Attrition: To Ensure That The Sailors Do Not Drink Like Sailors


May 27, 2012: The U.S. Navy is equipping all its ships with Breathalyzers (portable devices that police are often seen using to determine if a driver is "legally drunk" or close to it). These devices are mainly for use when the ship is in port, to randomly check if any sailors going on duty have been drinking, or if sailors with known drinking problems are relapsing. Since 1913, alcoholic beverages have not been allowed on U.S. Navy ships, although there are incidents of sailors secretly brewing alcohol ("moonshine") or sneaking booze on board. This sort of thing is risky and can get you tossed out of the navy. That's a big deal these days, with civilian unemployment so high. But the navy still tolerates some drinking off the ship, and the Breathalyzers are to ensure that the sailors do not drink like sailors.

Earlier this year the U.S. Marine Corps announced it would soon begin using Breathalyzers on bases to randomly check marines on duty for evidence that they have been drinking to excess. You are not supposed to be intoxicated while on the job. Marines found to be intoxicated will be warned and counseled about treatment and the dangers (to themselves, others, and their career) of alcoholism. The U.S. Navy has been using Breathalyzers to screen some sailors boarding ships since 2009, but now these devices will be on all ships, at all times.

The U.S. Navy is also starting random screening for a manmade drug called "Spice". This drug is often described as synthetic marijuana. The problem for the navy is that Spice comes from many manufacturers, varies widely in its purity and potency, and has unpredictable effects. The navy is particularly concerned about its use by crews of ships at sea. Even sailors who are off-duty often find themselves being called to handle an emergency. That can be a problem if you've just done a bit of Spice.

Getting high has consequences. The navy and air force are particularly hard hit with the popularity of Spice among their troops and even cadets at their service academies. Each year several hundred military personnel have been expelled from the military for using Spice and other illegal drugs.

All this monitoring moved into high gear several years ago, when the military realized that anyone caught using any substance that causes intoxication had to be expelled or punished. These transgressions can range from sniffing glue (a legal substance) to the many organic substances and designer drugs on the market, that are not yet illegal (like Spice used to be), and may never be. The fear is that widespread use of these substances could lead to death or injury. Troops frequently handle dangerous equipment or are responsible for maintaining weapons and vehicles (like helicopters or jets) which are very vulnerable to errors by the maintainers. Most equipment failures can be traced to human error.

But sometimes troops are allowed to use drugs to fight fatigue. For over a century the solution has been amphetamines ("speed"). However, this drug can impair judgment, making the user more aggressive, for example. In the last decade kinder and gentler medications have become available. With some of these tests showed that user performance was degraded 15-30 percent, versus 60-100 percent for those who took nothing at all after 24 hours of being awake. While these new drugs did a pretty good job, the current dextroamphetamine was still a bit better. So amphetamines remain competitive.

Wakefulness can be a potent weapon, especially for commandos or troops engaged in prolonged combat (like the Battle of Fallujah in 2004). Without these wakefulness drugs you would have to either pull troops out of action so they could rest or leave them in and risk having them make fatal mistakes. Either way you have a problem because there are never enough troops to get the job done. But with the wakefulness medications you can solve the problem, for a few days, anyway. Prolonged use of these drugs is not healthy. But neither is being drowsy during combat. Such wakefulness drugs are generally not as useful for support troops, especially equipment operators and maintainers.

Islamic terrorists and the Taliban are, in theory, anti-drug, but they tolerate the use of narcotics among their fighters, as this often makes it possible for young, untrained gunmen to make audacious attacks. Drug tests on the bodies often reveal the presence of mood enhancing drugs, often large doses of methamphetamine (enough to make you fearless, not just more alert).


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