The U.S. Military's War On PowerPoint

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There's an insidious force plaguing our nation's military. It's vaster than any insurgent network, though much closer to home. It confounds our commanders and keeps our generals up at night. And it's included with every copy of Microsoft Office.

Today's New York Times gives top billing to the story, in which PowerPoint is shown to be a foe that our military just can't finish off. The software's used for conveying just about everything that the military needs to convey on a daily basis, and what that means for the armed forces is a generally mind-numbing volume of slides. Here's are some of the ways in which our armed forces are becoming increasingly mired in the swamps of PowerPoint:

• It oversimplifies things
The complexities of war simply cannot be represented in a PowerPoint slide, detractors explain. One such commander, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster, suggests that bullet points take "no account of interconnected political, economic and ethnic forces." "If you divorce war from all of that," he explains, "it becomes a targeting exercise."


• It doesn't simplify things enough
As evidenced by the slide pictured above, shown to General Stanley A. McChrystal last summer, charts and graphs don't make sense for the big picture of war. Faced with the "bowl of spaghetti," the General remarked: "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

• It wastes time
PowerPoint presentations are a pain in the ass to make, and many service members are charged with making them all the time. When asked what takes up most of his day, platoon leader Lt. Sam Nuxoll said, "making PowerPoint slides." He wasn't kidding. But, as any college graduate will attest, even worse than making PowerPoint presentations is sitting through them—General David Petraeus describes it as "just agony." Our military is getting hammered on both fronts with this one.


• It dissolves accountability
The idea that our nation's armed forces are fighting a war against PowerPoint is amusing, but relying on the software for important militaristic communication can have serious consequences. The Times describes one situation in the run up to the Iraq war in which PowerPoint slides were passed around like a hot potato as the chain of command tried to discern details of an invasion. When PowerPoint creeps from the illustrative peripheries to the center of our military's campaigns, well, that's no good.

One General warns that PowerPoint creates "the illusion of control," and that really gets to the heart of the matter. It's easy to overlook the spaces that exist in between PowerPoint bullets. And even though we're keenly aware of that fact, it's still hard to break the spell. PowerPoint isn't only a resource for bureaucracies but is, in a sense, a reflection of them, and it's for that reason that many commanders think we might be too deeply engaged with PowerPoint to pull out any time soon. [NYTimes]