Col. Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D: F*** Powerpoint, Afghanistan edition

Colonel Sellin, who was fired from his post after writing this awesomely frank description of his duties as staff officer at ISAF Joint Command in Afghanistan for UPI. Excerpting doesn’t do it justice, but here are some highlights:

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.

And then, tragicomedy:

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.

What made the 61-year-old reservist, who served in both current theaters of war, go off the ranch in such a brilliant manner? According to Wired, Sellin tried giving his higher-ups constructive criticism, including “proven organizational methodologies,” but was ignored (even though, Wired notes, he delivered it using a 5-slide PowerPoint). His PowerPoint rant, though, got attention.

Sellin had been opining frequently for UPI; it’s amazing he lasted this long (it may be that PowerPoint and its use in the military has gotten a lot of ridicule lately). Many of his columns complain about operational inefficency and bureaucratic idiocy. On June 24, he wondered if a military mental health test was “just a Pentagon public relations exercise to pretend that ‘something is being done'” and stated that “on face value it appears to be not only a waste of taxpayer’s money but a total waste of time for the deploying soldiers and the CRC staff.” His ripping on PowerPoint started as early as July 15, when he wrote that “command briefings become nothing more than the same updated Power Point slides presenting data about daily operations

And back in June 15, he gave a impolitic assessment of (presumably) the Obama administration, in comments that make Gen. McChrystal look as obedient as a bootlicking middle-manager:

Far too many in Washington appear to be, not only dangerously out-of-touch with the sentiments and values of the American people but also laughably incompetent in accomplishing anything beyond rhetoric and self-aggrandizement.

Much of our current leadership seem less committed to addressing critical national security issues than pursuing political agendas dedicated solely to the perpetuation of personal power and privilege.

They persist despite the knowledge that their inaction may ultimately weaken the country. It is a degree of selfishness that defies description.

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