“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….
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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: