- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By "Doctrine Man"
Best Defense guest columnist
PowerPoint is dead. Long live PowerPoint.
From crowded operations centers in combat zones far from our shores to the fluorescently-antiseptic hallways of the Pentagon, no phrase will draw a nervous sideways glance quicker than "Death by PowerPoint." Utter those words aloud in any environment and battle captains descend into laptop defilade, staff officers scatter like cockroaches in sunlight, and commanders at all levels sigh in frustration.
PowerPoint hailed the death of critical thinking. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming: the mind map from the ninth circle of hell, the military’s acquisition life cyclorama, or just about any orders "briefing" which typically runs longer than the time required to produce an actual order. PowerPoint has infected our military culture like a digital zombie apocalypse, transforming our leaders into the intellectual equivalent of the living dead. We have met the enemy and he is us.
In Richard Russell’s Best Defense post, he rightly identifies a problem rooted in Professional Military Education (PME) and advocates a ban on PowerPoint as a necessary first step in military educational reform. But PowerPoint isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom of a deeper problem years in the making. PowerPoint is merely a tool; it’s the tool behind the tool with whom we should concern ourselves.
We suffer from a communication problem. Stringing together a coherent, one-page information paper is a challenge for many people; forget about a more in-depth "thinking" piece. And the average mid-career leader would rather be subjected to enemy fire than speak in a public setting. Banning PowerPoint doesn’t solve the problem, it only exacerbates it. The skill we once considered essential has become an elusive silver bullet. Yet we have no one to blame but ourselves.
If we truly want to revitalize our military education system, we should begin with the fundamentals. We often bemoan the loss of the Army’s Combined Arms and Staff Services School (CAS3), where young officers spent weeks refining their writing, speaking, and presenting skills. The feedback was honest, direct, and often brutal, but the end result was a marked improvement in communication skills. When the Army scuttled CAS3 in 2004, we surrendered the one course that sharpened the fundamentals we so desperately need today.
First, we need to learn to write. At every level of PME, writing should focus on papers of increasing length and complexity, with a requirement to write for publication. This requirement should extend to structured self-development (SSD), with writing focusing on experiential learning gained during operations. If we are truly a profession, then "publish or perish" should mean as much to us as academia. This accomplishes two objectives: One, we develop and refine our ability to communicate our thoughts and ideas in written form; two, we collectively contribute to the greater body of knowledge for the Profession of Arms.
Second, we need to become more adept at public speaking. The only sure method to improve oral communication skills is to exercise them regularly. PME courses offer a multitude of opportunities to speak before a wide variety of audiences, but most of these opportunities lack a formal feedback mechanism to help the speaker improve. The fine art of speaking, like writing, is the ability to convey one’s thoughts clearly and concisely, logically and organized.
Third, we need to embrace professional reading in PME. Some of our finest leaders issue reading lists, from the Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, to Major General H.R. McMaster, the soon-to-be three-star and author of Dereliction of Duty. Even the Master of Chaos himself, General (Ret) James Mattis proclaimed the necessity of professional reading to leader development. Reading is fundamental. It is also the shortest route to increased knowledge and improved communication skills.
Finally, we need to teach our people how to use all of the tools in the communication kitbag, from social media to PowerPoint. Whether communicating in 140-character bursts or 40-page monographs, on 5×8 cards or PowerPoint slides, PME should set the foundation for our communication skills. We shouldn’t ban PowerPoint any more than we would ban the use of paper for those who don’t write well. Take the time to teach people how to use the tools we have available, and to use them responsibly.
PME takes great pride in proclaiming that we teach people how to think, not what to think. Teaching people how to think begins with the ability to clearly communicate ideas, because therein lies the essence of learning. Of all the "stuff" we cram into our PME courses, an increased emphasis on communication skills should be non-negotiable. PME shouldn’t be the catch-all for every "shiny object" that comes along, it should be where we shepherd and protect the essential skills we deem the most valuable.
Richard Russell is right: We need to revitalize our military education system. But let’s treat the problem, not the symptom.
Doctrine Man is the pseudonym of a career Army officer, strategist, and recovering doctrine writer. A graduate of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, he logged three combat tours in Iraq while mastering the art of PowerPoint with his online comic strip, The Further Adventures of Doctrine Man!! He recently published the second volume of his annual comic compendium, now available on Amazon.