Morale: The Stress Over Stress Relief


January 30, 2015: The U.S. Department of Defense has resumed its campaign to eliminate tobacco products as a common stress reliever for military personnel. This tobacco eradication effort was put on hold after 2001 because a large number of troops were in combat (or combat zones) and senior commanders warned politicians and senior civilian Department of Defense officials that trying to move forward with tobacco bans would be a major blow to troop morale, especially for those in combat. The anti-tobacco measures were largely delayed and now this movement is back in force. For example the discount troops long had to buy tobacco products has been eliminated and more restrictions are on the way. Morale is already suffering, especially because of the patronizing, puerile and annoying anti-tobacco propaganda and programs.

Back in 2009 the Department of Defense had to assure combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that they would not be deprived of their tobacco products. That reassurance was necessary because the Department of Defense had recently accepted the results of yet another study that recommended the military become tobacco-free. That process would take, it was believed, at least twenty years. That's because it would be done gradually. And even then, cigarettes might still be retained as an approved drug in combat zones. Meanwhile the anti-tobacco enthusiasts are seeking, without much success so far, a non-tobacco combat stress reliever that does not cause more problems than it eliminates.

There have been many such drugs used to help troops deal with combat stress and fatigue but tobacco continues to be the most popular and reliable combat stress reliever. It has been the case for centuries, even before Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere and found the locals using tobacco for recreation, worship and stress relief. The European colonists adopted tobacco in the same way the locals had and it was first chewed then used in pipes and cigars and finally, in the 19th century, as the cigarette. This last development was not known to the pre-Columbus Americans and it made tobacco more widely available.

By World War I cigarettes became cheap enough to become the most common stress reliever for troops and that has remained true ever since. Tobacco was known as a mood changer and stress reliever for over a thousand years. Once the Europeans discovered tobacco its use spread worldwide. But like many popular addictions (booze, sweets, sex) there were unhealthy side effects. The adverse health effects of tobacco have long been known and became more of an issue in the 20th century as more people lived longer, or long enough for these side effects to become common and deadly.

Meanwhile the combat fatigue problem, which has also existed for a long time, became particularly acute in the last century or so as battles became endurance contests with forces engaged for days on end. And this was not just land combat. In the late 20th century long range bombers and refueling in the air became common. Thus pilots had had to face the same problem during very long (30 hours or more) missions. Modern warships have similar problems, especially when in a combat zone. 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. While the new drugs do a pretty good job, dextroamphetamine is still a bit better. So amphetamines remained 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.

It's also become common to prescribe other types of mood altering drugs, like antidepressants and tranquilizers to combat troops, to help them deal with stress. But for short term relief, on the battlefield, nothing beats a cigarette. Just like coffee is a good short term alternative to amphetamines, tobacco (chewed or smoked) gives momentary relief during lulls in combat. Back in 2001 a third of military personnel smoked, compared to a fifth of their civilian peers. In some combat units, up to half the troops were smokers, if only for as long as they are in the combat zone.

The troops know that the drugs they take have bad side effects, but combat is inherently dangerous, and staying awake and stress free is the easiest way to avoid all the other dangers. In addition to these immediate problems there is the longer term impact of stress and tobacco has always been good at that. So when pilots land they go looking for a drink and a cigarette. Same with sailors, who are still allowed to smoke in specified areas and these smoking stations are always busy when the crew is under a lot of stress. Thus for all its long term problems, tobacco is still one of the best short term anti-stress solution. The other one is candy, but that has more immediate shortcomings as well as long-term dangers that explains all the efforts to cure bad eating habits. Then there are violent video games, which unexpectedly turned out to be an excellent combat stress reliever as well as useful in dealing with long-term (PTSD) combat stress problems. It’s still unclear what the long-term downside is for these games. The problem with video games is that they are not as convenient as tobacco. In any event the search continues for more effective combat stress relievers.





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