Sober and Sobering

“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.” ~Henny Youngman


The line of cars at the gate to Kadena Air Force Base was unusually backed up, given that it was a lazy well-after-the-church-crowd Sunday mid-afternoon. As we joined our place in the queue, I noticed up ahead the gate guards waving their magic wands at each vehicle as it stopped in place for the necessary checks before entering the preeminent American gated community on this island of the Far East.

We approached. “Good afternoon sir, we are conducting a random sobriety test,” the guard politely proclaimed. While I’m sure he didn’t enjoy doing “The Man’s” work anymore than I most certainly would, he remained cordial, pleasant and respectful. Being one never to pass up an opportunity for sarcastic yet mild sedition, and being rather disgusted by such treatment of our people by our people overseas, I replied, “It’s not random if you check every car….” “Ahhhh…uhmmmm, it’s just at random times,” came his meager reply….

Silver Flag 09-09

I’m sick and tired of having my sobriety questioned simply because I am (loosely) associated with the US military presence on Okinawa, Japan. Now, you may claim that a random check at the gate on Sunday afternoon is not all that bad.

But it is. Because it’s not all that random. Fast forward a day, less than 24 hours later. I am driving between the Kadena Exchange and the Fairchild pool (where I teach scuba), both within the confines of Kadena Air Force Base, and elect to take a back road, one that runs by the NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) club, “The Rocker.” Approaching the Rocker, I spy two uniformed military police officers standing in the road at a four-way intersection. Evident in their hands are the wands which they brandish….

Yep, checked again to see if I had been drinking, at 1230 on a Monday afternoon. But it isn’t even the two checks in 22 hours that is most insulting; it’s that the cops are purposely staking out one of the on-base clubs so they can catch some poor sap who had a beer with his lunch….


Or, even worse, the military has instituted random sobriety checks…in the workplace. Now, regardless of position or rank or the 26 years of faithful, honorable, and trouble-free service you proven yourself with, you blow into the machine just like everyone else. In the past, only the Commanding Officers of units could authorize a “fit for duty” screen for alcohol…and that had to be based on some type of the military’s less stringent version of our Constitutionally guaranteed probable cause. Worse, the practice is not evidence based: the military is just not rife with drunks on the job, even though it has its share of highly functioning alcoholics.

I’ve written about the massive failure in our senior leadership in the modern military before (See Sorry…for the Epic Fail). The failure isn’t found in the fact that some servicemembers continue to drink and drive; as a slice of the wider American pie, the military will always have its share of “bad apples.” Rather, it’s in the “suspect and punish the masses” approach to enforcing the unnecessarily strict liberty policies our leaders have already enacted.

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Civilian Deaths in Iraq by Year and Month as a result of the US-Led Coalition invasion in 2003.

But there’s a much more sobering aspect to this misplaced and unwarranted focus on drinking. If the military only put the same emphasis in avoiding collateral damage on the many battlefields that our leadership, civilian and military, have decided to fight upon, the world would be a much better place.  And many more innocent lives would be uninterrupted by death, unmolested by injury and inoculated a good measure of suffering.

It’s hard to put forward a reliable figure for just how many people have been killed and wounded as a result of the US-led coalition warring in Iraq since 2003. It’s pretty clear just doing a few minutes of reading online that clearly no one knows with any measure of certainty. But there are some “facts” that are, well, at least widely recognized and accepted. One is this: there have been more than 133,000 individually recorded civilian deaths since the 2003 invasion of Iraq due to direct war-related violence, a truly sobering realization. These are documented fatalities based on hospital and morgue records, and includes official government accounts.

Where are the protests about unnecessary civilian deaths?

Where are the protests about unnecessary civilian deaths?

However, other sources say such figures are massively underestimated, as they do not consider fatalities from indirect causes of war. In this characterization, upwards of a half a million possibly have died from war-related (direct and indirect) causes in Iraq since 2003. Indirect causes include other avoidable deaths linked to our invasion, such as those caused by insurgencies and subsequent social breakdown. All told, almost 1 in 10 Iraqis have been directly affected by being either killed, wounded, or displaced.

I’m not saying that drinking and driving isn’t an issue. It’s just that, for the military, there are more pressing concerns that dwarf the drunk driving “crisis” that has been rather artificially crafted and politically inflated. Although the number of traffic accidents involving intoxicated drivers in Japan has fallen greatly in the past decade, it is, to the Japanese, still unacceptably high. In 2011, there were 5,029 alcohol-related accidents, down from 25,400 in 2001, a massive reduction by any standard. According to a 2009 study by the Japanese National Police Agency, 57% of arrested drunk drivers were second offenders. Sound familiar?


Accidents (Red) and Fatal Accidents (Blue), both Drink-Related

But let’s try and get a realistic handle on just how serious the problem may be. Data from the Fukuoka Prefectural Police records of traffic accidents between 1987 and 1996 show that 58,421 male drivers were involved in traffic accidents during the 10-year study period, and that 271 of these were killed as a result. That’s equivalent to just about how many drink-related fatalities occur on the roads of Alabama every year (same rates, roughly same population at/near 5 million). Among male motorcar drivers, the odds of being killed in an accident increased by 4 over drivers who remained sober prior to driving.

Of all the Japanese Prefectures, Okinawa has had the highest rate of accidents causing injury or death involving drunk drivers in Japan for 24 consecutive years. And contrary to what you might think given the way the military mistreats their own in all matters drink, it’s not the American’s fault. Far from it.

The Okinawa Prefectural Police data show Okinawa has the highest number of drunk drivers arrested for every 1,000 people in Japan, roughly about 125 people every month. Very few of these are US military or here because of the US military. The prefecture also often has the highest car-accident death rate involving drunk drivers. And although Okinawa is aggressively attempting to prevent drunk driving and has a low 0.03 BAC, rates of drunken driving have not changed. On Okinawa in 2013 there were 6,664 accidents causing injury or death, while only about two percent (134 cases) involved drunk driving, a rate about 2.8 times the Japanese national average. At the same time, over 1,350 drunk drivers were arrested, a rate of 1 in every 10,000 people in Okinawa, about 4.3 times the national average.


Yes, drunk driving is a problem, a serious problem, and of course actions should be taken to curb as much of it as possible. Believe me, it impacted my life personally when my brother many years ago came very close to being murdered by a drunk driver while stopped at a red light. But on Okinawa, it is NOT an American “problem,” although the local politics and high-profile media reporting attempt to make it so. Politics is politics even here in the Far East, and all politics are local, and in this corner of the Far East even minor incidents stoke anti-US military tensions that already are running high as local citizens and Okinawan politicians clamor for a reduced presence of the US military on Okinawa.

Thus we have our ridiculous and unpoliceable liberty restrictions. The midnight-to-5 a.m. prohibition, which covers all branches of the military on Okinawa (but oddly and clearly discriminatorily not the rest of Japan), applies to any establishment where the “primary business is the sale and consumption of alcohol.” And for those wishing to drink off-base, you can only do so with a meal, and then are allowed only two drinks…and only in a public place.

Even the Colonels, Combat Leaders of Men, require liberty cards on Okinawa.

Even the Colonels, Combat Leaders of Men, require liberty cards on Okinawa.

The rules are a bird’s nest tangle of rules and regulations. For instance, you cannot go to someone else’s home off-base and drink. Living off-base, you are supposed to still self-ground yourself and abide by the wider military curfew. Battle Buddies are required for junior personnel to even leave base (in the hours they can), and overnight liberty requires special permission…and then the curfew still applies wherever one might overnight. Oh, and even pedestrians coming and going from base are checked: the liberty policy says you can’t be out in town with over a 0.03 BAC period. So you even get in trouble for walking through the gate – either way – if you had a beer or two in the last hour!

Reasonable, right?

WRONG. It’s just freakin’ silliness and contradictory, and everyone knows it. The Exchange sells massive amounts of alcohol (along with smokes and chew). The drinking restrictions and the curfew don’t apply on-base. In other words, you can drink until you puke your guts out, as long as you don’t leave base or drive on base. So, all the polices, rules, regulations and restrictions are not really about protecting “us” (even if it’s from ourselves) or ensuring the health and welfare of our service members. It’s really about avoiding embarrassment and bad press. Plus there’s simply too much money to be made selling such popular vices. Oddly enough, the military then has to fund and provide a plethora of treatment and cessation courses, classes and treatment for booze, smokes and chew, all the same things they push openly and publicly at the same time. The proverbial self-licking ice cream cone.

It’s time that our military leadership grow a backbone and defend the VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE WHO DO THE RIGHT THING. Literally tens of thousands of soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines here on Okinawa never do anything wrong. The majority have squeaky clean service records, and are trusted with multi-million dollar pieces of equipment, with lethal force, and with other peoples’ lives.

Uncle Sam also is a big believer in "probable cause"

Uncle Sam also is a big believer in “probable cause”

Recently a Gunny friend of mine, an E7 in the USMC, had to handle an “Alcohol Related Incident” (ARI), a serious one involving disorderly conduct off-base and an assault of a Japanese policeman (the Police later dropped charges). Rather than send this Marine back home and punish him with immediate restriction or non-judicial punishment, he was simply dropped off at his barracks and told to stay put.  The unit CO, instead of focusing on this problem-child, recalled all his Marines…on Sunday afternoon…made them put uniforms on…where they stood in formation while getting a “talking to.” What they should have gotten was a text message saying, “Hey, your Skipper here: THANK YOU for doing the right thing this weekend!”

Why on earth does the military insist of making everyone pay? Why does the military blame everyone else, including friends and local leadership when an individual does something really stupid? How on earth do the actions of less than 0.5% of the force equal a “systemic failure in leadership”? Would you punish all your children when only one didn’t do their homework? Does a whole family get arrested when one person buys or uses drugs? Where else do we punish the masses for the transgressions of the one? What is sorely missing in the modern military is 1) personal accountability for a lack of personal responsibility for the 0.5% do-wrongers, and 2) positive reinforcement for the 99.5% of the troops that constantly and continually do the right thing.

Japan has made amazing strides in drunk driving, and it's not by restricting the public's liberties....

Japan has made amazing strides in drunk driving, and it’s not by restricting the public’s liberties….

So, while we may mistakenly “trust” all those Lance Corporals out there not to kill the innocents while using lethal force overseas in the name of the United States, they all are no less than one or two drinks away from becoming a serial rapist or violent felon when back home on Okinawa. I’m afraid that the military is neglecting to put the same amount of effort and emphasis on promoting the morality of killing and rules of engagement to better avoid “collateral damage,” but I suspect we are not. If only the half a million of dead and injured civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in the same measure of bad press, political consequence, and threat to American military-industrial interests, perhaps things would be different.


The following sources were used to compile the facts on figures used in this blog:

Thanks & Giving in the Far East

 “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”


The smell was the first thing that hit me. That unmistakable odor of a human being who hasn’t bathed in what surely was many months. I was headed to the trash to dump the remains of dinner but fond myself searching for the malodorous source, when suddenly a hand reached out to stop me.

It was a man, apparently homeless…and evidently of some minority ethnic background of Chinese.

Fortunate Leftovers

Fortunate Leftovers

I stopped, somewhat shocked. While I’ve certainly been accosted by homeless in many areas of the world, it’s never happened in the confines of a fast-food establishment. Clearly he was hungry, and after only the slightest pause, he started ruffling through the debris and trash on our tray….

Christmas Celebrations were a Pleasant Surprise in Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing.

Christmas Celebrations were a Pleasant Surprise in Shanghai, Xian, and Beijing.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you areJody and I visited China last week, the first time for both of us. And last week was the week of “our” Thanksgiving. While Peking Duck is certainly the obvious choice in China for celebrating the day (there is no turkey there to speak of), we were saving that perhaps most famous culinary of China for our last night in Beijing. And although the Holiday Inn where we were quartered was actually offering what was billed as a “traditional” American Thanksgiving (at a reasonable price of about $65/person), we opted instead for a celebratory feast at the most popular western fast-food chain in China: Kentucky Fried Chicken!

China 2014, Thanksgiving, holiday treats at the Holiday Inn

China 2014, Thanksgiving, strange menu choices in China!While traveling throughout China we had heard an awful lot from our tour guides about KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken, the world’s second largest restaurant chain in sales only after McDonald’s, has about 19,000 outlets in almost 120 countries. KFC became the first Western fast food company in China in 1987 with a franchise opening in Beijing. This Beijing outlet had the highest volume of sales of any KFC in the world in 1988. Capitalism and the West is a wonderful thing. Or is it simply crispy fried food?!

Happy Fried Goodness!

Happy Fried Goodness!

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you areOf course KFC had an early and sustained advantage against other Western fast food rivals, fried chicken being a staple Chinese dish since antiquity. Hamburgers, on the other hand, remain “foreign” and largely unknown outside the context of the Gold Arches and that creepy King. Twenty-eight KFC franchises were open by 1994 in China; by 1997 there were 100 outlets. A few years ago they passed the 300 mark and growth, while slowed, continues exponentially.

Picture Menus are a must in Asia

Picture Menus are a must in Asia

Japan also celebrates both KFC and a Thanksgiving…of sorts. While the biscuits in Japanese franchises are shamefully bad compared to their American counterparts, Thanksgiving Day in Japan is eerily similar. Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is a Japanese national holiday held annually on November 23 as an occasion for commemorating labor and production. Like most other modern holidays around the globe, Labor Thanksgiving Day is the modern name for an ancient harvest of cereals festival known as Niiname-sai (新嘗祭), tracing back as early as the 7th century BCE. In modern times, this event encourages thinking about the environment, peace and human rights, all a result of the post-World War II Japan and her new constitution which focused more intently on fundamental human and workers’ rights. Oh, and by the way, the Chinese KFCs don’t even bother to offer biscuits, much to their credit.


mao-portrait-2In China, however, having seen KFCs throughout Shanghai, Xian and Beijing, it became somewhat of a dare to eat at one. And what better time than on that most American of American holidays: Thanksgiving. Arriving late at the hotel after a long day of touring, we invited all those traveling with us to come and celebrate, but only three others took us up on our offer. Walking just a few short blocks away from our hotel in the Christmassy temperatures of nighttime Beijing, we arrived with smiles on our faces and grumblings in our bellies. Unfortunately in China there is no effigy of Colonel Sanders like there is in Japan (see Christmas is for Lovers in Japan for more on the central role of the Colonel and his food in Japan). Oh the photo-ops the Colonel dressed as Chairman Mao would provide!

Dressed in green the Colonel would be a terrific Chairman Mao!

Dressed in green the Colonel would be a terrific Chairman Mao!

Chinese outlets are typically two to three times larger than those found in America and Europe; many are open 24 hours a day. And most provide home delivery…via electric scooter…where the hotbox of fried goodness is strapped directly on the diver’s back.


screen%20shot%202014-10-08%20at%2011_12_51%20amKFC has adapted its menu to suit local tastes throughout the Far East, and China is no exception. With items such as rice congee, egg custard tarts and tree fungus salad, over 50 different menu items are offered in each store. While the “Dragon Twister,” a wrap that includes fried chicken, cucumbers, scallions, and duck sauce sounds delish, it’s the “Zinger” burger that tops the best-selling list: a 100% breast fillet chicken coated in “zinger flavoring” combined with lettuce and mayo for those seeking a full-on hot and spicy flavor hit.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, chicken is chicken wherever you are

I actually ordered the Zinger (unknowingly), but realizing the wimps that most Americans tend to be about Asian-inspired spiciness, I was asked whether I wanted it “spicy or mild.” The sandwich was good, the fries where excellent, the cobbed corn was soft and bettered just like the ones back home, and the mash and gravy were actually very Kentucky-like. All-in-all it was a fitting meal to which the Colonel would most like offer his heartfelt “xie xie” (“thanks” in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced “she-she”).

This Red Guard no doubt is proclaiming:  Eat More Chicken!

This Red Guard no doubt is proclaiming: Eat More Chicken!

But our meal, being more of a gimmick than a worthy celebration, failed to do justice the serious side of giving Thanks and acknowledging the bounty present in our accidental lives being born American. I can’t really recall what was moving through my head as the homeless man started to sift my tray for leftovers, other than I needed to let this man take what he could. There actually was still a lot of food left on the tray, and he took it all. I remained numb and paralyzed by inaction, an odd state for me, a person who’s rather decisive and prone to action sooner rather than later.

Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving Dinner

He moved away to the next person approaching the trash, and I dumped my tray in silent contemplation, bordering on shame. And as we five Americans all exited the eatery, wrapped warmly in our quality western-wear and bellies bloated with Kentucky’s finest, and headed to our expensive, securely heated hotel for an overpriced and fattening dessert, we returned to our light banter and happy chatter. As if nothing profound had happened.

China 2014, Thanksgiving, classy desserts and tea at the Holiday Inn

China 2014, Thanksgiving, dessert cooler at the Holiday InnBut something profound had happen, and it continued to eat at me: the thoughts of that man who had to scrounge for food…on Thanksgiving. It continued to vex at me during our dessert at the hotel, and while we finished drinking our nearly $5 cups of tea.   And it nearly consumed my mind as Jody and I laid down to slumber in our well-appointed King-sized bed…. I’m not one to believe too much in mere coincidence, and I choose to believe that the Universe was indeed speaking. It was simply my choice to listen.


“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle,” is a quote I hold dear. While its attribution to Plato is suspect and highly questionable, there is little doubt of its lasting and constant voracity. It doesn’t matter why that man in the KFC was homeless or what derailed journey took him to such a dark place. What matters is that any of us could so easily find ourselves in a similar situation. A bad gene, a really stupid decision, an unrecoverable traumatic event or PTSD, mental illness, or just a bad car accident for those without insurance or a decent job….

And waking up the next day, I knew, much too late, what I should have done, and what I so easily could have done: I should have celebrated our American Thanksgiving with this Chinese homeless man by giving Thanks for all that I have in my own life by buying a proper meal for this man who lacked the most basic necessities.

Happy Thanksgiving from the KFC.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Kings…in China…at KFC.

Happy Thanksgiving. Be kind. Be pitiful. And be sure you give the proper Thanks for all that you have in your own life.