September 5, 2004

Absolutely Not

By: Christian Lowe


Purpose: to identify conduct that is prejudicial to good order and discipline while deployed to the iraqi theater of operations. this general order is punitive and violation of its provisions may subject offenders to non-judicial or judicial action under the uniform code of military justice. . . .

this general order is applicable to all military members and civilians serving with, employed by or accompanying the first infantry division when deployed in the [theater]…

Prohibited Activities: the possession, sale, transfer, manufacture or consumption of any alcoholic beverage… the possession, transfer, sale, creation or display of any pornographic or sexually explicit material… gambling of any kind… the adopting as pets or mascots any type of domestic or wild animal….

–excerpted from First Infantry Division
General Order Number One

Hawkeye and Trapper John had their martinis, to say nothing of all those cute nurses. The American boatmen carrying Martin Sheen down-river to assassinate Marlon Brando had marijuana and other drugs to keep the demons at bay. But how does a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq blow off steam? Actually, he’s not allowed to.

Of course, nobody said joining the military would be a frolicking good time, despite the abundance of guns and off-road vehicles. No, the U.S. military–especially in the Middle East–is an almost monolithically un-fun organization. And from the stress and uncertainty of brutally hard, sweaty, scary, and boring work, the soldier gets little relief. No drinking and no sex. No fun.

According to General Order Number One, troops can’t have a drink, gamble, or look at a nudie magazine when they’re in the war zone. For crying out loud, you can’t even have a pet!

To be sure, the military has good reasons to keep the booze away from the troops and the fraternization to a minimum. Loaded soldiers and loaded guns don’t mix. While reporting from Iraq, I heard several stories of troops getting hold of some local whiskey in Baghdad, taking one sip too many, and deciding to pop off a few rounds in the barracks.

Now imagine some drunken 19-year-old with access to assault weapons, who, in addition, is suffering through the inevitable jealousies that erupt from short-lived teenage romances. Not a good idea.

But, like some individuals, some forces can do it in moderation. The Italians, the Spaniards, the Dutch, and other soldiers helping the United States in its war on terrorism are allowed to take an occasional nip. If moderation works for them, why not for us?

The American policy of prohibition doesn’t stop with the troops. The contractors who work for the U.S. government on its overseas bases are subject to the same rules. For a hardworking carpenter at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan who spends days on end building houses and other infrastructure in the hot dry weather, it’s especially thirsty work. But he can’t leave the base, there’s no bar, and the women are off limits. And these aren’t Buddhist monks we’re talking about, but barrel-chested, blue-collar, red-blooded Americans. How many hours of PlayStation 2 is a young carpenter from Houston expected to log?

One wonders how long the lockdown can last. With U.S. forces now a near-permanent presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, it won’t be long before hard-up troops find their way to some extracurricular fun. When they do, it won’t be for lack of the Pentagon’s great efforts to keep American GIs sin-free. During a recent stint in Afghanistan, I got to see the Pentagon’s puritanism at work.

Bagram Air Base is America’s primary outpost in the former Taliban and al Qaeda stronghold. At any one time, nearly half the U.S. forces in the country are based there. And it’s an outpost under total prohibition. If you get your buzz watching Sopranos reruns or pumping iron in the gym, you’ll do just fine. But if you need a shot of Bourbon to take the edge off, Bagram is not the place for you. As soon as anyone arrives, they are told that alcohol and drugs are prohibited. Got your eye on that attractive military policewoman from the Illinois National Guard? Ah, ah, ah; there’s also a rule for that: No touching.

At Bagram, the Army has installed a tethered aerostat surveillance system. It’s a helium-filled balloon, not unlike the Goodyear blimp, with a set of cameras that keep an eye on the outer edge of the camp. The aero-stat’s main purpose is to make sure no bad guys infiltrate the wire. But the camp’s soldiers and Marines stationed there are convinced it’s there to spy on them.

“I know one guy who was busted for taking a leak out-side his hooch,” one Marine told me a during a recent visit.”They saw him from that balloon, I’m convinced.”

Others hint at more than a few midnight rendezvous cut short when military police pulled up, courtesy of a tip from the eye in the sky.

In the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom at the air base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, the number of coalition forces there and their more liberal “after hours” rules pressured the American leadership running the base to change the rules. Each serviceperson was allowed two beers every 24 hours. The allowance was tracked on a punch card that prevented one person from getting more than his daily share of booze.

But as the coalition presence drew down, so too came the lockdown. No more pilsner ration cards at Manas. It was back to the gym.

The key at a place like Bagram–which never had the ration card system–is to make friends with coalition troops. One young Marine I’d been talking with told me to come by his hut the next day for a chat about his experience doing reconnaissance a few years earlier.

“I just got a new fridge in my hooch and I got a couple Dutch MREs I can share with you that need to cool down first,” he said with a sly wink.

MREs are the military’s dinner in a pouch: Meals Ready to Eat. The Marine was telling me in code he had some Amstel Lights he’d acquired” from his Dutch Army buddies that needed to chill before we had a little sit-down. In Bagram, it is a real honor to receive such an invitation.

Afghanistan is parched when it comes to alcohol, but Iraq is drowning in it. The prohibition on spirits and fraternization there is much tougher to enforce due to the fact that the troops are based in cities. Soldiers are out on patrol, constantly walking the streets, past liquor stores and porno vendors. And it isn’t like some by-the- book officer is with them all the time either. The patrol leader–usually a sergeant in his twenties–is often as anxious as anyone to grab a couple beers after a hot, dangerous patrol. “Sure, grab a couple six packs and stash them in the Humvee,” he might say. “But keep it on the down low.”

The military argues that alcohol and fraternization erode discipline and could make a benign situation dangerous. But one wonders how a young man or woman can go an entire year pent up without a single drink or romantic encounter. A war zone is about the most un-normal, constraining place in the world. The daily routines are at the same time incredibly dangerous and mind-numbingly dull. But the U.S. military makes it arguably worse by not allowing troops to drink or look at porn or even gamble a little.

Why not take a page out of our allies’ handbooks and let our boys and girls in uniform pull up a camp chair, open their little fridge and pop a Dutch MRE? It might help take the edge off a hot, stressful day on patrol in Tikrit. Fun in moderation works for other armies, and the two-beers-a-day system worked just fine in Kyrgyzstan. It might be worth trying again.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times publishing company and a contributing writer to the Daily Standard.