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?
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.
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For more information about the Iraq War
- My posts about the war
- Important articles about the Iraq War– include some about our use of airpower.
- Our goals and benchmarks, and reports about progress towards them