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The PowerPoint rant that got a colonel fired

Sep. 2, 2010 - 04:04PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 2, 2010 - 04:04PM  |  
Col. Lawrence Sellin was fired because he didn't clear his remarks through public affairs and failed to clear "written or oral presentations to the media" through a designated public affairs officer.
Col. Lawrence Sellin was fired because he didn't clear his remarks through public affairs and failed to clear "written or oral presentations to the media" through a designated public affairs officer. (Courtesy of Col. Lawrence Sellin)
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Army Col. Lawrence Sellin was fired two days after his sarcastic rant was published by the United Press International wire service.

Sellin was fired because he didn't clear his remarks through public affairs and failed to clear "written or oral presentations to the media" through a designated public affairs officer. Here is what he wrote:

———

KABUL, Afghanistan — Throughout my career I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment. I see no reason to change that now.

Consider the following therapeutic.

I have been assigned as a staff officer to a headquarters in Afghanistan for about two months. During that time, I have not done anything productive. Fortunately, little of substance is really done here, but that is a task we do well.

We are part of the operational arm of the International Security Assistance Force commanded by Army Gen. David Petraeus. It is composed of military representatives from all the NATO countries, several of which I cannot pronounce.

Officially, International Joint Command was founded in late 2009 to coordinate operations among all the regional commands in Afghanistan. More likely it was founded to provide some general a three-star command. Starting with a small group of dedicated and intelligent officers, IJC has successfully grown into a stove-piped and bloated organization, top-heavy in rank. Around here, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel.

For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information. Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death.

The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill. It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon.

Random motion, ad hoc processes and an in-depth knowledge of Army minutia and acronyms are also key characteristics of a successful staff officer. Harried movement together with furrowed brows and appropriate expressions of concern a la Clint Eastwood will please the generals. Progress in the war is optional.

Each day is guided by the "battle rhythm," which is a series of PowerPoint briefings and meetings with PowerPoint presentations. It doesn't matter how inane or useless the briefing or meeting might be. Once it is part of the battle rhythm, it has the persistence of carbon 14.

And you can't skip these events because they take roll — just like gym class.

The start and culmination of each day is the commander's update assessment. Please ignore the fact that "update assessment" is redundant. Simply saying commander's update doesn't provide the possibility of creating a three-letter acronym. It also doesn't matter that the commander never attends the CUA.

The CUA consists of a series of PowerPoint slides describing the events of the previous 12 hours. Briefers explain each slide by reading from a written statement in a tone not unlike that of a congressman caught in a tryst with an escort. The CUA slides only change when a new commander arrives or the war ends.

The commander's immediate subordinates, usually one- and two-star generals, listen to the CUA in a semi-comatose state. Each briefer has about one or two minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don't do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

Next month, IJC will attempt a giant leap for mankind. In a first-of-its-kind effort, IJC will embed a new stovepipe into an already existing stovepipe. The rationale for this bold move resides in the fact that an officer, who is currently without one, needs a staff of 35 people to create a big splash before his promotion board.

Like most military organizations, structure always trumps function.

The ultimate consequences of this reorganization won't be determined until after that officer rotates out of theater.

Nevertheless, the results will be presented by PowerPoint.

———

The views expressed are Sellin's own and are not necessarily those of the Army or U.S. government. Reprinted with permission from UPI.

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