Morale: A Round Too Far


February 15, 2010: The U.S. Army is having a growing problem with alcoholism. Last year, over 9,000 soldiers got treatment (mainly regular counseling) for alcohol abuse. That's up from nearly 6,000 in 2003. The stress of repeated trips to combat zones has caused the number of U.S. Army soldiers diagnosed as having an alcohol abuse problem (about one percent) to double, since 2003. Further research led the army to conclude that the problem was actually much greater, with perhaps several percent of the force struggling with an alcoholism problem. In response, the army now allows troops to anonymously seek treatment for alcoholism. Sort of like Alcoholics Anonymous, but with the army explicitly keeping any mention of the treatment out of the soldiers' records. This is a big deal, because getting openly noted as an alcoholic (those who do are forced to undergo treatment) lessens ones' promotion prospects and basically dogs you for the rest of your career. Many troops drink heavily, without it obviously interfering with their work. But that sort of thing can easily cross over into alcoholism, and career threatening problems with your bosses. So the anonymous angle appeals to the majority of heavy drinkers who are not obviously, to their commanders, getting in trouble with booze.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the first real test of the army's new approach to alcoholism and stress. That's because, since the 1990s, the U.S. Army has banned the use of alcohol in combat zones. One, expected, side effect was 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, the U.S. Army has three times the rate of sexual assault per thousand troops outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. 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.

But, from 2004 on, the rate of alcohol related problems began to rise in units that returned from Iraq, as some troops tried to catch up on missed drinks. This has much to do with attempts 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.

The army had hoped that access to other stress relieving activities (gyms, video games) in the combat zone would make up for the missing booze. It sort of did, but only in the combat zone. The stress of combat stays with you, and when you get back home, booze is an easy way to take the edge off. Drugs are too easily detected, but beer and whiskey are always there. 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.

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 rules. 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.





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