A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice

Summary: This is a brief case study of a hubris and Powerpoint. Powerpoint is a deadly weapon, which we use on ourselves. Hubris is one of our greatest enemies. The combination can neutralize the efforts of even the most powerful military organizations.  To paraphrase Nicholas Weaver’s comment:  “Wars are not won by Powerpoint presentations; wars are won by the other guy doing too many Powerpoint presentations.”

Afghanistan: counterinsurgency or colonialism?“, Doug Saunders, Global and Mail (31 May 2008) — “Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan.”

Well worth reading, as Saunders’ reports on starry-eyed myth-making in progress by the US military. Here is the opening, nicely illustrating two serious weaknesses in our military: Powerpoint and hubris.

To get to Naray, which may be the most lawless place in Afghanistan today, you have to make the long journey up the sniper-filled Kunar River Valley from Jalalabad to Asadabad, where the road ends, and then hitch a ride on a Black Hawk helicopter to this outpost in the far northeast, near the Pakistani border. Here, in the hills, you will find 200 wild-eyed U.S. Army soldiers living in a cluster of tents, sheltering themselves from regular rocket attacks.

I was greeted in a swirl of dust by Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Kolenda, a clean-cut, steel-eyed officer in the 173rd Airborne, who dragged me into a large tent filled with other officers. They promptly began one of the key battlefield tactics of the new American military – the two-hour PowerPoint presentation.

“The heart of the matter here, as we see it, is a socio-economic dislocation,” Col. Kolenda told me, before quoting at length from Kaffirs of the Hindu Kush (Sir George Scott Robertson, 1900) and explaining in detail the anthropology and tribal politics of this region, including some new research he had commissioned from the U.S. government’s elite squad of battlefield anthropologists, better known as Human Terrain Specialists.

“There’s been an atomization of society here – the elders lost control over their people, and a new elite of fighters came in to fill the vacuum, so what we need to do out here is to re-empower the traditional leadership structures,” he continued. “As you can see here,” he said at one point, “as you approach the possibility of self-sufficient development, then you reach what I’ll call the developmental asymptote, which is the point we’re striving to reach.”

… “This is all really new,” acknowledged Major Erik Berdy, who had been reading Queen Victoria’s Little Wars (Byron Farwell, 1972). “Before, it was totally high-intensity conflict, that was all we discussed. The mental dynamics we have needed to readjust our mentality have been quite dramatic – before, it was ‘find, fix and finish,’ and the change required to go from there to asymmetric development-focused counterinsurgency has been quite a mind shift.”

A later quote is even more explicit:

Here … officers were taking command of entire societies, in hopes of purifying the cultural oxygen that produced the Taliban. “Our goal,” one officer tells me, “is to rebuild the government and society from the ground up in our model.”


What is the content of a two-hour PowerPoint presentation? Of the slides, not much; perhaps equivalent to a few page memo. The verbal component has more content, but has a critical weakness. Verbal presentations cannot be re-read, analyzed, and critiqued like like written works. A presentation is only as good as its written foundation. Unfortunately Powerpoint slides often are the written foundation. This kind of planning is a quick path to disaster.

Literally in the case of the space shuttle Columbia. Edward Tufte has written about this in his discussion about the Columbia disaster at his website, and more extensively in his monograph The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint: the pitching out corrupts within. He gives this excerpt from the Final Report of the Return to Flight Task Force, page 190 (17 August 2005):

We also observed that instead of concise engineering reports, decisions and their associated rationale are often contained solely within Microsoft PowerPoint charts or emails. The CAIB report (Vol. I, pp. 182 and 191) criticized the use of PowerPoint as an engineering tool, and other professional organizations have also noted the increased use of this presentation software as a substitute for technical reports and other meaningful documentation.

PowerPoint (and similar products by other vendors), as a method to provide talking points and present limited data to assembled groups, has its place in the engineering community; however, these presentations should never be allowed to replace, or even supplement, formal documentation. Several members of the Task Group noted, as had CAIB before them, that many of the engineering packages brought before formal control boards were documented only in PowerPoint presentations. In some instances, requirements are defined in presentations, approved with a cover letter, and never transferred to formal documentation. Similarly, in many instances when data was requested by the Task Group, a PowerPoint presentation would be delivered without supporting engineering documentation. It appears that many young engineers do not understand the need for, or know how to prepare, formal engineering documents such as reports, white papers, or analyses.

To what extent does reliance on PowerPoint presentations, instead of detailed written plans, explain our series of ill-considered strategies in Iraq? In Afghanistan it appears we intend to remold its polity, a project requiring the highest possible level of interdisciplinary planning — tapping many kinds of expertise in both the social sciences and operational arts. The briefing books for a WWII amphibious assault were large — wealthier, tides, geography, enemy order of battle, biographies of the enemy commanders, etc. Consider the far larger body of work necessary to make event small changes to Afghanistan’s political structure. Does this exist, or does DoD rely on several long Powerpoint presentations?

Social Engineering

Lieutenant Colonel Kolenda’s presentation appears to put into practice the concepts of the new COIN bible, FM 3-24, has many pages of similar sounding material. (The following is an expanded version of my essay on the Roots of FM 3-24)

FM 3-24 effectively uses social science terminology and analytical frameworks to describe COIN dynamics. But it advocates using social science theories to manipulate foreign societies. This will likely fail on several levels.

(1) It will not work, as the social sciences are as yet immature. Its practitioners cannot wield their theories as can chemists and physicists. Twentieth century history is largely a series of failed attempts at social engineering. Consider how Watts and Harlem have deteriorated since 1960, despite forty years of expensive intervention.

(2) If US social scientists were able to do so at home, that does not mean that they can do so in foreign lands. Traveling thousands of miles to foreign lands only makes the task seem easier, as one loses sight of the task’s complexities. In many cases the locals will reject our neo-colonial presumptions. The great successes of the past century were, in general, by nations who ignored both our advice (e.g., most of Southeast Asia).

(3) If social engineering was possible to do in foreign lands, the US military might not have the necessary organization or talent to do so. This probably requires Thomas Barnett’s “System Administrators“, a 21st century organization of colonial civil servants.

To give a facade of expert support for his work, Lieutenant Colonel Kolenda speaks of “some new research he had commissioned from the U.S. government’s elite squad of battlefield anthropologists, better known as Human Terrain Specialists.” This over-states their resources and expertise. For more on this see the articles mentioned in Anthropologists go to war AND Revolt of the Anthropologists, esp. section I — “Recent volleys.”

Some day the social sciences might provide a basis to to manipulate our own society, and later still do so to foreign cultures. However, they are in an early stage of developing this. Ahead lie years, probably generations, of lab work, gathering data, and constructing simple theories. If there was a government Agency regulating social engineering — as the FDA regulates pharmaceuticals — they would declare that we were not ready for human trials.


Saunders turns his keen and skeptical vision on these dreams.

Within the U.S. military, this is known as population-centric counterinsurgency, an approach that has a cultish following among some officers. It was attempted and then dropped in the Vietnam War (the infamous “strategic hamlets” were at its centre) and there are still officers who believe that Vietnam would have been won if counterinsurgency had been practised to the end.

One of its strongest advocates happens to be General David Petraeus …

In practice, I found, it looks and sounds a lot more like old-fashioned colonialism. In the tents of Naray, I had the distinct feeling that I had strolled into Uttar Pradesh at some point after 1858, in the early days of the British Raj.

… Lest anyone think this is a soft or peaceful process, Cdr. Dwyer’s base was rocked, every minute or so all day, by the terrifying shock of its line of 155-mm howitzers firing their village-destroying shells over the hills and into the Korengal Valley. The building of mosques and roads is matched with absolutely ferocious fighting in places such as Korengal – the Americans are much more willing to use air strikes and heavy artillery, with the resulting heavy civilian casualties, than other militaries.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of this approach. “We do not believe in counterinsurgency,” a senior French commander tells me. “If you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost.”

There is one thing on which everyone can agree upon: how long this will take.

I ask one officer how long it is going to take to make this new strategy bear fruit. “Look,” he says, “we’re still in Germany and Japan 60 years after that war ended. That’s how long it can take. I fully expect to have grandchildren who will be fighting out here.”

Fortunately there is an election in November. There is still time to participate in the election of your Representative, Senators, and President.

Please share your comments by posting below. Brief! Stay on topic! Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information about the Iraq War

  1. My posts about the war
  2. Important articles about the Iraq War– include some about our use of airpower.
  3. Our goals and benchmarks, and reports about progress towards them

7 thoughts on “A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice”

  1. An insightful post. We do have the rudiments of social science and some early, qualified successes. Canada’s slums are much safer than ours. Russia is pulling out of seemingly fatal national decline. We pulled the plug on our inner city LA experiment. This points out the problem with such experiments: they take massive amounts of time and money. None of these experiments have yielded conclusive results. That could take 100 years or more.

    Trying to conduct such experiments in an alien war zone also requires death and the constant threat of death.

    Neither the democratic USA nor the authoritarian USSR can keep such an experiment running for decades, much less the 60 years the officer in the Globe and Mail article advocates.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree in general. Demography is one of the great factors shaping the world; I have a post out later this week on this subject.

    However, I see little evidence that Russia is pulling out of its national decline. Oil wealth should mitigate its problems, but perhaps there are other and stronger factors at work in Russia’s soul. For a current analysis of Russis demographic crisis see:

    Demography and development in Russia“, UN Development Program (28 April 2008) — Excerpt:

    “According to the preliminary data for 2007, the number of births increased and mortality went down. But this doesn’t change a principal evaluation of the situation: a favorable trend may continue for another 5-6 years, and then the loss will start to grow.

    “At the moment, there are no grounds to believe that the crisis will be overcome and the size of the population will be stabilized or that the goal of the state to raise the size of population to 145 mln persons will be reached.

    “… Russia is one of the few countries in the world where life expectancy has decreased in comparison to 1960s levels. Russia is behind developed countries in terms of life expectancy by 15-19 years for men and 7-12 years for women.

    “The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations: compared to the majority of countries that have similar level of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women.”

  2. As I’ve said before I’m more sanguine about population aging. Yes there will be short to medium term economic costs but ..

    1. Unemployment in most Western naton is far higher than official figures (Germany being an honourable exception). The ShadowStats website shows US unemployment in the 12% region. Australia, officially 5% or less is really 15-20% (depending on whether you count the Australian diaspora). So there is far more spare capacity than most people think.

    2. Older workers make good workers. Here in Oz (and as far as I now it is similar in the US/UK/etc) unemployment in 50 y.o. males is around 50% (yes)! There is huge spare capacity there that can be tapped. A 50 yo now can look forward to at least 20 years of productive and useful life now.

    3. Productivity. More education, training, R&D and investment. Aging of the population is not a dramatic effect annually, the impact per year is quite small. If we keep productivity growth up to (at least, preferably higher) than that effect then the net economic affect will be small or even non-existant.

    4. This one I bang away at again and agin. Yes some industries will decline, but other will increase. Toy shops and day care will shrink but aged care will increase … net economic effect zero.

    As usual (as with many other issues we face) good planning and organisation and starting the necessary changes early will mitigate or even eliminate this issue from the economic perspective.

    Again, what is so worng with a lower population. A US with 150M or 200M will be a much nices place. Australia at 17M (when I arrived) was much nicer than it is now at 21M. The Chinese would love to get down to 500M … and so on.

    As for Powerpoint. As in everything used properly it is great, unfortunately only 1% of presenters ever use it that way. Ideally you should just put up (e.g.) charts, tables, images, even summary points, etc, and you talk around them. You should never, ever put up dot points that you mindlessely parrot. For a big presentation you should have written a proper report that is handed out well before the meeting.

    I’m old school, if you cant get up and talk about your area of experise for an hour without notes you should not be in the job … period.

    Going back to an earlier post on 4GW, time to do real research, get the boys and girls (ansyou really need the girls as they will have access to sections of society not available to males) out there getting the data. A lot cheaper than making stupid mistakes. An example of this is on a Podcast (MP3 format) from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the real ABC) by Dr Jarad Diamond (Professor of Geology) on “The Urge for Revenge” (8 May 2008):

    “The impulse to get even and seek justice for perceived wrongdoing is a natural reaction, and is the rationale for creating procedural justice systems. But if you look at methods of seeking justice from an historical perspective, tribal societies expected and even demanded vengeance for certain crimes from victims’ families, whether it took the form of violent revenge, or negotiated compensation. Can countries like Papua New Guinea, where complex rituals of revenge and retribution are still carried out, offer to teach us something?”

    {I highly recommend regularly checking the ABC Late Night Live site for interesting podcasts, there are some wonderful people talking there. Philip Adams is literally an Australian National treasure.}

    There is a (unfortunately small at the moment) movement towards ‘evidence based’ social policy. Mimicking ‘evidence based’ medicine. You should not introduce something on a mass scale until you have the evindence that it works. This can be done by small scale experiments and using the good old ‘random trial’ methodology.

    The population issue as normally discussed is very much 2GW thinking, big, huge numbers, low quality per unit, etc. Lets think more SAS (or Hezbollah), smaller numbers and higher quality.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly agree that moving to evidence-based social science would be wonderful for us, the patient of these fumbling, over-confident social scientist-politicians.

    Regarding the effects of change in developed nations: you will find a large number of studies about this on the new reference page (top of right side menu bar): Demography: an archive of resources.

    More importantly, as I have said many times before: all we know are the short- to medium-term effects. We, readers of this, will be dead when the long-term effects arrive (as these terms are usually used). The “all will eventually work out” view is usually correct — society eventually adapts to changes over a few generations.

    But that is the time period over which we live out lives, the period for which we are responsible, the only period for which we have any vision (long-term guesses best consider fiction).

  3. Good post. Two notes:

    1) I find the “we’ve been in Germany and Japan for 60 years, that’s how long this can take” line we hear so often these days intensely frustrating. The reason we were in Germany and Japan for so long had nothing to do with stabilizing those countries after the war; that mission was probably complete by 1955 at the latest. We stayed there for forty years after that to deter the Russians from invading them — and then when the Russian threat went away, we stayed there… well, I don’t know why we stayed there, exactly, except that inertia is a powerful thing.

    If you had asked the average West German or Japanese citizen in, say, 1977 whether their society needed an American troop presence to keep from imploding into an orgy of internal score-settling, they would have laughed in your face.

    2) Powerpoint makes everything better. If only we’d had it in previous wars, those would have turned out just as awesome as this one. Illustration: The Gettysburg Address, if Lincoln had used Powerpoint.
    Fabius Maximus replies: All great points. Special thanks for the link to this wonderful version of The Gettysburg Address!

  4. Dear Mr.Lefkowitz,

    They (U.S. troops) stayed in order to deter the Russians and the Chinese from making any moves. Having standing troops in Germany and Japan is like having a two-pronged threat against the Russians…if you haven’t realized already.

    Yours Truly.

    P.S. I’m skeptical about whether Powerpoint would have really made such a dramatic impact if the USAF had it in the past.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Lefkowitz clearly stated that we stayed in Germany to deter the Russians (not the Chinese) from invading. He correctly notes that by the mid-1970’s there was no longer any danger that those nations could not themselves handle (although that was disputed at the time, by the “Team B” cold warriors, whose work we later learned by totally wrong).

    As for Powerpoint, I agree with him that it probably would have had a big — and deleterious — effect.

  5. Nicholas Weaver

    One thought on PowerPoint, as a heavy user, as a correlating data point… In academic Computer Science, we do use Powerpoint a fair bit, as our primary tool for seminar talks. However, it tends to be used in one of three modes:

    1) Giving lectures to students (so there is still the source material in the book)

    2) Conveying results where there is also a publication (at conferences/seminars)

    3) Conveying questions/results on things which WILL become publications to frame discussion.

    For example, I did two in the past week, a 5 minute talk at an IETF meeting (summarizing one of the major points of my position paper), and a seminar which covered two publications (one published, one in submission) plus framing speculation for discussion. In all cases, it is a tool associated with either currently written or to-be-written results.

    Thus I think you are right, that because it is used as standalone rather than adjunct to written material, PowerPoint can really hurt.

    The other thing that I think hurts, significantly, is the refusal to use Notes pages. You CAN make powerpoint presentations that can stand completely ON THEIR OWN without the presenter present as techniacl sources. You just have to add paragraphs of material on the “Notes” section for each slide! We did this with a 6+ hour tutorial, and that was one of the items which got us a lot of complements.

    In the end: “Wars are not won by doing PowerPoint presentations. Wars are won by making the other bastard do PowerPoint presentations.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: Great point about notes. It does not make PowerPoint a substitute for a transcript — let alone a full analysis or report. But it is far more informative than just the slides that often circulate on the Internet.

  6. Powerpoint is the poison of the Pentagon (alliteration!). It is a wonderful tool as a supplement, as Weaver says, to provide a visual aid to a more substantive project. But it is rare that a DoD briefing is anything more than a powerpoint, and most often it is just the powerpoint that gets saved.

    Let’s look at a real life example, from one who was intellectually raised in that environment. Compare Thomas Barnett’s powerpoint with his books. There is a thematic similarity, but one gets a dramatically different idea of what he’s arguing watching his pretty animations than reading the meat of his argumentation and supporting evidence (that is, I think his books tend to undermine his beliefs, while his presentations in isolation strengthen them). A classic example of how powerpoint’s shorthand can lead to conclusions at variance with reality.

  7. While, I don’t disagree with the article or comments in general, two major aspects are being overlooked:

    By way of a story: “All right sir, President Roosevelt will see you now. I’m not exactly sure how you were able to secure this meeting, but you have 5 minutes, so please get to the point on this fusion thing quickly, you do realize we’re in the middle of a war? Through this door Dr. Einstein.” There is nothing so important today that senior folks don’t require to be distilled to “5 minutes.” And detailed reports? Anyone remember the ending of the first Indiana Jones movie?

    Story two: Look at your compututer screen – wider than tall, yet we continually put out documents that require scrolling or printing. I tried with a very complex post exercise report to put in PPT “landscape” with font size enabling “clicking” from page to page, with multiple pictures deemed really helpful in terms of grasping the events. Whole point: Get folks to read and understand some really pertinent lessons learned. Documentation doesn’t mean anything if report never read.

    The best briefing and best PPT I’ve ever seen was a two hour explanation of how the Combat Training Center at Ft. Irwin functions by a young Major. Hubris is the issue not the screw driver.

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