a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The very model of a Powerpoint counterinsurgency general

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 10th, 2008

In Steve Coll’s New Yorker profile of General David Petraeus (“The General’s Dilemma”, 09/08/2008), a couple of things stood out for me.  First, there’s this:

…Petraeus and those around him believed “deep in their bones that we don’t get to choose what kind of wars we fight,” John Nagl, a 1988 West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who became part of Petraeus’s circle, said. They felt that it was therefore essential to vanquish Vietnam’s ghosts and learn to wage irregular war successfully.

While I take Petraeus et al’s point that officers don’t get to choose them, wars like Viet Nam and Iraq are precisely the kinds of wars the country — or more precisely, the U.S. government — or more precisely yet, these days, the White House — gets to choose to fight.

In his road to the top, Petraeus — a learned warrior — earned a Ph.D., read and wrote extensively on counterinsurgency, and finally rewrote the Marine Corps “counterinsurgency” manual (US Army Field Manual 3-24 / Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 33.3.5: Counterinsurgency) so well  — and  so well timed — that Samantha Power (the future ex-Obama advisor) wrote about it in the New York Times Book Review.

But what had seemed in the 1990s like an academic exercise in keeping military options open turned into something bigger and worse in the next decade.  It became the latest life preserver thrown to a president weighted down with a strategically stupid idea: the occupation of a foreign country and its conversion by force to a mutant version of “democracy.”  Take it from Westmoreland, McNamara, and LBJ: Petraeus isn’t vanquishing Vietnam’s ghosts, he’s been making new ones from Iraq.

And even in as damaged a democracy as our own, strategically stupid ideas like that require a great deal of artful communication, spin, and con jobs to sell them… maybe “lying” sums it up.  That’s where the second part that struck me comes in:

Petraeus is a professional briefer, and with a PowerPoint slide before him he will slip into a salesman’s rapid-fire patter. He illustrates his remarks with a laser pointer; he will swirl a bright dot of emerald light around a particular sentence fragment until a listener risks succumbing to hypnosis. Petraeus and his staff will discuss at length the shading of colors on a slide, or the direction of arrows depicting causality. When I asked, in a skeptical tone, about this passionate use of PowerPoint, the General responded in the staccato of the medium: “It’s how you communicate big ideas—to communicate them effectively.”

That struck me because it suggests it was no mistake that Petraeus chose a much more misleading set of maps for his slideshow presentation to Congress in the fall of 2007 than a different general (James Jones) had a week or so earlier.  As I wrote last September, Petraeus’s maps failed to show a competing explanation for declining violence — that the surge had been too late to put out the fire of ethnic cleansing, arriving in time to witness the burned-out result.  By successfully laying claim to a bizarre kind of “success,” Petraeus gained Bush — not Maliki — the “breathing room” to extend the escalation and leave the Iraq mess for the next President to clean up.  (And like idiots, Congressional Democrats went for it, despite having been elected to get us out of Iraq.)

The matter was lost in the brouhaha over’s “betray us” ads.  And yet — clumsy, deeply stupid punning aside — MoveOn’s actual points were valid: General Petraeus was using questionable measures of violence, was overlooking ethnic cleansing, and had chosen to become a political player in the 2004 election season debate over Iraq with a Washington Post op-ed (“Battling for Iraq“) that also painted a rosy picture of the situation at that time.*

What MoveOn failed to point out — and what may have been too complicated an idea to convey to a degraded United States body politic — was that being a political player had become part of the counterinsurgency general’s job.  With no one in Washington ready to take responsibility for spelling out the strategic mission in Iraq, Petraeus was actually asked by doddering Senator John Warner (R-VA) whether any of this was making America safer.  No doubt startled, Petraeus replied, “Sir, I don’t know actually.” Nor did anyone else — though at $3 trillion and counting, thousands of American dead, a breaking military, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees losing hope for a normal life, the smart betting runs the other way.

And that really was and is a betrayal — just not so much by Petraeus, who seems to me like nothing so much as a driven inventor tinkering with his perpetual motion machine, sure that just one more dab of glue or wheel adjustment will do the trick… and unaware it’s impossible.  Sure, violence is down now — for whatever reason — but soldiers on the ground know the U.S. efforts are unsustainable and beside the point.  From a Michael Massing article in the July 17, 2008 New York Review of Books (“Embedded in Iraq“):

“We’re helping people here,” the sergeant said. “If we weren’t here, there are a lot of people who’d be dead the next day. But we’re spinning our wheels. Al-Qaeda is defeated, but now we face Iraq’s internal problems. They have to be handled politically and socially. I wouldn’t say that I don’t believe in the mission here, but we’re not going about it in the right way.”

Was there another way? “No, I don’t really think so,” Brown said. General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, with its stress on protecting the local population, had been very effective, but, he added, “it’s a thin veneer. Beneath it—no matter how we try to make it look—we’re ultimately occupiers. And I don’t think you can democratize a country by being occupiers. Though we’ve made a lot of progress, the core issues remain. And if we can’t find a political solution to them, we’ll never get out of here.” Most of his fellow intel officers, he noted, felt the same way.

According to the GAO, the main “big idea” Petraeus was and is communicating to officers, Iraqis, soldiers, and (I assume) certain big shot visitors he gets from time to time — the “Joint Campaign Plan” — is being touted by State and Defense Departments as a roadmap for future U.S. operations in Iraq.  But as the GAO points out:

A campaign plan, however, is an operational, not a strategic plan, according DOD’s doctrine for joint operation planning. A campaign plan must rely on strategic guidance from national authorities for its development. […]

Joint doctrine also states that effective planning cannot occur without a clear understanding of the end state and the conditions that must exist to end military operations and draw down forces. According to doctrine, a campaign plan should provide an estimate of the time and forces required to reach the conditions for mission success or termination.

But that would require a definition of mission success, and a desire for its termination.  Petraeus can’t supply the former — and Washington, it seems, can’t supply the latter.  Here’s hoping Obama can and will.

* See Glenn Greenwald’s July 19, 2007 article How much credence should Gen. Petraeus’ reports be given? for “Petraeus’s greatest hits” on how swimmingly things were going in Iraq, from 2003 to 2007.

5 Responses to “The very model of a Powerpoint counterinsurgency general”

  1. Nell Says:

    This is one of the best posts you’ve ever written. Thank you.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Thank you very much, that means a lot to me.

  3. Nell Says:

    I’m also grateful for the next one, but there’s little to say there that’s printable — best to turn the response into action.

  4. mickarran Says:

    I agree with Nell. This is a great post, maybe, as she says, your best. I thought I was reading James Fallows.

    Compliments aside, however well-deserved, my judgment of Petraeus is much harsher. There is too much of the ambitious opportunist at any cost about him. With Bush firing generals left and right for not agreeing with him, Petraeus flew into the gap and toadied his ass off. He won a command he would normally never have had a shot at, and his mad tinkering may very well have less to do with his certainty that it will work than his certainty that his career would be over if it doesn’t.

    His performance in front of Congress was calculated but rough around the edges, and even in the mere clips that I saw, it seemed obvious that he was evading and misdirecting. His answers were hardly direct and there were times when he could be totally nonplussed by an unexpected question (you mentioned one of them). It seemed clear to me that he was in over his head, but as some military leader once said (Frederick the Great?), a little luck is worth 10 thousand men.

    BTW, Petraeus would seem to be the kind of general who was the target of a complaint not many years ago by a member of the Joint Chiefs who was sick of increasingly complex Powerpoint presentations. He said if we gave the Iraqi Army Powerpoint, their officers would soon be so busy doing presentations there wouldn’t be anybody to fight. Here’s a satire that was making the rounds of military bases a couple of years back. It’s based on the old “Rifleman’s Creed”.

    The Powerpoint Ranger Creed:

    This is my PowerPoint. There are many like it but mine is 7.0.

    My PowerPoint is my best friend. It is my life.
    I must master it as I master my life.

    My PowerPoint without me is useless.
    Without my PowerPoint, I am useless.

    I must format my slides true. I must brief them better
    than the other J-cells who are trying to out brief me.
    I must brief the impact on the CINC before he asks me. I will!

    My PowerPoint and myself know that what counts in this war
    is not the number of slides, quantity of animations, the colors
    of the highlights, or the format of the bullets. We know that it
    is the new information that counts. We will brief only new information!

    My PowerPoint is human, even as I, because it is my life.
    Thus I will learn it as a brother.

    I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its fonts,
    its accessories, its formats, and its colors.

    I will keep my PowerPoint slides current and ready to brief.
    We will become part of each other. We will!

    Before God I swear this creed. My PowerPoint and myself are
    defenders of my country. We are the masters of our subject.
    We are the saviors of my career.

    So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy,
    but peace (and the next exercise)!

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Ha! 🙂 The “Creed” is a fantastic addition here, Mick, thanks. (I love the PowerPoint Briefing Badge at the site — “1000 HOURS .PPT” And thanks for your kind words about the post as well.

    You may have a point about Petraeus, I just don’t know; clearly, it’s toxic to “go there” at this point. Nor should we have to. I think the real responsibility lies elsewhere: with elected officials seeking confirmation or oracular prophecies from Petraeus when they should be supplying their own judgment and strategic thinking instead.

    (PS: didn’t see your comments in queue until this morning.)

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