March 18, 2013: A U.S. Air Force commander at Ramstein Air Base has ordered that U.S. Air Force personnel living in air force barracks there can no longer possess or drink alcoholic beverages in those barracks. This is in a response to a recent air force directive to show “zero tolerance” to sexual misbehavior by air force personnel and to reduce drunken behavior in the barracks. The Ramstein commander believed that alcohol was a common cause of sexual misbehavior and that going dry would be good for many other reasons. The new rules do not prohibit air force personnel from drinking elsewhere, especially off base. This may lead to more drunk driving incidents, but that’s another matter as it generally happens off base.
Alcohol bans are increasingly common in the air force. Two years ago the air force banned their troops in South Korea from having a local liquor, Soju, in their living quarters or anywhere on base. The reason was that Soju is cheap, popular, and kind of sneaks up on you. Similar to vodka but with a somewhat sweet taste, most Soju is 40 proof (20 percent alcohol). American troops find that they can drink a lot of it before they suddenly find themselves quite intoxicated. The air force considers this a problem because many airmen, while off-duty and on base, are "on call." If they have been drinking Soju, and are suddenly called in to operate or repair complex equipment, disaster can ensue. Some Soju is 90 proof but it's the 40 proof stuff that caused the most problems.
Soju is not the only alcoholic beverage the military has problems with. Despite alcoholic beverages being forbidden for American troops in combat zones (and aboard warships no matter where, or when, they are), the troops find a way to get a drink. Sailors have been supplied by hidden shipboard stills since shortly after alcohol was forbidden aboard U.S. Navy ships in 1914. Soldiers and marines, no matter where they were, if there wasn't a lot of fighting going on, found ways to make or obtain alcoholic beverages. Stills or trading with the locals have been a constant headache for commanders.
Restrictive lifestyle rules for American troops have been imposed from time to time for over two centuries. These efforts at imposing good behavior usually fail or simply fade away after a while. The latest wave of such restrictions began in the 1990s, when American peacekeepers were sent to the Balkans. There the troops were subjected to General Order Number 1 (first issued in 1945 for American occupation troops in Japan and Germany). This regulation means imposing a "no booze, no sex" rule on troops in an area, even in a combat zone. The alcohol prohibitions apply on or off base, as do the prohibitions on sex, marrying locals, or even gambling. In the 1990s troops were encouraged to spend more time in the gym, or with their video games, or praying. Troops having sex with each other is generally tolerated, although that can cause trouble as well. Only about ten percent of the troops in combat zones are female and not all are single or in the mood.
While the troops are not happy with General Order Number 1, they adapt. But in non-combat zones, where there is no General Order Number 1, the troops continue to get in trouble with booze and sex (especially when the two go together, which often results in rape or worse). The difference is more stark these days because so many American troop commanders are, or have been, in combat zones.
This is not to say that the military has not tried to modify troop behavior in the past. It has. 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 give up drinking. The most ambitious of these efforts occurred in 1914 (six years before Prohibition) when the U.S. Navy 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. The experience with the Ramstein prohibition may change that.