Monday, September 17, 2007

War and death by PowerPoint

Front paged at Booman Tribune and ePluribus Media

I am a tax consultant and, over the course of my career have become intimately involved with many PowerPoint presentations. These are generally used to sell services or “products” to a client or to summarize a presentation topic. To be most effective, these presentations are high level and the slides don’t contain more than a few bullet points. At times, they are pretty effective – generally when there really isn’t a need to get into multitudes of details and the strategy behind anything in the presentation.

One of the good things about PowerPoint is that it can be used as an “Executive Summary” of what we want the client to know, and the format really only allows you to take into account certain information that you choose and present it in a manner that will (1) help your client understand what you choose to talk about and more importantly (2) allow you to persuade them that you know how to help them based on the information that you choose to present. Certainly, this wouldn’t be an effective way to hold a meeting if we were looking into detailed and complex issues associated with a client, or multiple fact patterns and assumptions – all which may be in conflict with each other.

Sadly, this is how the Iraq invasion and occupation has been run at the highest levels. A situation that would require the utmost of planning, attention to details, drilling down of data related to different situations and ever changing fact patterns as well as the ability to adapt to radically changing situations on a daily basis has been reduced to bulletpoints, summaries and rosy assessments that have been cherry picked in order to “sell a narrative” that does not exist in reality.

As we all know, the end result is a completely mismanaged invasion that was devoid of any planning, coupled with an ongoing occupation that is devoid of any strategy, planning or details. And this “death by PowerPoint” is not meant to develop any strategy for dealing with our troops, the civil war, the increased number of attacks and deaths or even how “success” is measured. Rather, it is meant to convince enough people – people in Congress, people in the media and people around the world, that “more-of-the-same” is just fine and dandy.

As anyone that does what I do for a living knows (as well as people in many many other occupations know as well), data can be manipulated and words can be spun in any way by anybody. What is appalling is that a computer tool such as PowerPoint is basically being used in the manner that it is, and that people are buying the “sales pitch”. At least Rep. Ellen Tauscher put it right when she talked about the “Green Zone fog” that people are gripped by when seeing these PowerPoint presentations. In fact, with Tauscher’s fourth visit to Iraq recently, she noticed how much worse things have gotten over the past couple of years.


This actually goes back to the initial lack of planning for the invasion, when PowerPoint was used to summarize, alter the 1,200 page, 13 volume study done prior to the invasion that raised a number of significant issues that could arise post-invasion. Of course, this completely brushes off the ”Desert Crossing planning that was done back in the 1990s and predicted much of what has happened in Iraq over the past few years.

In addition to discarding and disregarding all of the prior studies and warnings about the disaster that an invasion and occupation of Iraq would cause, PowerPoint was the choice of CENTCOM back in mid-2002. Since anything can be put into a presentation and look rosy or convincing, there was a slide that assumed 5,000 troops by the end of 2006, and another slide that contained the word “UNKNOWN” to discuss post invasion hostilities. Of course, major concerns about this were raised by the State Department, to no avail.

Based on the information in these presentations, the concerns raised by “Desert Crossing”, the “Future of Iraq Project”, Retired General Anthony Zinni, the State Department, General Shinseki and even Tommy Franks were buried and not even mentioned to those who were ultimately responsible for planning and “selling” the invasion.

Now, four years, nearly four thousand US military deaths, tens of thousands of US troops casualties, a raging civil war, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, hundreds of thousands of annual refugees and displaced Iraqis and hundreds of billions of dollars later, death by PowerPoint is still prominent.

Rep. Brian Baird was recently swayed by his visit to Iraq and the PowerPoint presentations that were given to him. Never mind the NIE and GAO reports, or the actual facts on the ground related to deaths, attacks, sectarian cleansing, injuries and lack of any progress towards most of the US-set benchmarks – all of that is easy to leave out of a PowerPoint presentation. Never mind how deaths are “counted” – charts and bar graphs can be presented in any way that the presenter wants.

While Baird was duped by this, others were wise to this shell game:

Petraeus has done his part in Baghdad, hosting dozens of lawmakers and military scholars for PowerPoint presentations on why the Bush strategy had made gains. Many Republicans and even Democrats, notably Rep. Brian Baird of Washington, came home impressed. Petraeus also persuaded intelligence officials to revise key judgments of a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to reflect security gains.

Some visitors suspected a skewed picture. "We only saw things that reinforced their message that the surge was working," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.

Schakowsky has stronger words about the presentations as compared to reality:
A co-founder of the House Out of Iraq Caucus, Schakowsky saw only fleeting glimpses of Iraqis' day-to-day life during her one-day trip. The few times she ventured out of the Green Zone, she was in a helicopter or a speeding convoy, soldiers hanging out of the windows with machine guns, obscuring the view. She heard about dire power and water shortages, yet saw nothing firsthand.

But the military presentations left her stunned…


"I felt that was a stretch and really part of a PR strategy -- just like the PR strategy that initially led up to the war in the first place,"

The PowerPoint presentations themselves are chock full of distortions, misrepresentations and exaggerations (as you can see from his 2006 presentation). Even Petraeus’ testimony was accompanied by a 15 page PowerPoint presentation that twists the assumptions regarding civilian deaths, weekly attack trends, number of IEDs, levels of sectarian violence (of course, violence goes down when an area is “cleansed”) as well as other “successes”. Of course, none of these presentations mention how little electricity, water or jobs there are.

This is what passes for planning and strategy in Iraq. Taking a computer application that is meant for presentations to clients to give a high level view of an idea or their specific situation and using it to gloss over an ever changing, ever devolving and more complex set of factors in order to try and convince people that a predetermined, pre-selected set of data is “proof” that things are just peachy. However, when the only goal is to use this as a marketing tool, it does a disservice to this country, our troops and anyone who is trying to get an accurate assessment of what is going on in Iraq in order to figure out what is wrong, how wrong it is, and how to proceed.

Forgetting the fact that this shouldn’t have been done in the first place, you don’t run an invasion and occupation as a marketing initiative with Executive Summaries and cherry picked data from a 50,000 foot view.

Death and destruction is not something to be glossed over with pretty pictures, graphs and charts on a bunch of slides. Running an occupation by PowerPoint only leads to death by PowerPoint.

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