back to article US colonel blasts PowerPoint bureaucracy in Afghan HQ

A US colonel serving at NATO's headquarters in Afghanistan has launched a blistering attack on the PowerPoint culture and top-heavy bureaucracy there. "Fortunately little of substance is really done here, but that is a task we do well," writes Colonel Lawrence Sellin, who works at the International Security Assistance Force …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    But... but... Lewis!

    PowerPoint is *American* *technology*!

    Still and all, I bet it'd be cheaper to shuffle some superfluous British Brass (now with Extra Admirals) on them for that much-needed inter-service cross-pollination and then tell them to keep them. Two birds, and good riddance, I say.

    1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

      "Technology" or a mistake?

      I'm unconvinced you can call Powerpoint a "technology" - I *would* call it a mistake, though.

      About the only helpful thing powerpoint can do is help you to structure information by means of its outliner, but presenting is a skill, and as Word processors has created many people who confuse writing content with DTP (ergo the "problems" converting from Word to, so has Powerpoint created people that confuse content with the art of conveying information.

      If I need something discussed I turn the basics of what I want to discuss into a small movie - most audiences can handle paying attention for about 5 minutes if it moves - and that leaves the rest for discussion, structured by an agenda. I always prepare for at least 25% less time than available, and *I* present, not the LightPro. It forces me to be concise, and overrun is impossible so it shows respect for someone else's time - a respect that should start with not scheduling a meeting or sending email unless you have really something to say.

      Ah, communication.. Some people should be forced to use Morse, smoke signals or a 300 baud modem - it would do them a world of good. And keep them out of my way :-).

  2. Rogerborg

    Bad show, Colonel.

    You're either with the gargantuan effort to move the drinks cabinet six inches closer to Kandahar, or you're with the terrorists.

  3. M7S

    At least Klingon is a language developed for use in battle

    And it would also solve some of the radio security issues, for a short while at least.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      It could be confusing...

      Does "Shoot the P’tach!" refer to the enemy or the chain of command?

  4. John Lilburne

    Nuff' said

  5. Anonymous Coward

    Poor Blimpie...

    Col. Sellin, PhD (USAR) is an obvious trouble maker. He makes it seem as though there is no difference between the Russian destruction in Afghanistan and the virtuous, loving care presently tendered by the US military. Damned Taliban had totally shutdown the Opium production in Afghanistan - something had to be done! Unlike the Russians, who were so nasty, the Americans and the Pommies are now guarding the fields and have gotten production up so that the Afghan fields now supply about 94% of the world opium market.

    Furthermore, the Afghans have invaded the NATO nations and the Russian Federation so frequently, they must be removed from the face of the earth. Nothing could be more obvious.

    One wishes the Afghans would be more like the only peace-loving Democracy in the Mideast, that fount of "beneviolence", that tiny pool of humanitarian activity and love.

    Doubtless, the Afghans, like the Persians, are dangerously close to having "the bomb". And, shudder, shudder, we all know how those degnerates "treat" their women. Appalling!

    Damn MS and their infernal Powerpoint! ( I know that is irrelevant, totally lacking the relevance of this magnificently newsworthy article.)

  6. Andus McCoatover

    Good article, Lewis.

    Sellin seems to have the balls to say it how it really is. However, I guess he'll have them cut off at the next PPT 'presentation', or 'staff meeting'.

    Pity. Need more like him.

  7. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    Who needs wikileaks?

    It seems that the wikileaks disease is catching. People are releasing information about what is really going on, even if it might prove a little embarrasing to some at the top...

  8. Sureo


    They're just serving their country.

  9. jake Silver badge

    Now ask me why ...

    The first thing I do when brought in as a consultant is fire all the middle-management who do nothing but fiddle about with PowerPoint all day. Saves gobs of money.

    IMO, at the state level, just getting rid of the PP-jockeys would probably balance California's budget overnight. At the national level ... let's just say the waste is staggering.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not asking that

      Please sir, I want your job, sir.

      1. jake Silver badge

        @AC 15:28

        Get five or six degrees, featuring EE, ME and IT (in a couple variations), throw in an MBA, spend 35+ years in the industry, and I'll happily GIVE you my job. But trust me, you don't want it. It's been a fun roller-coaster, but in the last eight or ten years Microsoft & Apple have poisoned the pool. I'm close to saying "fuck it" and fully retiring ...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          One can dream

          Didn't finish a degree, skipped school to learn programming, learned admin from the monks (not those monks, the other ones), got a sysadmin job, and burned out. Spent enough time out of a job to never get past any HR or recruiter drone ever again. Did read me some Drucker though. So, never going to happen. Oh well.

          Anyway. Fire some fuckwits for me, and happy retiring while the retiring is still good.

  10. George of the Jungle
    Thumb Up

    Good one Colonel!

    My guess is Col. Sellin is either close to retirement or knows that he'll never be promoted above Colonel. Sec of Defense Gates has been saying the same thing about 1) the general staff having too much staff and 2) there could be less Generals in the US military.

    Sec Gates should probably get Col Sellin moved to his staff to help reduce the waste/inefficiency.

  11. JaitcH

    Colonel Sellin: Your new assignment is ....

    Fort Greely, Alaska.

    Fort Greely is an Army base used for cold weather tests as Greely is located in one of the coldest areas in Alaska. The base is named after Adolphus Greely, an Army officer, who explored the Arctic despite no previous experience in exploration in the Polar regions of the world.

    Good luck with your new posting!

  12. SkippyBing

    Fun with US 1 Stars

    I recently had to give part of a weekly brief to a US 1*, I could guarantee a five minute discussion about etymology every time I included a word of French origin, e.g. tranche. Eventually I had to have all my slides proof read to remove 'difficult' words as it was wasting too much time explaining what they meant and that they were actual words in the English language.

    I'd wager I was regularly achieving less than COL Sellin....

    1. Dave Bell

      A useful quote...

      The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

      James Nicoll

      Usenet article <> (1990), updated in Usenet article <bi5d3u$hjl$> (2003)

      If you can't tell a US 1* that you've had a quick shufti, you're not trying very hard.

  13. Mike Hanna

    1800 Lt Cols?

    "In the British Army there are few or no opportunities for a full colonel to command a real combat unit. However a lieutenant-colonel, one rank below, may command a UK regiment/battalion of around 700 troops. The British Army has approximately 100 such formations, once you include all the transport and maintenance and so on. It has almost 1800 lieutenant-colonels."

    Hopefully the new SDR (or whatever it's called this time) in October will sort this out...

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  14. Anonymous Coward

    sounds like EDS

    or, as we're called now - HP Enterprise Services.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I know a Lt Col who has just come back from Afganistan (over 1200 troops and civvies under his command). First few week he spent trying not to get in the way of people who actually had a job to do, but eventually he felt he did do some very productive work (and I believe a lot of Afgan interpreters hare quite grateful).

    So, it depends on where you are and what you are doing.

    And, in civvy street, a manager in charge of over 700 people would be earning a damn sight more than Lt Col. pay. Think about that before you start getting rid of them from the army - they might end up working for your company, and being promoted above you!!

    And 65degsC in the back of the trucks. That's quite hot.

  16. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    A great victory

    Wasn't the whole point of our little4th Afghan adventure to bring the benefits of western democracy to these lovable but backward people?

    Isn't sitting around giving Powerpoint presentations while trying to back-stab your way up the greasy pole the central theme of western democracy?

    Isn't the solution to drop 1000s of laptops onto the Taliban all loaded with Powerpoint until they also dissolve into the same level of efficiency

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Muhammad was a great visionary:

      - Only one book allowed to study.

      - NO PICTURES.

      It put back science several millennia, but boy, was it worth it.

      1. Jonathan Richards 1

        Where *do* you get your ideas from?

        The Islamic world kept alive much of the writings, knowledge and wisdom of the ancient world during the climb of "The West" out of what we called, in our amusingly parochial way, The Dark Ages.

        You might want to ponder the etymology of words like algebra, and ask yourself why so many of the stars have arabic names.

        Put back the progress of science, sez you. I call "bigot".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          The religion is not the people.

          Yes, I know that Persia before Muhammad was quite the place to be for that sort of thing. Afterward, well, it's neither the Muftis nor the Sharia that's fostering new research. Teaching boys nothing but to interpret the Quran and not allowing girls to go to school at all is not quite the same as scouring the land for young bright kids to teach them how to be scientists. And that, mahdeah, was the point. But hey, as long as it keeps powerpoint out the door, it's all good. Not so?

  17. Anonymous Coward

    According to NASA

    "in a PowerPoint presentation, every other bullet point is a lie".

    So not only useless but deceptively useless. Time to put away the laptops and had out the M16s ...

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Powerpoint culture

    Powerpoint culture isn't just for the US of A either. It also took a major bashing in the UK inquiry into the 14-fatality Nimrod air tanker crash (crash: Sep 2006, report out: Oct 2009). Unlike most such inquiry reports, this one points fingers, names names, and people have even been arrested. But not a word from Lewis, not that I can remember anyway? Wouldn't want to distract him from his anti-green rants would we.

    Nimrod report editorial coverage in Trotskyist rag The Guardian: "a PowerPoint culture ... that glosses over hard questions and detailed evidence, and sacrifices safety to incompetence, sloppiness, complacency and cynicism. The catastrophe was caused as much by organisational culture as the faulty fuel seal. Responsibility is shared between BAE Systems, the hived-off QinetiQ which was supposed to provide expert advice, the Nimrod Integrated Project Team and the Ministry of Defence itself, stricken by "organisational trauma" induced by the overwhelming objective of finding savings."

    Powerpoint culture is also found in other places where it doesn't belong too. E.g. before too long, your safety on commercial aircraft will be probably be "assured" courtesy of Powerpoint culture.

  19. Anonymous Coward

    Why keep promoting?!

    It seems that, both the US and UK militaries have got into the habit of promoting officers merely out of respect of time served. This has lead to the top heavy bloat we see in our services. Maybe they should try a few new simple rules like: "promote by ability", strategic not powerpoint, that is and "only promote if there is a job opening". I'll even write them a powerpoint to explain the new system if they wish...

  20. Anonymous Coward


    The Royal Navy has more admirals than ships.

    The Army has more generals than regiments.

    The RAF has more air officers than squadrons.

    I've worked in a headquarters. Virtually everything the headquarters does is useless. In fact at Strike Command it was extra useless, because we did all the same useless things that Permanent Joint Headquarters did, but we didn't have operational command.

    Militaries have downsized since the end of the cold war in everything except senior officers.

  21. Lars Silver badge


    Years ago I recall there was some big American company, FORD perhaps, who decided that bosses are not allowed to use PowerPoint because they (and their secretary) should spend the time on something productive.

    Perhaps something the US Army should think about too.

    As for Afganistan either leave and accept the mess or stay for an other generation say 21 years.

    There is more "morale" to the later but politics never seem to be able to look (an finance) anything longer than till the next election. Shame on you.

    1. jake Silver badge


      McNealy banned PP from Sun ... Last time I was consulting for BiggerBlue, PP was common.

  22. me n u
    Paris Hilton

    Dilbert goes Army

    So, looks like Dilbert's world has spread to include the US military, and probably all western militaries.

    Paris-cause she can't even get a date with Dilbert.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I *always* do a custom install of MS Office, so that I leave out the useless and extra annoying bits like the paper clip and powerpoint.

    Twenty years in IT, and I have *never* made a powerpoint presentation and never will.

    Thankfully, it wasn't a great part of the culture at my last company. There are still a few.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    my dad...

    was a 2 star general

    my oldest brother a commissioned officer

    my other brother a corporal

    I was a sniper

    ok - so I've translated ranks from a whole different army/ranking structure

    but this... is criminal

    we had nothing and achieved loads

    but, I guess, if we had what these guys had, we'd also get bogged down and achieve nothing

  25. David Kelly 2

    Bulk, bulk, and more bulk.

    "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."

    We've seen plenty of that in the top-post no-trim mentality on email and usenet.

  26. Mr Young

    Powerpoint - is it a weapon?

    If you are not sleeping please prepare your mind for unconsciousness now!

  27. Anonymous Coward

    To quote the movie M*A*S*H*:

    "God Damned Army"

  28. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Powerpoint is The dream

    You carefully craft your ideas in powerpoint, and having made them a vague mirage of reality you move on to new things.

    Powerpoint is the graveyard of creation - I just wish the people who like wars were barely intelligent enough to work them out in powerpoint and move on to new things.

    Been there, powerpointed it. A T-shirt for the unproductive.

  29. Emilio Desalvo

    Mix in the Italian Armed forces...

    Well, the Italian Army since the '90 has moved from a bloated draft service, where you could recognise senior NonCom from their pear shape, to a voluntary service with a much better efficency.

    But if you mix them in the Star Game, it gets so much better interesting. Every servicemen service, from Private/Seaman/Airman/Carabiniere to General/Admiral/General/General has a fabric star sewn on the collar, as that star says that he is in the Service of the State.

    A friend, then a Major of the ITAF, was an NATO instructor at Sheppard Air Force Base, in Texas. He tells me that it was quite funny, when he met a lot of USAF personnel which met him, saw that star, an started saluting and after a second stopped it in mid-air, as they decided that he was too young to be a general. He retired as LtCol. as ITAF say that LtCols, Colonels and generals do not fly as drivers, unless they are in command of a squadron, and squadrons a rarer than Colonels. At the time the instruction of a flight officer cost more than two billion liras of taxpayers money. Alitalia Ringrazia Sentitamente.

    But it gets REALLY interesting when you mix in the Italian Army and Carabinieri.

    There, a bronze star (silver for the Carabinieri) means that you are a Second Lieutenant! A First Lieutenant gets two stars, and a Captain three stars.

    When you get promoted to superior officer, you lose a few stars, but you get a beautiful tower, as a Major has a tower and a star, he gains again a star when promoted to Lt.Col, a full colonel gets a tower and three stars.

    Then you get promoted to be a general officer, you lose again a couple of stars and the tower, but as a shiny new Brigadier General you get a silver greek fret and a shiny silver star, as a Division General you get another star, and, if you are promoted to Army Corp General you get a third star. The fourth star is only for the Chief of Staff of the Italian Army, with red border, or for the Chief of Staff of the whole Italian Armed forces, without the red border, when he is not an Admiral or an Air Force General.

    So, Italy has stars everywhere, and it can get REALLY interesting in NATO contests...

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Peacetime behaviour?

    It's all here:

    In peace time, all armed forces select for a particular kind of senior officer - someone dead set on obeying the rules, smartness, drill, spit and polish, etc. (Or someone utterly ignorant of military/naval matters, but influential and persuasive - like the First Lord of the Admiralty in HMS Pinafore who "...polished that handle so successfully, that now I am the ruler of the Queen's Navy").

    As soon as a real war gets under way (sometimes, only when the politicians begin to imagine the rope round their neck or the bullets ripping them apart) real military leaders rise swiftly to the top - the Caesars and Napoleons, Grants and Pattons, Marlboroughs and Nelsons, who would never have had the slightest chance of high command in peacetime.

    The surprising (and slightly scary) thing is that apparently the military environment in Afghanistan - for American staff officers, at least - is indistinguishable from peacetime. Maybe because it's not a real war at all, and the senior officers know that perfectly well.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That didn't take long...

    Seems the US Army is efficient enough at some things:

  32. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    @Why keep promoting?

    Mostly it's time served as you said - there is also a problem of pay = rank.

    So if you have a vital technical specialty that would get paid more in civi street the only way to pay them more is to promote them.

    Lt Colonel is very common among a lot of engineers because it's the only way to pay them anything like what they would earn commercially - and so keep hold of them.

  33. Davros
    Thumb Up

    Its actually worse than this

    I've been in this sort of headquarters and usually the situation is actually worse:

    1. Most of the idiot power-pointers actually can and do make things worse, they regrettably are not PONTI in practice. If they only achieved nothing that would be an improvement.

    2. There are important positions in the headquarters and the powerpoint culture makes it very hard to get these jobs done.

    3. The sensible people with 'powerpoint' jobs spend all their time mitigating the worst excesses and stupidest decisions by the idiots at the top

    Bear in mind that the majority of people in these positions are actually competent and sensible in the right environment. I've worked with amazingly smart and effective people who were completely unable to escape from this culture.

  34. StooMonster

    Is there no end of Powerpoint's evil?

    First it destroyed a Space Shuttle, now it's lost the Afghanistan War.

    How will the world end? With a bang ... a whimper ... or a Powerpoint presentation?

  35. Anonymous Coward


    If the Romans could throw up a wall to keep the picts out, a wall that went up hills, crags, across rivers and streams, then I'm sure that the Yanks can build a bloody big wall around the 'stan.

    Why don't they do what the brits did in Malaya, build fortified villages, put the locals in, and starve johhny Taliban of support. Of course you have to dis arm them too.

  36. Andy Goss

    Why keep promoting?

    I believe the idea is that when you get into a "real" war and suddenly need a big army or navy, you have enough trained officers and only need to conscript the lower ranks who can be trained fairly quickly. There is nothing wrong with this as a concept, but Col. Sellin has illustrated perfectly how in practice empire building, Parkinson's Law, and the Peter Principle all come together to breed a kind of Frankenstein's Cuckoo.

  37. Richard Scratcher

    Send in the MPs! (Metaphor Police)

    "a stove-piped and bloated organization"

    "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel."

    "superfluous brass hats"

    "create a big splash before his promotion board"

    "Once it is part of the 'battle rhythm', it has the persistence of carbon 14."

    "It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon."

    "they take roll - just like gym class"

    "…as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death"

    "at the flow rate of a fire hose"

    This man spits out metaphors quicker than a… a… a quick spitty-out thingy.

  38. Anonymous Coward

    Starcraft briefings are so much better...

    ... they last only 30 seconds, and don´t tell you HOW to do it, they tell you what you want to achieve in three sentences, tops.

    It is either:

    1- Have something protected;

    2 -Blown to bits;

    3- Have some foes avoided, that you can't take straight away, head on.

    Another word of advice:

    One guy yelling "row the boat" and other 7,8 rowing.

  39. Levente Szileszky
    Thumb Down

    Just as we all expected, the US Army quickly "fixed" its broken, corrupt system... immediately firing the troublemaking Col. Sellin, PhD (USAR):

    Truly PATHETIC, moreover it speaks volumes about this utterly corrupt, crooked giant with gazillion tentacles we spend trillions on, called US Armed Forces.

  40. Bruce Lynn

    best presentation ever

    30 Rock says it all...

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