This first appeared in The Havok Journal on February 3, 2015… but it continues to be an issue. What are your thoughts?
North Dakota State Rep. Andrew Maragos recently sponsored a bill that proposes changing the legal drinking age in the U.S. military to age 18. This has sparked a bit of controversy among military personnel, past and present, and even within the Havok Journal writers’ group.
My view is simple. If you can draft a man at 18 and put a rifle in his hand and trust him to defend this nation on the field of battle, you can trust him to handle a drink when he is 18 as well, a cup of mead for the warrior if you please.
The states all uniformly have set the drinking age at 21 for a variety of reasons with the majority being that the maturity of an 18-year-old is questionable and drinking and driving accidents were reduced when the drinking age was raised to 21.
This is all fine and well for the average population but the military population is not average. I know the implications, I understand the risk, but there is a difference of opinion that has produced contention.
I think that a soldier who is prepared to die for their country should be able to hoist a libation while serving their country. A common theme for a memorial salute to a fallen comrade is a drink set on a bar as a token of memory. How ironic if such tokens are left for our fallen that could not actually legally drink?
Are 18-year-olds mature? In the military, there is a dedicated process to train and create professional warriors. Anyone who has subjected themselves voluntarily to that shaping process is arguably more mature than a peer who has not made the same decisions.
The argument is that allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drink will increase the disruptions on military installations, erode discipline, and cause a host of problems beyond those up to including death either by drinking and driving or other acts of stupidity that are alcohol-related.
All this is undoubtedly part of the risk, but those problems exist currently in the military and outside it and are compounded by the additional charge of underage drinking and collateral damage for those who contributed to the delinquency.
I don’t have a catch-all solution but I believe that the problem can be overcome with a bit of leadership. The military has a leadership of course but there are several problems from the outset.
The problem that increases the risk of potential negative behavior deals in major part to disenfranchisement with military service by soldiers. We put weapons in the hands of 18-year-olds and sent them off to war to make life and death decisions. They kill, they die, but they are not trusted with the responsibility of alcohol.
Leadership in the military essentially says that they do not trust soldiers to behave.
There is the truth but that truth is subjective. Underage drinking is happening right now and we know it. What we don’t know is how prevalent it is. We only know when they get caught. If getting caught is a measure of immaturity, then the converse is that those who don’t are not only behaving more responsibly, but they are doing so in a semi-intelligent fashion because they are not getting caught.
That is logical but the logic is undermined because they are in fact disobeying regulations and lawful orders if they are drinking underage even if they are not caught. As a leader, I was taught not to give an order I knew was not going to be obeyed.
Doing so undermined my authority and eroded the respect my personnel had for any future orders because they considered them suspect.
Additionally exacerbating the issue is the fact that in a garrison environment, weak leaders resort to mass punishment for infractions regardless of the level of responsibility any individual leader might have. When a soldier commits an infraction against good order and discipline the first question that routinely gets asked where the first line leader was.
In the military, you are responsible for everything your subordinates do or fail to do. This is military discipline. However, it fails to recognize that individuals can and will do the damndest things without regard to training or guidance.
What does this imply? In a truly efficient leadership organization, such as is found in tight-knit special operations units, the peer pressure to be your best is the main force of discipline. You want to support your team. In regular military formations, teamwork is given more lip service because while team cohesion is a good thing and promoted, team punishment over the infraction of one is a major motivation killer. The leader is not allowed to handle things at the lowest level because the problems are elevated beyond their authority.
At Fort Hood, the III Corps Commanding General individually spends thirty minutes each week giving his guidance to every new soldier that arrives at the installation. Every week, unless he sends someone else who is always a general officer, without fail he undermines the authority of every level of command below him. He might not see it that way and as the Corp and Garrison Commander no one else can gainsay him, but how valuable are the words of a Sergeant when a General feels the need to be the one transmitting personal instructions.
As a leader at the squad level, I told my personnel my version of the good news and the bad news. The good news was that they only had to impress one person. The bad news was that the person they had to impress was me.
There was a corollary to that comment. No one would discipline them but me and if I was wrong, I would not pass the heat down to them. If they were wrong, I would be the one to deal with them.
There were times, based on UCMJ that I could not keep that promise. But by heading off the minor infractions and controlling my team without the constant involvement of senior leadership, I created a team that was disciplined, motivated, and capable.
During the Iraq War, the junior leaders were the ones on the front lines making the decisions, planning the missions, and fighting the battles. The trust that was placed in them motivated them to perform because they owned the mission. The successes were personal and the losses were personal and no senior leaders were constantly involved in the day to day operations. In many cases, the platoon sergeant or platoon leader was the only senior person they saw and even then it was not often.
Staff Sergeants and Sergeants organized their people, conducted their inspections, and rolled out into harm’s way every day.
Now back in garrison, they are not trusted to manage their people without input from senior leaders in daily contact.
The Iraq War proved that if you give someone trust and responsibility, they can and will rise to the occasion. If you don’t give them the chance, they won’t.
Changing the drinking age might indeed cause an increase in problems associated with alcohol that the military has inadequately addressed in those above the age of 21. Perhaps in having a new conversation and showing the newest warriors to the tribe that they are going to be treated as an adult until they prove otherwise, and then if they fail, address the individual for their failure, we might change the paradigm that continually plagues us.
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