When Strategists Get Too Grand

January 17, 2013 Topic: Grand Strategy Blog Brand: The Buzz

When Strategists Get Too Grand

Are the Pentagon's impressive new tools for strategic planning undermining its effectiveness? In the Spectator, Andrew Bacevich describes the "strategic seminars" led by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The off-campus, informal sessions, which were profiled extensively in the New York Times last year, utilize a basketball court-sized map. Designed to encourage planners to think on a grand scale, the map is easy to lampoon. But Bacevich has a larger point about the dangers of oversimplification:

[U]nlike Dempsey’s map, the real world is not fixed. Contra Tom Friedman, it’s not flat. And it’s not small. At a Pentagon strategic seminar you might stroll from Quantico to Cape Town for a cup of coffee without the boss even noticing you’ve left your post. In the real world, the trip’s more difficult.

Yet Dempsey’s map hints at the dirty secret that members of the fraternity of strategists, civilian and military alike, are loath to acknowledge. The formulation of strategy begins by assuming away complexity, reducing reality to a convenient caricature. Strategic analysis is almost by definition dumbed-down analysis. To conjure up solutions, you start by simplifying the problem.

Technology has provided many tools that make "assuming away complexity" very easy. The chief culprit is perhaps not maps that belong on game shows, but Microsoft's PowerPoint slide presentation software, which is apparently the primary means of communication in today's Pentagon. As another Times article explains, "Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs."

When Powerpoint slides do attempt to portray complexity, it often results in something unintelligible, such as this 2010 attempt to explain the mission in Afghanistan:

Whether a giant floor map or vague bullet points on a slide, new tools are no substitute for the kind of analytical rigor demanded by the written form. Sometimes you must first open some books and sharpen your pencil.