Military social clubs have closed at drastic rates over the last several years. Venues that once hosted a wide variety of quality entertainment are gone, replaced in some cases with less popular and financially failing establishments.
Enlisted clubs were primarily social venues offering low-cost, safe recreation while NCO and officers’ clubs also served as places for networking and mentoring. Most remaining clubs are now all-hands establishments that do not respect differences in rank.
The lack of attractive clubs sends junior members elsewhere for entertainment even while there are good reasons to encourage them to stay on base. Military installations are relatively safe, especially compared to some civilian entertainment districts. Traditional clubs also offered less expensive options, at least before Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) profits—or the profits of their contracted club management—became a factor.
Military members staying on base are also less likely to get in trouble. Club managers used to have a strong connection with all levels of military leadership that was understood and respected by junior members. Additionally, there is significantly less chance that undesirable characters and illicit substances, both of which are common in and around civilian establishments, will be introduced on base.
There always will be disciplinary issues, but infractions on base are typically handled at much lower levels and without involving civilian law-enforcement. Forcing people off base to find entertainment leads to more frequent and more severe violations—circumstances bad for the individual and the command.
There are many reasons for the demise of base clubs, MWR mismanagement among them. Also responsible is the hypersensitive, politically correct, anti-alcohol climate since Tailhook, and the inappropriate military drinking age.
It’s a valid argument that Americans old enough and willing to serve are old enough to drink, and U.S. law supports this notion. Title 10 U.S. Code sets the military drinking age at 21, but with exceptions. One might think the drinking age only varies outside the United States, but there are situations where it can be lowered here at home, lower even than the drinking age of the state where a base is located. Common sense demands that if some military members under 21 are responsible enough to consume alcohol, then they all are. Varying drinking-age rules send military professionals mixed signals and lead to them being treated differently according to duty station or liberty port.
There are other good reasons to lower the drinking age, particularly because the current minimum actually works against the Navy’s Right Spirit campaign. Choose Responsibility’s Web site (chooseresponsibility.org) provides both sides of this argument. One of the most important facts discussed is that while the United States has the highest drinking age of countries surveyed, it has a “higher rate of dangerous intoxication occasions” than countries with lower or no minimum drinking age. Statistics prove that “[under] the 21 year-old drinking age, fewer underage individuals are drinking, but those who do choose to drink are drinking more, are drinking in ways that are harmful to their health, and engaging in behaviors that have a negative impact on the community.”
Proof that a lower drinking age works is found in Captain J. M. van Tol’s May 2008 Proceedings article “Worse Than a Crime–A Mistake.” The article highlights several inane Navy liberty policies and is worthy of serious consideration. One of Captain van Tol’s endnotes discusses a policy of matching his crew’s drinking age to that of the ports they visited. He instituted this policy without “worry or regret,” and other leaders can, too.
The Right Spirit campaign is worthwhile and important, but overzealous efforts to deglamorize alcohol have unnecessarily demonized it, even though alcohol is, for the most part, used responsibly and without incident. Statistics and experience prove that the services could lower the rate of alcohol-related problems by lowering the drinking age—supporting Right Spirit’s goal of eliminating dangerous behavior—while preparing currently underage Sailors for situations where they can drink legally.
Military professionals deserve fun and safe entertainment options, with and without alcohol. Revitalizing the clubs will bring ’em back on base, increase safety, and reduce disciplinary issues. In this case, Choose Responsibility’s motto is instructive: balance, maturity, common sense.