Navy faces ‘balancing act’ in knowing when to end alcohol ban in Japan
By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 16, 2016
Navy officials have said a total ban on alcohol consumption by sailors in Japan will remain in effect until the troops understand the repercussions of irresponsible drinking.
But just how long such an across-the-board restriction can stay in place before the negatives outweigh the positives, before morale begins to sink, is a matter of debate.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, Calif.
“[Restrictions] are useful as long as the deterrent is working and as long as morale doesn’t deteriorate too badly,” he said.
The booze prohibition began June 6 after a number of alcohol-fueled incidents, including a bar brawl and a DUI in which a sailor drove the wrong way down a highway and hit two other cars. Now, sailors who want to spend any time off base are required to file daily activity plans that must be approved by an officer in pay grade O-5 or above.
People in the military generally expect such episodes of sweeping discipline, said Meredith Kleykamp, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.
“It’s an organization that has a different set of laws,” she said. “It has the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Morality and behaviors are legislated, sort of mandated differently by the military’s legal code. I think anyone who’s in the military should expect that there will be things that impede their personal freedoms or their affected behaviors and that those things will be altered sometimes in many ways.”
Certainly some sailors are stoical about the recent restrictions.
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened during my career in Japan,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jordon Gordon, a sonar technician with the USS Mustin. “The Navy is a team effort … it takes more than one person to run a ship, but one person can sink it. So, yeah, we all do hate what is going on but we understand it’s not forever and sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and deal with it the best you can.”
But even if it’s not forever, “temporary” can start to feel like a long time for sailors who’ve already given up certain freedoms in donning the uniform. Epstein has extensively studied the effects of excessive paternalism on individuals, referred to as infantilization. A competent person treated like a child can react with depression or anger.
“Restricting people in ways that are inappropriate to their age, competency and maturity level affects everyone badly,” he said. “It lowers morale and creates resentment, frustration and anger, both short term and long term.”
The principles of fairness operate in the lives of servicemembers, just as they do for civilians, Epstein said.
“Everyone everywhere wants to be treated fairly,” he said. “It is inherently unfair to punish or restrict an entire group because of the wrong actions of a single individual.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that this kind of across-the-board punishment — sometimes called “group contingency” — is useless as a deterrent, Epstein said. Quite the opposite.
“It creates an atmosphere in which everyone looks out for everyone else, trying harder than ever to make sure no one screws up,” he said. “So even though this kind of group punishment is unfair, it can also be very effective.”
Epstein is co-creator of the Epstein-Dumas Infantilization Inventory, a test to determine the extent to which someone is being infantilized. The lower the score, the less the test taker is being infantilized by the people closest to him.
Mainstream adults in the U.S. generally score below 5 percent. Active-duty Marines score about 24 percent, while jailed felons score about 35 percent, Epstein said.
Kleykamp doesn’t think the infantilization argument holds water in the case of the temporary measures ordered in Japan. She said she doubts the restrictions, even if overly paternalistic, would prevent sailors from doing their jobs.
“We didn’t infantilize people by changing the drinking age from 18 to 21,” she said. “It probably had positive applications, like keeping alcohol out of the hands of people who will have a few more years to develop a better sense of judgment.”
Egregious cases of roadway deaths caused by inebriated drivers led to the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the United States in 1985. It was those drivers, those “bad apples,” that fueled MADD’s campaign for stricter enforcement of drunken-driving laws, Kleykamp said.
“I don’t think our society is worse for that,” she said.
There is some evidence that a temporary prohibition is beneficial.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs found that the ban on recruits drinking alcohol during boot camp led to decreased heavy drinking when they were allowed to drink again. Researchers studied drinking rates of about 5,000 Navy and Air Force recruits, ages 18-25, during the month before they attended basic training and then during advanced training, when they were allowed to drink again.
The 43 percent of recruits who were engaged in heavy drinking before boot camp had “substantially lower” rates of heavy drinking during the six weeks after basic training — although rates did begin to increase.
Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey data suggest that even while heavy drinking rates after basic training increase over time, they don’t reach pre-boot camp levels, the study said.
“My suspicion is that at whatever point [the Navy] reinstates people’s ability to consume alcohol, it’s going to come with a whole lot of teaching and training and reminding of the buddy system,” Kleykamp said.
Stars and Stripes reporter Tyler Hlavac contributed to this story.