In his iconoclastic book, My View From The Bridge Wing (Create Space, 2015) Captain Alan E. Eschbach, U.S. Navy (Retired), discusses topics ranging from suicide (and his personal struggles with that temptation) to the insidious nature of pornography. Eschbach, considered by many in the surface warfare community to have set an absolute standard for personal integrity during his career, espouses nontraditional views on the use of alcohol.
You may be forgiven for thinking that sailors and drinking go together like bacon and eggs—and that the separation of these is a fool’s errand. It seems a well-established tradition that sailors, who famously work long hours under difficult conditions, have earned their historic sanction to play hard while on the beach—especially when overseas.
Nevertheless, expectations regarding the behavior of our sailors, particularly overseas, have changed. Today, Navy commanders often seem to spend more time working to moderate and control the behavior of sailors ashore than they do with strategic, operational, or even tactical concerns. But traditions die slowly, and one need only read the papers to understand that alcohol-related incidents—both here and abroad—persist. Truth be told, the sailor (man or woman, older than 21 or not) who has not reported for duty, following a night of liberty, much the worse for wear, seems a rarity. Perhaps this is a fixed cost that comes along with a primarily young workforce, many weeks of enforced sobriety, and a sudden, unbridled release into alcohol-friendly societies?
As for Eschbach, he saw things differently, particularly regarding his responsibilities as a commanding officer: He elected to go “dry” for the duration of his command tours. From his perspective, the idea of service to his officers and crew was much more than some thin concept to be tossed about and discarded when expedient to do so. To Eschbach, assuming the responsibility of command meant being able to respond to crisis, at any time, with a clear head. Would he want to talk a green command duty officer through a fire, over the phone, late at night in home port after having a drink or two? Would he want to go to the hospital to comfort a dying sailor’s family with alcohol on his breath? Would he want to be one bit less crisp getting his ship under way from an unfamiliar foreign port because he had a couple of drinks the night before? The answer to all these questions was NO.
Leaders sometimes seem to rationalize away the necessity for that clarity in ways that Eschbach cannot comprehend. Would you ever expect a parent to say there are limits to what they would sacrifice for their children? Why would we hold ourselves short of guaranteeing that same lucidity for our sailors?
Eschbach attempted to transmit these concepts to others throughout his career, even though (as you may well imagine) he met some significant resistance. It did not matter; Eschbach had the courage of his convictions.
When a flag command gets a call regarding a commanding officer’s misconduct, the first question asked is: Was alcohol involved? There is a reason why this is the first question. Alcohol impairs judgement, even if one does not obviously drive off a metaphoric cliff.
Alcohol can have the thrilling and dangerous effect of making its users less guarded, and it can convince us that we are attractive, cool, witty, beloved, or even bulletproof. We are not bulletproof, and the Navy has little forgiveness for human weakness, particularly when tied to any sort of alcohol use and especially when that behavior reflects poorly on the service.
Have you carefully considered that in that second beer may lie the seeds of your own destruction? Whether you seek to be ready to answer the bell with clarity when America expects you to do your duty or whether you simply wish to increase the chances of having a band at your change of command, it may be worth your while to think about what to do with a drunken sailor—especially if that sailor is you.