The Royal Canadian Navy has come a long way from the days when sailors received a free, noon-time ration of an eighth of a pint of rum. The rum ration was abolished in 1972, due to concerns that a swig in the middle of the day would hinder sailors’ ability to operate weapons and complex tools. But Canadian sailors are still free to purchase beer or wine when off duty. Now, reports suggest some commanders think the rules should be tightened around alcohol consumption. It looks like an unnecessary move that would accomplish little besides damaging morale.
The idea of banning booze is being floated after a recent spate of alleged misconduct among sailors serving on HMCS Whitehorse. Earlier this week, Navy Vice-Admiral Mark Norman ordered the ship to withdraw from a military exercise in the Pacific and return to port in British Columbia. The alleged breaches of conduct apparently included shoplifting, drunkenness and sexual misconduct. Alcohol may have played a role. The Navy is conducting a review and may draft new rules.
The misconduct on the part of crew members is unfortunate, but it is hardly evidence that prohibition is the answer. The U.S. Navy – which became dry a hundred years ago by order of a teetotaling Navy Secretary – has some of the strictest rules around alcohol. It continues to wage an unreasonable crackdown, introducing randomized testing earlier this year. The regulations may have looked good on paper, but there was almost no evidence that alcohol abuse was actually a problem: Random testing last summer only found just 1.16 per cent of those tested had consumed alcohol. The obsession with the evils of booze on U.S. ships and dry military bases stands in contrast to Canada’s more mature attitude.
Being drunk on duty is already a violation of the laws of military justice. So is criminal behaviour for soldiers on shore leave. The Navy already has tough rules against misconduct. But having a drink when you’re not at work isn’t a crime for anyone else in society. Surgeons are allowed to have a drink when off duty. Ditto pilots, judges and CEOs. The Navy doesn’t need a complete ban on alcohol. Sailors, who serve on ships for weeks, sometimes months at a time, are mature and responsible adults. Off duty, they should at the very least be entitled to a cold beer.