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Friday
Dec282012

A Pointer and a Map

When I read that General Norman Schwarzkopf was dead, it was amidst the sounds of my small nephews playing with blocks.  I leaned over my mother to tell her the news quietly, so as not to disturb the boys, so as not to remind them there is such a thing as death.  It is because of people like him that the majority of the smallest Americans have this luxury.  

Although a battlefield hero in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf is best known for stating this giant scary war in terms so that even a little girl and journalists could understand. When I taught technical communication to ROTC students, I immediately knew where to go for a lesson on How It's Done.  It was done before most of what we use for technical communication today was even imagined.

I was able to show The Briefing (for it requires to other name) because it survived as a professionally packaged issuance from ABC News, like a World Series season highlight film.  Everybody capable of processing audio and visual input in America heard and saw The Briefing, and after it was over everybody called ABC and CBS and NBC and CNN asking them to show it again.  It was that fascinating, that concise, that self-assured.

It's a guy with a pointer and a bunch of charts.  Every now and then you'll see a spare graphic at the bottom of the screen-- who this guy is, when he was talking, what he was talking about.  He required no whooshing graphics and no Powerpoint.  Here are the good guys.  Here are the bad guys.  This is what the good guys did and this is what made them the good guys.  The color blocks on the sandy yellow maps were simplistic.  That is how we saw this war, and that is how it was conducted:  In and out, over before the news departments and protesters got tired of it.

The Briefing also stands as a masterful stroke of military PR.  When I incorporated The Breifing into my lesson plans, we talked about why the general wore his BDUs and not his dress uniform, what decorates his podium, the way Schwarzkopf dropped the pointer and stepped forward every now and then, how he tersely asked a minion to flip his charts. 

Today The Briefing stands as an historical object, a relic of a single-focus media which has long since passed away: Look at the spare graphics! They even go away sometimes!  See how clean the bottom of the screen is, no Gaga-related breaking news! There's not even a network graphic everlastingly imprinted at the bottom of the picture!  What is this madness!  You're asked only to listen to this man and look at his charts. 

The Briefing was also the first moment I ever heard anyone whose job somewhat depended on petting public opinion talk back to the press.  This was possible?  Oh, the people sitting behind the microphones ran away from questions, they refused to answer them-- but they never personally grabbed the journalist by the shoulders and spun him to face another point of view.  Were it delivered in 2012, "Have you ever been in a minefield?" would've been a fullblown Don Equis meme by lunchtime, complete with YouTube beatbox remix. 

This man is gone, now, and a way of thinking and speaking about the war with him. General Schwarzkopf bridged the era between newsreels and Almighty Anchor Desk and tweeted combat.  He was the general of live nightscope shots, flashes of blue in a black Baghdad sky and images of BBC newsreaders struggling into gas masks. 

I do not know battle; I have not served.  From those who have, I am told that it's messy and loud and maybe doesn't necessarily follow the square blocks and sweeping arrows laid out for it on a map.  But for one day, one man in battle fatigues served as a reminder of the thousands who really were standing on sand.  Some of it's not really easy to comprehend, then or now.

May we never need such charts again.  Let The Briefing be the last.

And thank you, General.

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