Iraq: the PowerPoint slide

Did the US military fail to plan adequately for its post-invasion governance of Iraq? I presume no-one outside of the White House would say “no”. So how did they come to do preside over such a prolonged disaster? Well, according to a new book, it’s all the fault of Microsoft PowerPoint.

Here’s a quote from Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco (via Crooked Timber):

[Army Lt. General David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn’t get Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: “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 bunch of PowerPoint slides…[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.”

That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld’s amateurish approach to war planning. “Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD’s 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,” commented retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a former commander of an armored cavalry regiment. “To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness.” It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer’s glossy sales brochure to figure out how to repair an engine.

So, what do military plans in PowerPoint look like? This is supposedly the actual slide used by Joint Task Force IV in its planning:


Funny, I don’t see “prolonged insurgency” or “massive troop and civilian casualties” on there.

Much of the commentary on this slide has centred on how incomprehensible it is. Fair point. But it seems they thought that “aimed pressure” from the military and then ultimately Iraqi civil authorities could bridge ethnic, tribal and religious divides. And that’s the real risk of PowerPoint – it makes bollocksy assertions look convincing. Just because you have a bunch of arrows pointing in a direction doesn’t mean it’s actually going to result in “strategic success”. If this is all they had to go on, no wonder it’s a screaming disaster.

Tragically, they’re still using it in Iraq. Although fortunately not for pre-mission briefings at the lowest level.

And now they’ve developed a presentation to make the case against Iran. The great thing about using PowerPoint is that if they are planning to invade – and you can bet the neocons are – they can just do a find-and-replace on the slide above. The same way they are with their foreign policy.

Dominic Knight