Leadership: The Baghdad Beer Bowl

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December 22, 2008: In a rare event, U.S. troops watching the Super Bowl next year, will be allowed to drink beer (two per viewer). This is a big deal, because, since the 1990s, the U.S. Army has banned the use of alcohol in combat zones. One side effect is fewer alcohol related disciplinary problems. That means there are fewer cases of U.S. troops getting in trouble with local civilians. Far fewer brawls, murders and rapes.

For example, last year, the U.S. Army had 2.6 cases of sexual assault per thousand troops. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate was .86. There were even sharper drops in the number of assaults and murders. The army has noted a gradual decline in alcohol related problems throughout the force since the combat zone prohibition went into effect. At the same time, there is a spike in alcohol related problems in units that have returned from Iraq, as some troops try and catch up on missed drinks. This is also related to an attempt to cope with the stresses related to serving in a combat zone. But the months without access to alcohol has helped many troops learn how to do without it, or get by with a lot less booze.

Some troops in Iraq, when they learned of the Super Bowl exemption, wondered if they ought to pass it up. That's because many soldiers are liable to be called away from the game to deal with some kind of emergency, and they fear that, after months without a drink, two beers might give them a buzz that could dangerously impair their performance during an emergency.

The use of alcohol has not been completely eliminated in the combat zone, but it has to be obtained (from locals, or stills run by troops) and consumed clandestinely. That alone greatly reduces the amount alcohol related misbehavior. The "Super Bowl exemption" is not unique. In the last six years, there have been a few similar exemptions.

This is not the first time the military has tried to modify troops behavior. Anti-smoking campaigns have been a big success, and drug testing has, for all practical purposes, eliminated drug addiction from a commanders list of "things to fret about." For over a century, the military has tried to convince the troops to not drink. The U.S. Navy, in 1914 (six years before Prohibition), outlawed alcohol aboard ships. Despite much grumbling, this worked, and has worked ever since. But once the sailors hit land, demon rum takes over. However, it was the navy experience with shipboard prohibition that led army generals to believe it could work in combat zones. It has, but imposing a no-alcohol rule at home is seen as not practical. Well, maybe not yet?

 


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