This article appeared in Harpers, April 1983
THIRTY-SEVEN percent of the enlisted men in the U.S. Navy and 18 percent of its commissioned officers suffered from “serious” of “critical” drinking problems in a study prepared for Congress in 1976. The alcoholism rate in the active U.S. armed forces as a whole has been estimated to be as high as 10 percent. The drinking problems in the Russian armed forces are even greater (as Andrew Cockburn reported in last month's issue). What distinguishes our military is that it actually encourages the consumption of booze.
With an efficiency that our Rapid Deployment Force might envy, the Military Airlift and Military Sealift Commands transport American spirits, beer, and wine, at government expense, from the Norfolk. Virginia, naval exchange headquarters to all U.S. defense establishments worldwide. An annual government subsidy of $16 million permits the Department of Defense to sell hard liquor to servicemen at one fifth of its cost on the British market, and almost one third of retail prices in the United States. A large (1.75-liter) bottle of rum that sells for over $25 in London and over $14 in New Jersey can be purchased at any military PX in Britain or elsewhere for a mere $5.80. Hard liquor is “rationed” to about four large bottles per month per person, but tax--and transport--free beer and California wine may be bought in unlimited quantities at roughly one third the price of identical brands in Britain or the United States.
Cheap liquor is probably not the main reason for the military's alcohol problems; a spartan corps of the teetotalers would not be in the cards even if liquor were expensive. But you do not have to be an economist to guess, in this case, that low prices have a significant effect in stimulating consumption. One petty officer who became an alcoholic at age twenty-four remembers that a common attitude among his drinking buddies was “I might as well take advantage of the cheap booze while I'm here. I won't be in the navy forever.
The Pentagon has responded to the problem of alcoholism not by cutting back on liquor subsidy, but by spending more money on programs to hospitalize and rehabilitate alcoholics. The U.S. Naval Command in Britain established an “alcohol counseling and assistance center” at a secret navy cryptographic base at Edzell, Scotland. Other counseling centers dot Europe, where drinking problems among servicemen, as might be expected, are more common than at bases back home. Five out of every 1,000 American servicemen in Europe are involved in alcohol-related accidents each month. Twelve thousand of the navy's men and women are treated for alcohol abuse or alcoholism each year.
The problem extends to navy ships, which by law are supposed to be completely free of alcoholic beverages. A former naval lieutenant with five years' ship experience recalls that a still producing an improvised gin was quietly maintained in the engine room of a destroyer on which he served. In another instance, the captain of an aircraft carrier on which he was traveling requested over the loudspeakers that all alcohol be dumped overboard because a customs inspection was scheduled to take place at the next port of call. An are at the rear of the craft was set aside and a blind eye turned while sailors disposed of their (mostly empty) bottles. Officers who have become addicted to alcohol while enjoying subsidized liquor onshore have been known to lug cases of mouthwash on board to quench their thirst during long voyages.
If the Pentagon is looking for ways to cut its budget while improving national security, the $16 million annual subsidy for liquor seems a good place to start. Short of eliminating the subsidy, the Reagan administration could probably find someone other than the tax-payers—the Russians, for example—who would be willing to pick up the tab for helping our military men become drunks.