I have been spending the past few days with American military forces in the Persian Gulf region. Everywhere I have gone with a group from the Council on Foreign Relations, military briefers have sheepishly prefaced their remarks by saying, “I read that story about PowerPoint, but I have a few PowerPoint slides I’d like to present anyway.” The story they’re referring to is this New York Times article, which suggests that the military is dangerously over reliant on this Microsoft program, which makes it all too easy to substitute glib bullet points for serious thought about pressing issues. Granted, PowerPoint in the right hands can be an efficient way to convey a lot of information, but Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster makes a good point when he says: “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” Undoubtedly true, but as my experience of the past few days demonstrates, PowerPoint isn’t going away anytime soon.
If only officers devoted as much time to the study of military history and strategy as they do to creating PowerPoint presentations, I suspect our armed forces would be even more formidable than they already are. And this is an addiction that is spreading: Armed forces tutored by Americans, including those of Afghanistan and Iraq, are using PowerPoint too. I’m generally a fan of American imperialism, but this is one habit we might be better off not exporting.