Officials recently revealed that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus had considered ending tobacco sales on Navy and Marine Corps installations. Members of Congress quickly balked at what some called a violation of service members’ rights (Jon Harper, “Lawmakers to Navy: Keep Selling Cigarettes,” Stars and Stripes, 4 April 2014). Once again, a military in need of warriors faces forced politically correct behavior. In the process, leaders alienate a large percentage of personnel by suggesting that their legal personal choices could represent unacceptable behavior. Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) correctly observed, “Instead of making unilateral decisions that encroach on the rights and personal freedoms of our service men and women, Secretary Mabus should focus resources on preserving the readiness of our Navy and maintaining our national security.”
Senior leaders with time to consider such meaningless policies should redirect their energies toward truly important issues. We face serious organizational challenges in training and education, technology and cyber security, troop morale and retention, and more. These topics impact combat readiness and our ability to provide for the national defense. Tobacco does not.
Encouraging healthy choices is appropriate, but restricting access to tobacco is, as in the case of alcohol, intrusive and unwarranted social engineering. In most cases, the use of these substances is not contrary to good order and discipline. Our policies treat military personnel like children instead of professionals. They are healthy, young Americans of whom we expect much. Their choices may not always be perfect or match leaders’ expectations, but they are adults. We should not expect them to lead puritanical lives just to abide by a leader’s notion of acceptable behavior. Service members’ behavior might not match the lifestyle choices that leaders promote—some sailors smoke, some Marines drink, some Coast Guardsmen get tattoos—but we need to focus on larger issues.
Leaders who are truly concerned with troops’ well-being look for ways to lower stress and increase morale. These two undertakings would decrease tobacco and alcohol use more effectively than restricting access to the substances on base. As we’ve seen with overreaching anti-alcohol campaigns, all they accomplish is pushing the behavior off-base, where leaders have less control until after problems arise.
It’s almost comical that we trust our troops with lethal weapons and send them out to protect us, a task that may include taking a life, but we feel it appropriate to restrict their access to tobacco. We entrust them with control of the world’s most powerful multi-million and even multi-billion-dollar combat systems, yet not with a cocktail. This attitude is overly paternal and duplicitous. It culminates in a growing sense of disrespect and micromanagement, often resulting in rebellion in the form of the very behavior that senior leaders find offensive.
I do not condone the behaviors discussed here, but neither do I condemn them. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I myself appreciate an occasional adult beverage and recently switched from tobacco to electronic cigarettes. I simply recognize that grownups will participate in adult behavior, and we should not try to artificially control them. We do so at the risk of predictably alienating large numbers of troops, while ignoring the important but more difficult issues affecting combat readiness.
Today’s military comprises the most highly trained force in our history. Typically, they are more responsible and mature than many among their contemporaries. Treating them like children is an inappropriate and unnecessary approach. Perhaps a future generation of combat ships should be named the Mayflower class, reinforcing an apparent desire for puritanical naval forces. Instead, we need warriors who are capable of carrying out the most dangerous and often gruesome tasks. Our leaders know this but rarely acknowledge it. They prefer to publicly portray a desire for strait-laced patriots, capable of killing one minute but displaying their definition of acceptable social behavior the next.
This sounds oxymoronic because it is. Young Americans willing to sacrifice and suffer are unlikely to shun all vices or live absolutely pure lives. They might relax with cigarettes and beer. They may even get tattoos or engage in sexual activity. But come morning, they will stand the watch, ready to answer the call. They are our nation’s best. Senior leaders would do well to treat them like the adults they are.