Friday, February 16, 2007

In hands of CentCom, PowerPoint doesn't do war planning any better than it does rocket science


What is it about PowerPoint presentations? Is it the cryptic bullet points that fog the mind and stop rational thought dead in its tracks? The confusing graphic style made up of what Edward Tufte calls "chartjunk"? The look of meaningful discourse without any real substance, which facilitates groupthink and leaves dissenters without a handhold?

Because PowerPoint discourages clear articulation of ideas in favor of fuzzy summaries and factoids, it tends to drive groups toward a mediocre, intellectually impoverished consensus. PowerPoint is dangerous precisely to the extent that it mimics the form of rational discourse without its substance. This slide, from a 2002 CentCom briefing to the White House and Donald Rumsfeld, is a case in point.

And when the presentation was made public this week under the Freedom of Information Act, it also made some grim headlines: "A Prewar Slide Show Cast Iraq in Rosy Hues" (NYT); "'Delusional' Iraq plans envisaged only 5,000 troops by now, group says" (CNN); "Iraq invasion plan 'delusional'" (BBC News). The 2002 Iraq planning PowerPoint slides were obtained by The National Security Archive, posted on their website and summarized by Executive Director Thomas Blanton. "Completely unrealistic assumptions about a post-Saddam Iraq permeate these war plans," said National Security Archive Executive Director Thomas Blanton.
"First, they assumed that a provisional government would be in place by 'D-Day', then that the Iraqis would stay in their garrisons and be reliable partners, and finally that the post-hostilities phase would be a matter of mere 'months'. All of these were delusions."
The National Security Archive quotes from Fiasco author Thomas Ricks.
Lt. Gen. McKiernan later told Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks (Fiasco, p. 75):
"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 set of PowerPoint slides... [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."
Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich told Ricks (Fiasco, pp. 75-76) that PowerPoint war planning was the ultimate insult:
"Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's [Office of Secretary of Defense] contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology -- above all information technology -- has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war. To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness."
Edward Tufte's famous essay, "PowerPoint Does Rocket Science," makes a strong case that the cognitive style of PowerPoint contributed to the failure to properly diagnosis what was wrong with space shuttle Columbia before its disastrous reentry. PowerPoint in the hands of Rumsfeld's military technocrats seems to have had an equally stupefying effect on rational thought.

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