the bane of my existence in Pentagon meetings; it was as though no one could talk without them. As CIA director, I had been able to ban slides from briefings except for maps or charts; as secretary, I was an abject failure at even reducing the number of slides in a briefing.”
The military’s use of PowerPoint befuddles civilian and foreign counterparts, with whom the military needs strong working relationships for effective intra-agency processes and multinational operations. The military “masters” of PowerPoint cut against these goals by their refusal to use pithy sentences to highlight important issues. Instead, they insist on stuffing as much information on to each and every slide, in the smallest font, as humanly possible. The practice leads cynical observers to suspect that the military tries to cram the equivalent of an encyclopedia volume on to each and every slide as part and parcel of a “shock and awe” strategy to overwhelm the audience with so many factoids that no one is able to articulate a single insightful or critical question. The audience faced with information overload is compelled to assume that all is well because “the military must have thought of everything,” when the reality might well be that it has thought of nothing of strategic import.
And our foreign security partners are mimicking our military’s bad habits, fooled into believing that effective modern militaries are built on PowerPoint. Former Secretary of Defense Gates saw this first-hand in Iraq: “And right there in the middle of a war zone, in the equivalent of Fort Apache, Baghdad, I got a PowerPoint briefing by Iraqi officers. PowerPoint! My God, what are we doing to these people? I thought.”
PowerPoint stifles substantial discussions, debates, and arguments essential for the formulation and implementation of strategy. To take just one stunning example we got from Tom Ricks, the commander of the invasion force for the 2003 Iraq war, Lieutenant General David McKiernan, could not even get the combatant commander of Central Command, General Tommy Franks, to issue explicit, clearly written orders on how to conduct the invasion. The best Franks would do for him was to pass along PowerPoint briefing slides which he had shown Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. McKiernan was exasperated and reflected that “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 [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and Secretary of Defense…. In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides…. [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.”
The inability of a combatant commander today to issue clear, crisp, and direct campaign orders is a far cry from American military commanders in the past. One shining example is General Ulysses Grant, who wrote beautifully. His orders written in the midst of Civil War battles, sometimes on horseback, remain today as models of concise clarity. According to late military historian John Keegan, one of Grant’s command contemporaries admiringly commented that “there is one striking feature of Grant’s orders; no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one ever has the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time to understand them.” Not bad for a guy who didn’t academically distinguish himself in his class at West Point.
General officers today have allowed PowerPoint and staffs to atrophy any writing abilities they might have had. I often joked with a former boss and former commander of our forces in Afghanistan, retired Army Lieutenant General David Barno, after he published several excellent journal articles. I told Barno that he was insulting me by proving wrong my thesis that general officers cannot write. On one occasion, Barno smiled and replied, “Of course, they can’t. They have staffs to write for them.”
But as the art of writing papers among senior American military leaders is lost, so too is the discipline writing imposes on one’s mind — a discipline that often illuminates weaknesses in thinking that go undetected in the process of endlessly manufacturing bullet points for PowerPoint slides. Lest readers think this is only a concern for an academic “pinhead,” one should note that NASA found out about this PowerPoint pitfall the hard way. The NASA Columbia Accident Investigation Board argued that NASA had become too reliant on putting complex information on PowerPoint instead of technical reports, and as a consequence, “It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.”
As the National Defense University, as well as other PME institutions such as the service war colleges and the Naval Postgraduate School, ponders curriculum reform, the issue of PowerPoint ought to be on the agenda. A workshop on the institutional and cultural role of PowerPoint in today’s military and the embedded pitfalls of overreliance on the software would be an intellectual cold shower for incoming graduate students. Many of these field grade officers would be aghast at what they would see as an alarming attack on one of their core staff and command practices by “fifty pound brain” academics. They would liken PowerPoint pitfall charges to heresy because it is so ingrained in the military’s daily routines of morning intelligence briefings, afternoon staff briefings, and nightly “hot washes.” A welcome-to-campus workshop on PowerPoint pitfalls would set the stage for the outright banning of the use of PowerPoint — whether by faculty, administrators, staff, and guest speakers and lecturers — for the entire academic year of residence for masters’ degrees.
Although the easily proposed banning of PowerPoint would be a nothing short of a call for revolt in the ears of many in the PME leaderships and ranks, if implemented it could become as routine, customary, and as practical and beneficial as Chatham House rules, or non-attribution practices, under which much of PME constructively operates. Such a curriculum reform would be an invaluable Socratic teaching tool to make students decidedly uncomfortable, force them to maneuver outside their intellectual comfort zones, and open new vistas for developing intellectual skills for debating, analyzing, and thinking about policy and strategy in the real world, not the virtual, mind-numbing world of PowerPoint.
Richard L. Russell teaches for the Security Studies Ph.D.Program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.