Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

How to Shut Down the U.S. Military

Remember how last august, an Army staff sergeant sent an email to a list of over 10,000 e-mail addresses over the Army’s Enterprise e-mail system?

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By Michael Chandler
Best Defense guest columnist

Remember how last august, an Army staff sergeant sent an email to a list of over 10,000 e-mail addresses over the Army’s Enterprise e-mail system? And did you know it happened gain in December, when someone in Defense Information Systems Agency sent a message to 85,000 addresses?

Army social media exploded with derision, frustration, and a bunch of eye-rolling at the sheer number of people who clicked “reply all” to ask to be taken off the distribution list or, in the case of the second e-mail, to wish 85,000 soldiers and DA civilians a Merry Christmas.

By Michael Chandler
Best Defense guest columnist

Remember how last august, an Army staff sergeant sent an email to a list of over 10,000 e-mail addresses over the Army’s Enterprise e-mail system? And did you know it happened gain in December, when someone in Defense Information Systems Agency sent a message to 85,000 addresses?

Army social media exploded with derision, frustration, and a bunch of eye-rolling at the sheer number of people who clicked “reply all” to ask to be taken off the distribution list or, in the case of the second e-mail, to wish 85,000 soldiers and DA civilians a Merry Christmas.

Mostly, though, hilarity ensued. In the hours and days to follow both messages, computer-bound soldiers found themselves deleting hundreds of new “reply-all” messages upon arriving on Monday morning. They noticed as each time zone came online, more and more reply-alls came in—some asked to be taken off the distro, some replied-all to say “STOP REPLYING-ALL,” and some just rambled unintelligibly; a choice quote is “Someone need to fix this ASAP! I am tired of getting 30 emails at time! Your my EMAIL!”

I stopped chuckling to myself when I thought, What if they’re just testing us?

What a great way to shut down the U.S. military. Send out a high priority e-mail to thousands of people, with a 75 megabit Powerpoint presentation. Fast forward two hours, with the “reply-alls” piling in, many forwarding the attachment. Two or three reply-all messages also contain a large-sized file of data — nothing classified or consequential, just a slideshow with a bunch of large pictures. The messages begin to pile up. The reply-alls continue.

On Sunday night, long after the Old Man has turned the notifications off on his Blackberry because of the 200-plus times he’s had to listen to the tone, there’s an attack on a military installation. CQ and Staff Duty NCOs call higher, wake the Commander. News media begin reports on a national level. Everyone is woken up at the same time, and everyone goes to their phone to send their orders down and to await instruction from higher.

Except tonight, your mailbox is full. It’s been full since Saturday. Enterprise has given up on sending you more mail until you clear out the mass of e-mail already in your inbox. The talking points from the Corps Staff? Not until you clear out your inbox. A storyboard of the incident sent higher? Clear out that inbox. Got your inbox cleared? The other 100-plus messages begin downloading, filling your inbox again. Sure, you’re the Commander, and you might have a decent government issued computer, but what about the staffers who are still working on Dell D630s — eight-year-old computers? They’re still trying to clear out the first batch of e-mail. “Where’s that SITREP I e-mailed you 45 minutes ago?” “I haven’t got the format yet, I’m still clearing out my inbox.”

Any kind of cross-echelon coordination is non-existent as everyone tries to fix a problem we created ourselves with old computers and poor e-mail etiquette. It’s not misconduct. It’s not a failure of leadership. It might be a failure to train, but do we really want to spend time training our non-Millennials on how to use e-mail? Some of these guys have 25 years in, with six deployments. Hey, Sir, I know how to work a computer. I don’t need no training.

I’m 99 percent sure that the two e-mail debacles we’ve seen in the last four months are just human error committed by people who are unfamiliar with computers, people who are thrust into a job that requires them and just need a little training.

But what if they are watching? I’m not talking about illiterate suicide bombers, I’m talking about ISIS. You wouldn’t call those guys primitive and non-tech-savvy, would you? What about the Chinese? The North Koreans? Anybody with an axe to grind against the US Army who realizes that it just takes a big, silly e-mail and a few attachments can bring us to our knees for an hour. That’s not a risk worth taking.

Capt. Michael Chandler, U.S. Army, is a logistics officer currently attending the Naval Postgraduate School. He was commissioned through OCS, commanded a distribution company in Afghanistan, and was selected as a Foreign Area Officer in 2013. He believes that leaders without a Twitter or a Facebook are doing it wrong. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect those of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.

National Library of Ireland

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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