Friday, August 27, 2010

"That fine line between good taste and unemployment"

Col. Lawrence Sellin crossed that line, and is no longer employed by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan -- tho happily for him, he's a reservist, so now he can go back to his real career.

His crime? Blowing the whistle on that notorious WMD, PowerPoint (Weapon of Mass Dullification):
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. * * *

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.
I'm certainly glad we're getting intelligent people like Sellin out of the military. (Via Drum.)


  1. Gotta disagree with out on this one, A. For the same reason McChrystal had to so, Sellin doomed himself. Especially since it looks like the original letter was penned intentionally and deliberately.

    This sort of thing simply isn't acceptable in the military. Or at least it isn't acceptable in any sort of manner which will result in your superiors knowing about it :) Griping about senior command is a time-honored military tradition, but it must be done in a matter which maintains some semblance of good order. This really didn't.

    I'm not saying he's not highlighting a problem - he undoubtedly is, and I think the evils of PowerPoint go well beyond the military. But there are proper ways to go about improving things. Getting frustrated with the (admittedly frustrating) nature of the military, and chucking an op-ed is not the proper approach.

    Honestly, this strikes me far more as someone who was looking for a way to get out of his deployment than any noble gesture by an intelligent officer.

  2. You may be right, but if you follow that "no longer employed" link, you'll find he's written op-eds for a while without drawing this kind of fire. Of course they weren't precisely on this topic either. No refs to "cognitively challenged generals."

    But I don't think there's a good comparison to McChrystal, who was attacking his civilian superiors.

  3. There really isn't any difference between military superiors and civilian superiors. You can maybe interpret it differently from a big picture standpoint - that McChrystal was a bigger problem because it was usurping the ultimate authority of civilian leadership - but from a military standpoint, and that of the rules, there really isn't any difference.

    I'm not arguing that he's wrong - I encountered enough military bureaucracy to believe he's quite probably right... But this just isn't acceptable from the standpoint of military discipline. The entire piece was overflowing with disrespect - this ends the same whether it's written or spoken and no matter what the rank difference involved is.