Journal: Cognitive Dissonance in Afghanistan

07 Other Atrocities, 08 Wild Cards, Methods & Process, Military
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The author was “ordered home” within 24 hours (took three days to get him out).  Multiple commentaries suggest that he is actually “understated” in his remarks.  Below the line is balance of article, Small Wars Journal intelligence commentary, and link to illustrated blog with added value.  EDIT of 7 Sep 2010 to add comment from LtCol  Karen Kwiatkowski, USAF (Ret), at end.

Outside View: PowerPoints ‘R' Us

United Press International (UPI)

Aug 24 10:19 AM US/Eastern

KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 24 (UPI) — Throughout my career I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment. I see no reason to change that now.

Consider the following therapeutic.

I have been assigned as a staff officer to a headquarters in Afghanistan for about two months. During that time, I have not done anything productive. Fortunately little of substance is really done here, but that is a task we do well.

We are part of the operational arm of the International Security Assistance Force commanded by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus. It is composed of military representatives from all the NATO countries, several of which I cannot pronounce.

Officially, IJC was founded in late 2009 to coordinate operations among all the regional commands in Afghanistan. More likely it was founded to provide some general a three-star command. Starting with a small group of dedicated and intelligent officers, IJC has successfully grown into a stove-piped and bloated organization, top-heavy in rank. Around here you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel.

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death.

The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill. It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon.

Random motion, ad hoc processes and an in-depth knowledge of Army minutia and acronyms are also key characteristics of a successful staff officer. Harried movement together with furrowed brows and appropriate expressions of concern a la Clint Eastwood will please the generals. Progress in the war is optional.

Each day is guided by the “battle rhythm,” which is a series of PowerPoint briefings and meetings with PowerPoint presentations. It doesn't matter how inane or useless the briefing or meeting might be. Once it is part of the battle rhythm, it has the persistence of carbon 14.

And you can't skip these events because they take roll — just like gym class.

The start and culmination of each day is the commander's update assessment. Please ignore the fact that “update assessment” is redundant. Simply saying commander's update doesn't provide the possibility of creating a three-letter acronym. It also doesn't matter that the commander never attends the CUA.

The CUA consists of a series of PowerPoint slides describing the events of the previous 12 hours. Briefers explain each slide by reading from a written statement in a tone not unlike that of a congressman caught in a tryst with an escort. The CUA slides only change when a new commander arrives or the war ends.

The commander's immediate subordinates, usually one- and two-star generals, listen to the CUA in a semi-comatose state. Each briefer has approximately 1 or 2 minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don't do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

Next month IJC will attempt a giant leap for mankind. In a first-of-its-kind effort, IJC will embed a new stovepipe into an already existing stovepipe. The rationale for this bold move resides in the fact that an officer, who is currently without one, needs a staff of 35 people to create a big splash before his promotion board.

Like most military organizations, structure always trumps function.

The ultimate consequences of this reorganization won't be determined until after that officer rotates out of theater.

Nevertheless, the results will be presented by PowerPoint.

(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently serving his second deployment to Afghanistan. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or U.S. government.)

Intelligence-related commentary from Small Wars Empire:

On Powerpoint…

In light of all previous comments….All I have to say on Powerpoint is that it has most definitely been the demise of the quality of Intelligence products.

I miss a few years ago when I would get an INTSUM (Intelligence Summary), which has now been replaced by a GRINTSUM (Graphical Intelligence Summary). With the invention of the GRINTSUM, not only intelligence products, but the Patrol Debriefs have simply become a storyboard that encompasses half a slide that represents where on the map the unit was. Last I checked, the Commander already knows where the unit was. The Commander doesn't need to know where his infantry platoon was through the use of a map on Powerpoint that takes up at least half of the entire storyboard/patrol debrief. If he does, then he is “lost in the sauce”, and doesn't know what his unit is doing, or where they are going. Not to mention, a true Patrol Debrief is not doctrinally a Powerpoint slide in either the US military or even NATO.

Yes, pictures are “1,000 words”, however when the pictures tell you less than the “1,000 words”, it is time to step back for a moment.

Not only that, too many Commanders do not want to see “NSTR” (No Status to Report) on their GRINTSUM's.

Well, Sir…If there is nothing to report, then there is nothing to report. By ordering that “NSTR” is not allowed on an intelligence report, you are only prompting intellegence professionals to generate information (not intelligence) that really is of no use to anyone.

Honestly, if the intel shop is telling you that there is “NSTR”, then maybe it is time to stop sending troops and intelligence collection assets to a place or activity that continually produces “NSTR” information. Or, what happens is that the same information continually gets reported day-in, and day-out. Hence, why many analysts and others get to where they will just hit the “Delete” button on their keyboard when the 20megabyte file drops into their inbox. They know there won't be anything new on it, and besides…their email inbox is only 30megabytes so all it does is fill it up so they can't receive information that is the “hear-and-now” from someone else.

Unfortunately, by ordering the ban on “NSTR” in reporting, you are only generating false reporting in that the intelligence analysts have to “create” something from nothing, which in turn…turns into a combat zone based on fictional reporting.

Currently, we are teaching students in the All-Source Analyst Course (35F) the GRINTSUM, and discarding what is actually written in doctrinal publications on how to report intellegence to commanders. During the 10-day FTX here at Fort Huachuca, we spend more time on the students learning how to be “Powerpoint Rangers” than actual intelligence analysis. It is nothing for the students to spend an hour and a half just preparing the CIU to brief, which typically does not yield enough information to really give the Commander a true sense of his COP. Instead of the students learning how to write intelligence reporting, they spend more time on trying to be able to graphically represent what is on the various slides. This last class, I can't tell you how many times I had to try and pound into their heads the simple concept of presenting “Bottom-Line-Up-Front” (BLUF) reporting where the first sentence answered the “5W's”. They honestly do not know how to do that, and after 4-months of training, we end up having to teach them just how to write intelligence that is useful to not only Commanders, but the rest of the intelligence community.

Through the use of Powerpoint to produce intelligence products, there are several issues that come about.

First, most of the GRINTSUM's are too big to even be transmitted through email to some elements that are in remote areas.

Second, if you didn't sit through the brief, there is information that was presented on what was in the brief that is not displayed in text somewhere. So, if you weren't in the brief, you are looking at a slide with pretty pictures, and really don't know what the content was that is trying to make a point.

Thirdly, Powerpoint is like the old school slide show. So, the point is that the “highlights” are presented graphically, and the briefer fills in the rest of the details. By doing this, all that is said by the briefer is lost when it is posted to a website, and someone from another unit looks at it. They are missing the additional details that are part of what was briefed, which are no longer included in any form to those that are no where near the briefing room.

The GRINTSUM is perfectly fine to brief the Commander during a their CUB/CIU brief. However, it absolutely does not replace what the doctrinal concept behind what an INTSUM produces.

Solution: Produce the GRINTSUM, but do not neglect the publication of an INTSUM, which can be put in small kilobyte size files able to be be sent to troops in remote areas with all of the details that they were unable to hear in a brief they were unable to attend.

Unfortuntely, the doctrinal INTSUM that is referenced so many times in Army FM's is no longer taught, or tested on. This is particularly the case when they go do their 10-day FTX.

20100907 New Comment from LtCol  Karen Kwiatkowski, USAF (Ret) as posted to LouRockwellBlog:  Col. Sellin, PhD, wrote an op-ed for UPI describing some of the idiocy of the American way of war. It looks like it took them around three days to fire him. The report indicates that Col Sellin was fired (by NATO actually, a US confection) for criticizing MS Powerpoint, and that he isn’t the first, referring to a recent Armed Forces Journal article on the slide-making application calling it “…the antithesis of thinking…[and] actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making.” If only we had a better software application for presenting our amazing lack of military or political objectives, or an improved graphic design for our hallucinogenic strategies, why surely, surely we would be winning Washington’s wars! Of course, Sellin was removed — as so many are that we never hear about — because he noticed that the Emperor is not only unclothed, but addled too.

See Also:

PowerPoints ‘R' Us: Col Sellin is as mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more

ADMIN:  UPI Search virtually non-existent so link not provided.

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