Jim Webb: Let Troops Drink

Soldiers DrinkingSenator Jim Webb says it’s time to drop General Order No. 1, which bans alcohol consumption, gambling, and pornography in hostile fire zones.

In part, the order is out of sensitivity to “host-nation” culture. But it’s also a major safety issue. Alcohol, firearms and heavy machinery don’t mix, and the Department of Defense doesn’t want to have to explain a rise in negligent weapons discharges to angry members of Congress.

But as Rick Maze of Army Times notes, one senator is questioning the draconian restrictions on alcohol consumption in theater. In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia suggested that U.S. military commanders should consider loosening the ban to allow “alcohol for stress relief.”

It’s important not to take this out of context: Webb was responding to reports of increased use — and abuse of — of prescription drugs by deployed troops. As we’ve reported here, before troops are popping pills to fight everything from fatigue to depression. The Pentagon is even investigating using pills as a preventive treatment for post-traumatic stress.

Would the military consider lifting its ban on booze? I highly doubt it. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, banned alcohol at NATO’s International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul, after he noticed coalition officers dozing off at a picnic table (European troops are allowed beer and wine).

Webb is my senator.  I didn’t vote for him and frequently disagree with him.  But I applaud his instincts here: American Soldiers were allowed to drink in past wars.  And our troops are, after all, grown-ups.

But Nathan Hodge is right: No way the brass goes along.

The ban is an artifact of the first Gulf War, in which we were hyper-sensitive to Saudi concerns.   But it quickly became the norm for subsequent operations, whether in an Islamic country or not, because it’s easier to maintain discipline without the distractions of gambling and drinking. (Not to mention the strong religious bent of much of the senior leadership of the services.)  If athletic teams could get away with it, they’d do the same.

Moreover, in Iraq and Afghanistan we’re both operating in the Muslim world and making common cause with Muslim allies, not to mention trying to win the proverbial hearts and minds of Muslim populations.

Photo credit: NZETC

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. mike says:

    anytime a commander can control something he/she will. It is sad all of the bans in effect and the attempts to treat soldier/airmen etc as children but you are right, it will continue. It had in the first Gulf War and went to Kosovo, Bosnia, and every other mission. You can’t even have a nudie mag in Iraq or Afghan w/o violating a lawful order – of course they all have them.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    My father-in-law was stationed in Saudi Arabia in the 50s and they had pretty much the same restrictions. The deployments were controversial and difficult because of the special religious nature of the peninsula. I don’t think extending such sensitivities to other Islamic nations makes sense solely on the basis of Islam.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    One question might also be the effect of the Rule on smoking.

  4. An Interested Party says:

    mike, while there is much truth to what you wrote, more could be added…

    Anytime a commander politician, religious figure, and busybody, among many others, can control something he/she will. It is sad all of the bans in effect and the attempts to treat soldier/airmen etc adults as children…

  5. c-red says:

    I would have to say that we hire generals as being experts on leading troops/ fighting battles.

    Unless there is some compelling reason otherwise (medical or political), they should be allowed to set combat zone policy as they see fit.

    For the soldiers, sorry, it kind of sucks, but part of any job is to follow management’s policies.

  6. just me says:

    Personally I see no reason to ban alcohol, why not just severely punish irresponsible behavior rather than ban it all together? It stinks a bit too much of treating our military members like children to ban it altogether.

    I don’t really get the banning of pornography at all-I can see restricting where it can be viewed or hung up (ie private verses work spaces etc).

    With gambling, makes more sense to me to ban irresponsible behaviors related to gambling, and I really struggle to imagine there isn’t any gambling of any sort going on.

  7. Wayne says:

    I understand the desire to maintain discipline and professional attitudes. However besides what some people belief that soldiers are robots, they are not. They are human. They need to let off steam at times especially the combat troops. Crowded swimming pools and gyms assuming you can even get that just don’t cut it. Can bands be done? Of course but they also put additional strain on the troops. The likelihood of it having a harmful affect is much greater. I prefer to have a few discipline problems than having greater long term detrimental issues. I also think the net gain for shorter term issues are hurt.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    The Royal Navy ruled the waves on eight ounces per man, per day, of rum.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    Indeed, Churchill used to say the Royal Navy was all rum and tickle fights.

  10. sam says:

    Indeed, Churchill used to say the Royal Navy was all rum and tickle fights.

    Don’t forget the lash.

  11. tom p says:

    Ya know, this is a battle as old as armies. My old man was on saipan in wwII, and his crew had a friend who flew C-10s… a typhoon came thru and blew everything on the island away. Within 3 days they had 2 cases of illegal scotch which they traded with the seabees and soon had all the material they needed to rebuild their hootch… long before the rest of the island had even removed the sand from their hair.

    I have a hard time beleiving todays military is all that different from yesterdays.

    Laws (rules) are made. Commanders think they enforce them. Front line troops? They don’t care, hell, tomorrow they could be dead.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I greatly admire the phrase “rum and tickle fights.” It’s the kind of phrase that makes me want to write a story solely for the purpose of including it.