A curious fact about the American military, and American private industry, in the early 21st century is their insistence on holding formal meetings. The practice is curious because these same institutions spend a great deal of time and effort studying “good management,” which should recognize what most participants in such meetings see, namely that they are a waste of time. Good decisions are far more often a product of informal conversations than of any formal meeting, briefing or process.
History offers a useful illustration. In 1814, the Congress of Vienna, which faced the task of putting Europe back together after the catastrophic French Revolution and almost a quarter-century of subsequent wars, did what aristocrats usually do. It danced, it dined, it stayed up late playing cards for high stakes, it carried on affairs, usually not affairs of state. Through all its aristocratic amusements, it conversed. In the process, it put together a peace that gave Europe almost a century of security, with few wars and those limited.
In contrast, the conference of Versailles in 1919 was all business. Its dreary, interminable meetings (read Harold Nicolson for a devastating description) reflected the bottomless, plodding earnestness of the bourgeois and the Roundhead. Its product, the Treaty of Versailles, was so flawed that it spawned another great European war in just twenty years. As Kaiser Wilhelm II said from exile in Holland, the war to end war yielded a peace to end peace.
The U.S. military has carried the formal meeting’s uselessness to a new height with its unique cultural totem, the Powerpoint brief. Almost all business in the American armed forces is now done through such briefings. An Exalted High Wingwang, usually a general or an admiral, formally leads the brief, playing the role of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert. Grand Wazoos from various satrapies occupy the first rows of seats. Behind them sit rank upon rank of field-grade horse-holders, flower-strewers and bung-holers, desperately striving to keep their eyelids open through yet another iteration of what they have seen countless times before.
The briefing format was devised to use form to conceal a lack of substance. Powerpoint, by reducing everything to bullets, goes one better. It makes coherent thought impossible. Bulletizing effectively makes every point equal in importance, which prevents any train of logic from developing. Thoughts are presented like so many horse apples, spread randomly on the road. After several hundred Powerpoint slides, the brains of all in attendance are in any case reduced to mush. Those in the back rows quietly pray for a suicide bomber to provide some diversion and end their ordeal.
When General Greg Newbold, USMC, was J-3 on the Joint Staff, he prohibited briefings in matters that ended at his level (those above him, of course, still wanted their briefs). Instead, he asked for conversations with people who actually knew the material, regardless of their rank. Five or ten minutes of knowledgeable, informal conversation accomplished far more than hours of formal briefing.
Why does the American military so avoid informal conversations and require formal meetings and briefings? Because most of the time, the people who actually know the subject are of junior rank. Above them stands a vast pyramid of “managers,” who know little or nothing about the topic but want their “face time” as they buck for promotion. The only way they can get their time in the sun without egg on their faces is by hiding behind a formal, scripted briefing. At the end, they still have to drag up some captain or sergeant from the horse-holder ranks if questions are asked.
The Powerpoint briefing is another reason America has a non-thinking military. The tendency toward useless, formal meetings is of course broader than the American military — again, the business world is full of it — but good leaders cut around it.
When General Hermann Balck was commanding 48th Panzer Korps on the Eastern Front with General F.W. von Mellinthin as his I-A, Mellinthin one day reproached Balck for wasting time by going out to eat with the troop units so often. Balck replied, “You think so? OK, tomorrow you come with me.”
The next day, they arrived at a battalion a bit before lunchtime. They had a formal meeting, Balck asked some questions and got some answers. Then, they broke for lunch. During the informal conversation that usually accompanies meals, Balck asked the same questions and got completely different answers. On their way back to the headquarters, Balck turned to Mellinthin and said, “Now you see why I go out so often to eat with the troop units. It’s not for the cuisine.”
When Generals Balck and von Mellinthin visited Washington in 1980, John Boyd asked them to reflect on their leadership of 48th Panzer Korps and how they would have done it if they had possessed computers. Balck replied, “We couldn’t have done it.” Boyd didn’t ask about Powerpoint, but I suspect General Balck’s reply would have been equally to the point.
Despite the situation in Berlin, the Wehrmacht did know how to think.
Note: The idea for this column came from my old friend General Pat Garvey, USMCR, ausser Dienst. I suggest that anyone who takes umbrage at it contact him directly. Orange though I am, I do send an occasional St. Paddy’s Day present.
William Lind is an analyst based in Washington, DC.