There are a lot of reasons to support the nomination of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense. He's an enormously respected and talented general. He's a scholar and an impressively well-read man. He supports America's alliances and is clear-eyed about America's challenges, especially Russia and Iran. If anyone has the intelligence and backbone to curb some of Donald Trump's worst instincts, it's Mattis.
But there's another big reason why I want Mattis to get the job: He might be the only man with the legitimacy — and the guts — to take on the cancer eating away at the U.S. military.
What is this cancer? Is it over-reliance on outdated supercarriers and stealth fighters that aren't stealthy? No. Is it poor generalship and a culture of complacency, unaccountability, and uncritical thinking? Nope. It's worse. Much worse.
PowerPoint has been slowly killing the U.S. military from the inside. As this 2010 article from The New York Times explains, from generals down to frontline officers, America's military staff spend their time making, giving, and listening to PowerPoint presentations instead of, you know, preparing for war.
The money quote from that piece actually comes from none other than Gen. Jim Mattis, who said at the time that "PowerPoint makes us stupid." This is true, as Franck Frommer explains in his important book, How PowerPoint Makes you Stupid, demonstrating how this absurdly popular program plays on our cognitive biases to make us miss stuff.
For example, PowerPoint reduces everything down to bullet points and inane charts. This "stifles discussion, critical thinking, and thoughtful decision-making," officers in the Pentagon have said.
It's also a huge waste of precious time. Indeed, junior officers are nicknamed "PowerPoint Rangers" for all the time they have to spend making slides. As The New York Times reported: "...when a military website, Company Command, asked an Army platoon leader in Iraq, Lt. Sam Nuxoll, how he spent most of his time, he responded, 'Making PowerPoint slides.' When pressed, he said he was serious."
There is also growing evidence that PowerPoint is eroding not just good thinking and efficiency, but the most important asset of the U.S. military: ethics.
Junior officers have started skipping their inane requirements, like making endless PowerPoint slides, and then lying about it, according to a study from two Army War College professors reported in The Army Times: "Enemy contacts in Afghanistan and Iraq would go unreported because they required a PowerPoint description after the fact, something some officers felt 'was useless ... they didn't want to go through the hassle.'"
The officers anonymously quoted in the study not only admitted to lying about this, but defended it. Every large institution has people who break the rules; it's when there is not only rule-breaking but justification for rule-breaking that a culture of corruption becomes entrenched.
PowerPoint is a real problem. But like an alcoholic in denial or a smoker who just won't quit, people in the Pentagon make excuses. PowerPoint is good for some things... You just have to use it... We need to tone it down...
Of course, nothing ever changes.
You know who has banned PowerPoint? Amazon. One of the most efficient and innovative large companies on Earth. A company that, judging by how it keeps discombobulating competitors in every industry it enters, knows how to implement what military strategists call "OODA Loops."
Instead of PowerPoint, Amazon mandates what it calls "narratives," which are four- to six-page memos (yes, memos — written in actual, honest-to-goodness English). In every pitch meeting, the first 20 minutes are spent in silence reading the memo, to ensure that — unlike emailed PowerPoint presentations — everyone has actually read the memo before they discuss it. It seems that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, a voracious reader like Jim Mattis, understands that cogent reading and writing improves thinking, which in turn yields better strategies.
The only treatment for this cancer is to excise the tumor completely. The Pentagon needs to ban PowerPoint altogether. And Mattis is the one to do it. He should do it on his first day on the job.
Come on, general, you know it's the right thing to do. Will you have the guts?