WASHINGTON -- Earlier this year, Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued an unusual order to U.S. military bases around the globe.
His message: Enough with the bells and whistles -- just get to the point.
It seems that e-mailed military briefings larded with electronic "slides" of booming tanks and spinning pie charts were gobbling up so much of the Defense Department's classified bandwidth that they were slowing more-critical communications between headquarters and units in the field.
"The chairman basically told everyone that we don't need Venetian-blind effects or fancy backdrops. All we need is the information," says one senior Defense Department official.
Shelton's order is only the Pentagon's most recent assault on a growing electronic menace: the PowerPoint briefing. Sure, business executives complain about the seemingly endless PowerPoint presentations put on by overeager middle managers in darkened boardrooms across America. But in the military, the Microsoft (msft) program, which helps users create computer-based graphics and sound effects, has become one of the most dreaded facts of life.
And it's even shouldering the blame for at least some of the armed forces' ills.
Congressional support for new weapons programs isn't as strong as expected? Army Secretary Louis Caldera suggests that PowerPoint presentations are alienating lawmakers. "People are not listening to us because they are spending so much time trying to understand these incredibly complex slides," he says.
Too many bright, young junior officers are leaving the military for the private sector? A recent survey of captains at Fort Benning, Ga., cites the "ubiquity of the PowerPoint Army" as a prime reason for their disaffection.
"The idea behind most of these briefings is for us to sit through 100 slides with our eyes glazed over, and then to do what all military organizations hope for ... to surrender to an overwhelming mass," says Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.
Old-fashioned slide briefings, designed to update generals on troop movements, have been a staple of the military since World War II. But in only a few short years PowerPoint has altered the landscape. Just as word processing made it easier to produce long, meandering memos, the spread of PowerPoint has unleashed a blizzard of jazzy but often incoherent visuals. Instead of drawing up a dozen slides on a legal pad and running them over to the graphics department, captains and colonels now can create hundreds of slides in a few hours without ever leaving their desks.
If the spirit moves them they can build in gunfire sound effects and images that explode like land mines.
"There is an arms-race dimension to it," says Peter Feaver, a military expert at Duke University and frequent PowerPoint briefer at various war colleges. "If there are three briefings in a row, and you are the one with the lowest production values, you look really lame."
PowerPoint has become such an ingrained part of the defense culture that it has seeped into the military lexicon. "PowerPoint Ranger" is a derogatory term for a desk-bound bureaucrat more adept at making slides than tossing grenades. There is even a "PowerPoint Ranger Creed," a parody of the Marine Corp's famous "Rifleman's Creed":
"This is my PowerPoint. There are many like it, but mine is [PowerPoint] 97. ... I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its fonts, its accessories and its formats ... My PowerPoint and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our subject. We are the saviors of my career."
The parody is zapping around the Defense Department as a PowerPoint slide complete with the sound of explosions and featuring an animated John Wayne in Army Ranger garb wielding a laser pointer.
How did a piece of technology that was supposed to improve communication become a barrier to it?
Some military sociologists say the endless presentations are a product of the military's zero-defect culture, in which one mediocre review by a superior can torpedo a career. "Young officers are worried that they might leave something out of their briefing, and a supervisor might say something about it. So they pack their presentations with every detail that they can think off," says Charles Moskos, a military-culture expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Others blame the problem on the absence of a formidable enemy. "We crave something that explains who we are," says retired Army Col. Henry G. Cole. "The PowerPoint game creates the illusion of control. All those moving arrows and graphics become reality for a military that is trapped in this permanent state of shadow-boxing an enemy that no longer exists."
Whatever the cause, a handful of senior Pentagon officials have decided to attack the PowerPoint problem head-on. Navy Secretary Danzig announced late last year that he was no longer willing to soldier through the slide shows. He maintains that PowerPoint briefings are only necessary for two reasons: If field conditions are changing rapidly or if the audience is "functionally illiterate."
"In the Pentagon the second seems to be the underlying presumption," grouses Danzig, who now asks to get all his briefings in written form.
Danzig's Army counterpart, Caldera, says he, too, would ban the presentations if he thought he could get away with it. "For some of these guys, taking away their PowerPoint would be like cutting off their hands," he says. Caldera's strategy is to interrupt the show with questions when he gets bored.
Despite such countermeasures, PowerPoint is showing no signs of retreat. Indeed, it seems to be spreading. James A. Calpin, an officer in the Naval Reserves, just returned home from duty in Operation Northern Watch in Turkey, where PowerPoint has just begun to surface in officer presentations. "I was able to come in and spruce up their briefings, and they were just wowed," he says. "People over there just loved it."
Foreign armed services also are beginning to get in on the act. "You can't speak with the U.S. military without knowing PowerPoint," says Margaret Hayes, an instructor at National Defense University in Washington D.C., who teaches Latin American military officers how to use the software.
Unfortunately, Hayes admits many foreign officers, including those fluent in PowerPoint visuals, still struggle to understand their U.S. counterparts' complicated slide presentations. "We've gotten away from inviting our colleagues from the Department of Defense to brief our visiting officers. Some of their presentations are a little bit too complex and too inhibiting," she says.
All of which makes Duke University's Feaver wonder if the U.S. military is misusing the technology. "If we really wanted to accomplish something we shouldn't be teaching our allies how to use PowerPoint," he says. "We should give it to the Iraqis. We'd never have to worry about them again."