Fiasco

Following Richard’s recommendation in comments below, I got myself a copy of Thomas E. Ricks’s Fiasco, and am now halfway through. It’s alright, though it’s a bit heavy-handed, and I still prefer the reporter George Packer’s book (The Assassins’ Gate) to the stay-at-home-and-swap-emails-with-the-troops approach of Ricks.

Anyway: my favourite detail so far concerns the role of PowerPoint in the run-up to the war:

[Army Lt Gen David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging, issue. He couldn’t get [Tommy] 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 [Office of Strategic Defense] and Secretary of Defense… In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set 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.

[Thomas E Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Allen Lane, 2006, pp.75-6.]

0 thoughts on “Fiasco”

  1. Chris, I hope it improves for you.
    If it’s frontline reporting you want from Iraq, Cobra II by Michael Gordon (chief military correspondent for The New York Times) is a rip-snorter, but it stops at the end of 2003.

  2. Chris, I’d be delighted to lend you Edward Tufte’s rousing diatribe against PowerPoint, “Pitching Out Corrupts Within: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” next time it’s convenient. You will like the front cover (cf. Amazon).

    Cheers, Nick

  3. My major beef with Powerpoint is that the term has become as ubiquitous as Hoover or Walkman, which makes it next to impossible for other presentation packages to get much of a look-in.

    And even when other packages are used, the end results are invariably credited to Powerpoint. For a particularly good recent example, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was constantly described as “a Powerpoint presentation”, yet Gore was, of course(*), using Apple’s vastly superior Keynote software(**).

    (*) Gore’s on the board of Apple, so he could hardly have done otherwise.

    (**) which I insist on using for my own professional presentations, much to the annoyance of my colleagues (jealousy rather than inconvenience: they can’t run it without changing their hardware!).

  4. So would the Iraq war either (a) not have happened, or (b) turned out “better” if Rumsfeld had been using Apple software?!

  5. Did Franks do that PowerPoint thing of having a handout that’s exactly the same as the slides, and reading out the slides v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y (as if the audience were illiterate) in lieu of an actual presentation? Because if he did that in the presence of anybody armed, it’s a miracle he’s still alive.

  6. I think it’s safe to say that Tommy Franks has often been in the presence of somebody armed, so I’m going to infer that he doesn’t do the slow reading thing that you don’t like.

  7. Did Franks do that PowerPoint thing of having a handout that’s exactly the same as the slides, and reading out the slides v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y (as if the audience were illiterate) in lieu of an actual presentation?

    I once saw a presentation by a university student in which the entire script was written out on an OHP slide in spidery handwriting and he stood with his back to the audience reading it out loud off the screen.

    It was so bafflingly bad it almost qualified as deliberate performance art, but as he was the class dimwit this seems unlikely. Unless that was part of the act too.

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