Jill O'Neill: H.R. McMaster's War Against PowerPoint

Historians in the News
tags: HR McMaster

Ms. O'Neill is an HNN intern.

The successful conciliation of the Iraqi city Tal Afar in 2005 now stands as a prime example and archetypal strategy of how to effectively implement U.S. counterinsurgency strategies, and Brigadier General H.R. McMaster can not only be credited with this successful campaign but also with the development of counterinsurgency theories, as he was part of General David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency council of experts in from 2007 to 2008. 

General McMaster has been known for his invaluable critical thinking, as he has been one of the main brainpowers driving the strategies of the Army.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in American History, and his book Dereliction of Duty (1998), which severely criticizes the Johnson administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their strategies in the Vietnam War, has even made it onto the reading list of the Marine Corps.  Now McMaster is the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center's Concepts Development and Experimentation Directorate, where he has led the “Army Capstone Concept,” which examines what the future of armed conflict will bring and how the Army will be able to address them. 

While his actions have become the ideal prototype of the Army’s counterinsurgency methods, McMaster has recently found that obstacles to efficaciously waging counterinsurgency in Iraq are not simply limited to external forces, but to tools within the U.S. military as well.

In December of 2009, Richard Engel of NBC News released an article entitled “So what is the Actual Surge Strategy?” in which he unearthed the now-notorious PowerPoint presentation “Dynamic Planning for COIN in Afghanistan” and set off a debate on the actual effectiveness of the military’s extensive use of PowerPoint.  Additionally, a recent article from April 2010 in the New York Times called “We Have Met the Enemy, and He is PowerPoint,” reveals the dependence of military briefings on the use of slides and also illustrates how this tool has suppressed critical reasoning and analytical discussion.

Many army commanders have acknowledged the dangers of this technological device, and McMaster recognized PowerPoint as an ineffective tool as early as 2005, when he banned such presentations during the pacification of Tal Afar.  He does not, however, see the congested and perplexing slides as the major impediment to valuable decision-making and comprehension of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The true danger of PowerPoint, according to McMaster, is the program’s basic tendency to deconstruct all concepts into mere bullet points, a dangerous trend that does not take into account military situations that will undoubtedly have political, ethnic and economic implications.  General McMaster realizes the military currently faces situations that interweave many different factors and that bullet points only create a false impression of control for the U.S. Army and in no way create sufficient means for properly comprehending and effectively responding to the intricate situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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