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« The Making of PNM (II): How Esquire Made Me What I am Today | Main | The Book Proposal for "The Pentagon's New Map" »

The Making of PNM (I): The Brief, or "You'll Know it When You See It"

The story of the book really begins with the brief, because basically everything that animates the book began somewhere first as a slide, meaning a PowerPoint slide.

The brief began as a request from Art Cebrowski, retired Vice Admiral and former President of the Naval War College, who had just begun his new job as Director, Office of Force Transformation, Office of the Secretary of Defense following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He hadn’t been brought into the job due to 9/11, as his new office had been months in the works. In fact, at his retirement ceremony in July of 2001, he told me to keep my in-box open, meaning he’d be tapping again for analysis in the future.

As for what that analysis would be in this new office, I had no idea. I’m not the weapons or systems guy, nor the battle plan guy. I’m the vision guy and I figured Art had plenty of that for force transformation. After all, he was the father of network-centric warfare.

Meanwhile, I figured I’d be working my NewRuleSets.Project with Cantor Fitzgerald for as far as this strategic eye could see. We had just finished our third workshop in the planned series of five, and my mentors at Cantor, Bud Flanagan and Phil Ginsberg, were giving all indications of wanting to extend the work ad infinitum. So I figured my time with Art was pretty much done. Plus, I was moving so hard in the direction of discounting the Chinas-as-near-peer-competitor hype while Art, with his focus on transformation, seemed trapped in that mode by the bureaucracy’s need for a large, force-sizing concept like China/Taiwan/2025. In short, it seemed like we were going in opposite directions.

Then 9/11 happened and my NewRuleSets.Project was kaput--just like that. Bud and Phil disappeared into the recovery effort that was keeping Cantor alive, and I heard from neither really for almost a year.

For the first month after 9/11, I didn’t know what to do. I had the material from the June workshop on the future of environmental issues in Asia already packaged into a slick brief, so the next step was to put that material into a written report form. But I just didn’t have it in me. It all just seemed so pointless to bother wrapping up that final workshop, especially since several attendees were now dead. It just didn’t seem right somehow. I felt like letting that sleeping dog lie and just walking away from the whole thing.

The war college itself got all jacked up writing these “Newport Papers” on the terror war, but since I’m not operational, nor a terrorism expert, nor a Middle East expert, no one asked me to write any of these papers. So I mostly just twiddled my thumb, trying to think of what I should do next with my career.

Then I got the call from Art. He wanted to know about the article I had written after Y2K about a Pearl Harbor-like event leading to the splitting of the Defense Department into a warfighting-focused entity and an “everything else” entity. At that point, a couple of weeks after 9/11, he was just floating around the Office of the Secretary of Defense as part of Rumsfeld’s kitchen cabinet of advisors, waiting for his office to be officially approved. All he would tell me was that people in OSD were having very interesting conversations about where DoD would go in the future as a result of 9/11, so this sort of out-there thinking was catching attention. No one was grabbing for straws; people were just trying to think outside the box and deep into the future. It was one of those turning points in history, as anyone who lived through that time could tell.

After that first call a couple of weeks after 9/11, Art and I had several more phone conversations about my ideas and how they could be applied to thinking about how 9/11 would unfold as a grand historical event, basically building upon a lot of the conceptual approaches we undertook in our mapping of how Y2K could have gone down if it had been bad.

Then the conversations stopped, and I thought nothing more of it. Art had threatened to bring me down to speak with several of Secretary Rumsfeld’s aides, but it didn’t happen, so I figured our two worlds had spun into separate orbits.

After my parents had visited in late October for a long weekend, I walked into my office the following Monday morning. My boss, or department chair, called me into his office immediately. Then he told me, somewhat incredulously, that he had just been informed by the President’s office that Art and OSD had “bought out my salary”--just like that. I was working directly for Art now as a special assistant. What would I be doing? No idea. Art just wanted my time without the hassle of continuously asking for permission, so he bought me whole for a year, renewable on request.

The only war college condition was that he title me somehow, so it was clear that what I was doing I was doing for him. I took that to mean that the college leadership was concerned I would end up bringing bad PR upon them by saying or writing something controversial, but I was happy as hell with the idea. It meant I could check the box of having worked in OSD without actually having to move back to DC. That’s right, Art bought my time, but didn’t require I move to DC for the job. He just wanted me on call, so I checked out a department cell phone for the duration (what turned out to be 20 months) and began my new job as the Assistant for Strategic Futures, Office of Force Transformation, Office of the Secretary of Defense. I would retain my war college titles of Professor, Senior Strategic Researcher, Warfare Analysis and Research Department, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, Naval War College. All in all, I had titles up the ying-yang with this double-hatting.

So I fly down and meet with Art in early November. What does he want from me? Just a brief. A brief that explains the new strategic environment and develops a grand strategy for the U.S. to deal not only with that new environment but likewise to inform how the U.S. military should transform itself to meet the challenges associated with that environment.

“Hmmmm,” I said in reply, “Is that all? Exactly what would such a brief look like?”

 Art replied, “You’ll know it when you see it.”

 I could have sworn he added sotto voce “young grasshopper!”

To whom would I deliver this brief?

At first just to him. Once it got coherent enough, I would deliver it to whoever wanted to see it. In effect, build the brief and they will call.

So I built the brief. At first it was just an attempt to describe the strange event of 9/11 (vertical scenario) and its multiple aftermaths (horizontal scenarios). That got me to pull in a lot of concepts from the Y2K work, especially the notion of a cataclysmic event forcing the U.S./world to realize that rule sets were out of whack.

Then I started positing where the world could go on this basis, which required me to describe the world, which is when I pulled in the Core-Gap stuff.

You put that all together and then you started asking, “Well, how much has really changed?” That got us to the new ordering principle concept.

And that is where the brief stood by the middle of December 2001. At that point, Art starting putting me on the road within the Defense Department and think tank community. By March of 2002 the material had moved far enough up the chain that I briefed all of the Secretary’s senior personnel aides (described in the book) and by June of that year I had done the Senior Executive Council, or the service secretaries.

I was really cooking at this point, and the material was receiving such wide acclaim in the community, that the war college’s president, Rear Admiral Rod Rempt, asked to see it himself. Upon viewing it, he immediately asked me to deliver an evening lecture at the college, sponsored by the college’s foundation. This “Civilization Lecture” series is the most prestigious talk you can give at the college, short of a commencement address. It’s the venue the Thomas Friedmans and Sandra Day O’Connors get when they come.

It was during that presentation that I got the question from Vice Admiral Tom Weschler (described in the book) about the happy ending to this grand strategic vision, so at that point I finally did what Art had been advising for weeks: I pulled in the NewRuleSets.Project’s mapping of great global flows (people, energy, security, money), which in turn got me the beef in the Global Transaction Strategy concept.

After those additions, the brief was basically set for about 12 months, meaning I just gave it to audience after audience and it didn’t change that much.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Every time I gave the brief, I always got a question or two that would stump me a bit, and when I got enough of the same sort of question, invariably I’d build a slide that would address the issue, so every month I would seem to add a quartet or so of slides. That made the brief grow over time, so I’d likewise have to collapse or simply move beyond some slides in the brief so as to keep the number of total slides around 50, because anything more than that I couldn’t get through in less than two hours, which has always been my idea of the max briefing size--or roughly the length of a movie.

But other than that accordion-style editing of the slides (add/compress, add/compress, etc.), the brief kept its overall look and feel from the summer of 2002 until the summer of 2003.

So, if you give the brief 2 to 3 times each week, you can imagine that your performances really begin to add up. At some point the material becomes second nature to you, like a long comedy concert, meaning I’ve basically memorized two hours of rapid-fire text in a one-man stand-up routine, like watching Chris Rock go at it for 120 minutes on one of his HBO specials. To get to that point of smoothness in delivery, where the lines vary less than 2 to 3 percent over 120 minutes, you have to give a whole lot of performances. You simply have to own it like a classical actor owns Shakespeare--you know all the lines not just by heart, but by head, by a sense of rhythm, and by sense and touch.

Why? Because the brief itself (meaning the PowerPoint slide package) is so highly animated and filled with sound effects, the deliver had to become highly timed to the clicking-through the animation sequences using the remote. So it quickly becomes a matter of line--click--wait through sound effect--line--click--line--click--wait through sound effect--and so on. It becomes a sort of ballet. Imagine Chris Rock with Lauri Anderson’s music and pictures, and you get the idea.

Another good example would be the weatherman on TV, but imagine that instead of talking about the weather he’s talking about the role of military power throughout history or the future evolution of the global economy (“And here we see China rising in the east, exporting deflationary pressure on low-priced goods, but causing a depression in foreign direct investment right here, where you see all the money flows concentrating in this high-pressure development situation.”)

You get the idea--theatrical but highly conceptual.

I get the question a lot: Is there anyone who does this sort of thing besides you in the government? And my answer has always been, “If there is, I have not met this person.” Some do big picture, others the long view. Some try to do both. Some are good at presentation, but not many. But no one does it all like me. After almost every brief I’ve ever delivered--and I’m talking roughly one thousand in 15 years--I usually hear the following compliment: “That’s the most amazing briefing I have ever seen in my entire career!”

Now, you relay something like that to somebody (especially a journalist) and you can come off like one arrogant SOB. But as my webmaster likes to say, it ain’t bragging if you can do it.

The biggest change that came next to the brief happened after I wrote the book in the late summer and early fall of 2003.

Just before I had started writing at the beginning of August, I took a quick trip into NYC to brief the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, right across the street from Ground Zero. This was my first return to the area following 9/11. I didn’t avoid it so much as I never had a good reason to go. [After this meeting was when I had my fateful meeting with Mark Warren at the Greek restaurant Molyvos to discuss what we later called our vision of the book as “the autobiography of a vision.”]

Just before that brief, I met with Art Cebrowski in my hotel room, along with his public affairs guy Rob Holzer and my colleague Bradd Hayes. During that short meeting we caught up on current events, which was something I had fallen out of the habit of doing with Art because the college made me terminate my job with him in early June, citing that it had gone on too long and I needed to teach in the fall. Since I was gearing up for the book, I relented, figuring I needed the extra time for writing.

Anyway, I show Art some slides I had originally built (working as a consultant) for a research firm that was working the issue of non-lethal technologies. The firm had liked the slides, but never used them in the final report, so I showed them to Art, figuring they shouldn’t simply go to waste because I thought they were good. The slides talked about how the U.S. military was without peer in the warfighting arena, but had trouble “accessing “ the transition zone that followed war, much less the peace zone you ultimately need to achieve in order to rack up the real win.

The Pentagon loves to obsess over “area-denial anti-access asymmetrical” warfighting techniques of potential enemies. My point was that we were wrong to look for them in the battlespace, but instead should logically locate them in the transition or peace spaces, when the enemies morph from regulars (battlespace) to irregulars (transition space) to terrorists (peace space).

Having no peers in the battlespace, it made sense to me that anyone we’d fight would seek to avoid fighting us there, but instead cede that “space” (not ground so much as time phase) and choose to fight us instead in the transition and/or peace spaces. This is like the Russians letting Napoleon take Moscow without a fight and then driving him nuts and decimating his ranks on the long cold march back home. More to the point of current events, we have been stuck in the transition space in Iraq since May 2003, dealing with what we’re calling insurgents, or irregulars.

Well, Art really loves this sequence of slides, and then shows me a slide he’s been using on the implicit bifurcation of U.S. military personnel into two separate ethos: the professional warfighter and the citizen-soldier (the former more distant from society and the latter more derived from society).

As soon as I saw that slide, and realized it was working for Art inside the Pentagon, I knew the cat was out of the bag--finally--regarding my long-held notion that the Defense Department would inevitably split back into its pre-WWII bifurcated modes of War and Navy departments, or what I call in the book the Leviathan and System Administration forces, designed to wage, respectively, war and everything else. I had put that material in the book rather nervously thinking everyone would consider the ideas absurd. [What is interesting to note today in the reviews of the book is that non-experts find the bifurcation concept ludicrous while military professionals find it not only quite plausible, but necessary.]

So for the Wall Street Journal brief last July and everyone that’s followed, I’ve used those slides, and because they’ve received such strong purchase with audiences, I had my colleague Bradd gin up a lengthy series of slides based on Chapter 6 in my book, or the section that describes the Sys Admin force and counterposes it to the Leviathan force I believe we already have in abundance.

I started using those newest slides in the fall of 2003, and that’s the last and final piece in the brief that has survived whole up to now.

What’s next for the brief now that the book is done and out?

I see a sequence of slides on the need for an A-to-Z global rule set on processing politically bankrupt regimes and more detailed slides to explore the wide territory that we now realize (thanks to Iraq) lies between the termination of war as we know it and the start of peace as we hope it can be. I also want to explore the notion of what it would be like if an opponent (state or non-state) started moving in the direction of being able to fight 9/11-like in a sustained fashion.

As you can see, the brief never ends and is never-ending in its evolution over time. It remains--as always--a real-time capture of my greatest-hits strategic concepts, wherever I am in my thinking.

In reality, every new slide from here on out is all about building the body of concepts that will drive the next book--whatever that turns out to be.

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