I was invited to speak as part of a 2023 American Historical Association panel titled “Toward an Illustrated History of a Global War on Terror” because the panel organizer, vet scholar-and-playwright John Myer, liked my short story, “The Brigade Storyboard Artist,” as it was published by The Wrath-Bearing Tree.
John thought that should I approach the subject of military storyboards from an academic perspective my ideas would interest an audience of historians.
So I did. Here’s how my presentation “PowerPoint Rangers: The Aesthetics and Historical Significance of Military Storyboards” began:
By now, the use of PowerPoint presentations as an institutional communication medium in education, business, and the military has been widely studied. Here, though, I’m interested in one facet of PowerPoint that has not been widely-considered: the use of one-slide PowerPoints known as “storyboards” in the United States military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, to plan and document activities and operations at battalion and brigade level. Storyboards, whether viewed on individual computers, projected on screens in meeting rooms, or printed out in paper copies, were a fact of life for officers at these levels of command; their use was ubiquitous and ability to create coherent storyboards in-line with command expectations and conventions a necessary skill for staff-officers and unit leaders. Typically storyboards were created by operations and intelligence officers—30-year-old captains, 35-year-old-majors and 40-year-old lieutenant colonels—and then circulated up-and-down the chain-of-command. In my own one-year tour as an advisor to the Afghan National Army I was asked to prepare dozens of storyboards (in addition to longer PowerPoint presentations) and read hundreds of them. Neither I nor my peers received training in their preparation, nor were there handbooks or guides; in my experience I was expected to get the hang of their creation quickly as I realized they were the informational coin-of-the-realm, supplanting other established military genres such as operations orders and after-action reports, as well as longer multi-slide PowerPoint presentations. My purpose here today is to explain various aspects of their use and suggest some implications for historians. My argument is that they represent an archive of information about how the military, particularly the Army, communicated internally about events as they happened and were meant to be understood and remembered, and yet they remain difficult, if not impossible to access, and, once obtained, must be handled with care.
Here are two examples of storyboards, both taken from a 2015 Intercept article written by Ryan Devereaux titled, “The Drone Papers: Manhunting in the Hindu Kush” and then republished on the Transcend Media Service website here.
The first storyboard documents a request to kill a Taliban insurgent named Qari Munib (code-named “Lethal Burwyn”) in Pech District, Konar (Kunar) Province in 2013.
The second storyboard documents the successful completion of the mission:
Here is how I concluded my presentation:
My argument has been that the challenges of recovering and interpreting storyboards is a goal well worth pursuing for historians writing on war in Afghanistan or Iraq. More so than command post logs, operation orders, official assessments, and command statements, they constitute the official-unofficial, or unofficial-official diary of the war. When studied carefully, in conjunction with other means of collecting evidence and doing primary research, they will add granular real-time detail to personal testimony, authorized accounts, and broader-brush journalistic and historical narrations. One thing I am sure of is that if anything occurred in Afghanistan or Iraq that the military was significantly involved in, PowerPoint storyboards were built in regard to it, and those storyboards might still exist somewhere.
We also included in our panel a “flash” round in which each panelist presented an image and offered a short comment. I chose this famous image:
Here’s what I said about it:
My image first came to public light in a 2010 New York Times article about the use, overuse, and abuse of PowerPoint in the military in the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an intelligence assessment that purports to illustrate the complicated tangle of factors that underwrote the military operating environment in Afghanistan. The image in fact is not a stand-alone PowerPoint, nor taken from a longer PowerPoint presentation. Rather, it was an illustration extracted from a 31-page report prepared by the PA Consulting Group for the highest-level of military command in Afghanistan. In terms of genre it is a “causal loop diagram,” as prepared by specialists in the field of System Dynamics. Be that as it may, in the NY Times article and afterwards, the image was widely derided as an exemplary example of form over substance and product over action—evidence that the military was so caught up in over-analyzation of the political-military situation at the headquarters level that it had lost sight of the clear focus and directives necessary for effectively doing something about winning the war in Afghanistan. I won’t deny any of that, and speaking from experience, have a special level of commiseration with the officers and troops on the ground who were supposed to translate any of it to an actual military operation. But I will note, that within the rarified air of headquarters staffs there is a way that this slide makes sense to the highly-literate senior officers and officials who were the intended audience. In fact, it perhaps can be said that it provides the necessary level of connected detail that might be a necessary first step to developing strategies and tactics that could actually help the US help Afghanistan government defeat the Taliban while attending to the real needs of the Afghan people. Perhaps.