The number one sign you might be about to lose a war

[Army Lt. General David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get [Tommy] 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…

Hat tip to Matthew Yglesias.

Elsewhere, from a critique of the intelligence community’s actions in Afghanistan:

The format of intelligence products matters. Commanders who think PowerPoint storyboards and color-coded spreadsheets are adequate for describing the Afghan conflict and its complexities have some soul searching to do.

Sufficient knowledge will not come from slides with little more text than a comic strip. Commanders must demand substantive written narratives and analyses from their intel shops and make the time to read them. There are no shortcuts. Microsoft Word, rather than PowerPoint, should be the tool of choice for intelligence professionals in a counterinsurgency.

I was optimistic about the war, but now…

4 thoughts on “The number one sign you might be about to lose a war

  1. I was also going to post some ET stuff on this but Peter beat me to it. Tufte has been talking about the inability of ppt to carry a lot of substantive information to decision-makers for years.

  2. I’ve been reading about insurgency and guerilla war a fair bit recently, and am currently reading a great collection of essays by Eric Hobsbawm which is largely about this issue. There’s a fantastic piece from 1965 in which he outlines the military, social and political reasons why the US was doomed to failure in Vietnam. Reading it, I was struck very forcefully by how apt the points were for modern day conflict against terrorist groups and countries in which they flourish or are thought to flourish.

    The book is called Revolutionaries, and there’s a version still in print (not the version I have, but I’m sure it hasn’t been altered too much). Very much worth a read.