Why the Military Declared War on Powerpoint

One of the world's most Powerpoint-reliant organizations makes a change

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In 2005, in the midst of the rapidly deteriorating war in Iraq, Brigadier General H.R. McMaster tried a drastically different strategy in the northern city of Tall Afar. His unorthodox approach, which relied on old methods of counterinsurgency, was seen as a revolutionary success and was later adopted in Baghdad and Iraq as a whole, producing similar results. That counterinsurgency doctrine is now being employed in Afghanistan as well.

McMaster's strategy brought a number of important changes to military doctrine, but one receiving a great deal of attention this week is his banning of Powerpoint. Military presentations and meetings tend to rely heavily on Powerpoint presentations--too heavily, say critics. The institutional reflection began in January with a much-circulated report. Are they right? Here's the war against Powerpoint.

  • Why It's a Concern  The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller reports on senior military leaders' "serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making. Not least, it ties up junior officers — referred to as PowerPoint Rangers — in the daily preparation of slides, be it for a Joint Staff meeting in Washington or for a platoon leader’s pre-mission combat briefing in a remote pocket of Afghanistan."
  • 'Makes Us Stupid'  Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks quotes Marine General James Mattis "The reason I didn't use PowerPoint is, I am convinced PowerPoint makes us stupid." Ricks adds, "I don't know if I'd go that far, but its absence of verbs does seem to me to emphasize aspirations without saying what actions we intend to take to realize them."
• Radically simplifies decision-making.

• Erodes etiquette. Endless litany of eye-glazing slides in darkened room promotes antisocial behavior — i.e., texting, napping during meetings.

• "i hate powerpoint’" —> 1,040,000 Google hits

• Creates illusion of progress. When in doubt, add more slides!

  • Shows Military's Reliance on Windows  Spencer Ackerman muses, "Whatever the merits of PowerPoint, the baseline reason why officers use it — and use it and use it and use it — is because the military as a whole uses some version of Windows as its operating system. ... This fundamental dependence is true at the highest levels of command down to the crummiest MWR tent at the most ad-hoc combat outpost."
  • Didn't Begin With Powerpoint  Liberal blogger John Cole remembers, "in my day, it was all about what we called 'cheese charts.' The great big easels (military issue, of course), with pads of paper the size of Montana sitting on them, with bullet point after bullet point. All they’ve done now is gone high-tech."
  • Our Powerpoint Political Discourse  Moderate Voice's Jason Arvak shakes his head. "'PowerPoint culture' — the reduction of everything to standardized bullet points — is increasingly the strategic culture of American politics more generally. One need only look at the pathetic state of political discourse to see the hallmarks of a PowerPoint presentation.  Propose health care reform?  Here comes the 'socialism' bullet point.  No definition, specification, or discussion needed, mind you. The bullet point invokes the mental script and the non-debate pretty much proceeds on autopilot from there, replete with predictable graphical transitions to the next slide."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.