Attrition: Situation Desperate, Send Chocolate

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March 14, 2007: Since the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Defense has adopted the policy of not allowing alcoholic beverages in combat zones. The U.S. Navy adopted that policy on its ships back in 1914, one of many navy "reforms" introduced at that time (including segregating the navy, barring African-Americans from many jobs they had served in since the American Revolution.) But, noting the large proportion of personnel problems that were alcohol related, and how better disciplined U.S. Navy crews were, compared to navies that allowed booze on board, the Department of Defense believed that the new policy would make life in the combat zone safer for everyone if there was no strong drink available.

The policy has been a success, although alcohol has not been completely eliminated. Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Moslem countries where alcohol is hard to get because Islam forbids it, booze is available, usually home-made liquor. This stuff is cheap, and the locals are eager to smuggle it to the troops, because the money, in local terms, is quite good. Thus, of the 665 troops who have been convicted of crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, a third of them were drunk when they committed their crimes. While that's a very low crime rate, it would have been much higher if alcohol had been freely available. This was the case in Vietnam, and during Korea, World War II and earlier wars.

In historical terms, the use of alcohol is quite low today. One side-effect of the industrial revolution three centuries ago, was the sudden availability of cheap liquor, and higher income so people could buy enough booze to hurt themselves. Before the 20th century (and the widespread availability of clean water supplies), drinking beer or wine was a safer way to drink water. People knew that instinctively, and got a buzz from all that ale and wine. However, the cheap liquor became the cocaine of the 18th century, causing widespread drunkenness. The temperance and prohibition movements of the 19th century were a reaction to the social and physical damage of excessive drinking. Our 19th century ancestors drank much more heavily, on average, than do people today. This led to all manner of alcohol related deaths and injuries, as well as widespread health problems.

Soldiers and sailors, because of their often tedious, and sometimes dangerous, work, were exceptionally heavy drinkers. Many, if not most, disciplinary problems were alcohol related. Thus the reluctant acceptance, even by sailors, of the U.S. Navys banning alcohol from ships in 1914. But war is still a high stress situation, and that stress can cause mental, physical and disciplinary problems.

The solution today is often to use prescription drugs. But many people, especially in the military, are reluctant to be "medicated." Among combat troops, however, there has always been some acceptance for chemical aids. Since World War II, the use of amphetamines ("speed") has been accepted for military personnel in dangerous situations (including pilots flying long missions). But the use of prescription medications for lower levels of stress and PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) is being accepted very slowly. Troops still yearn for a "stiff drink" after a particularly harrowing bout of combat. Other alternatives have emerged, such as video games (including quite violent ones), being able to sleep in air-conditioned quarters, and even "comfort food" (chocolate is known to contain an interesting cocktail of mood altering chemicals, but often a large order of fries will help.)

The military, with its random drug testing program, has been much more successful in reducing illegal drug use, than it has been in controlling alcohol abuse. But the larger problem appears to be stress, and the need for better ways to deal with the damage stress does to mental and physical health.

 


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