The Magazine

The Twilight of the Volt

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus explains that the installation of the breathalyzers is not in response to any specific problem​—​no reported epidemic of sloshed skippers, weaving chiefs, or drunken submariners​—​but “We are telling [them] that it is important to keep legal, responsible use of alcohol from turning into a problem.” Secretary Mabus tells the Washington Post that “alcohol is surfacing as a factor in a host of social and professional ills that are increasingly of concern to the Navy brass.”

This is another way of saying that because alcohol has the potential of being a problem for some people​—​which has been generally understood since the beginning of human history​—​it is necessary to signify official distrust of all people who serve in the Navy. This is, of course, the sort of thinking that led to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (Prohibition), and we know how that turned out.

In fact, the prohibition of alcohol in the naval service is considerably younger than the Navy itself. From its very beginnings, the United States Navy, in accordance with tradition and an act of Congress (1794), offered its officers and men a daily ration of “one-half pint of distilled spirits .  .  . or in lieu thereof, one quart of beer,” and in 1831, servicemen were permitted to relinquish their ration for cash (six cents a day). There were, of course, obvious restrictions on alcohol in certain circumstances; but as the prohibition movement gained strength in the latter half of the 19th century, the Navy was obliged to respond to political pressure.

Finally, in 1914, the man and the moment came together: Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a militant prohibitionist and newspaper editor(!), issued his infamous General Order 99 banning “the use or introduction for drinking purposes of alcoholic liquors on board any naval vessel, or within any navy yard or station.” The rations of grog, the casks of rum, the wine messes, were all tossed overboard. (Naval personnel are now entitled to a modest allotment of beer after periods at sea.)

The Scrapbook is not suggesting that Daniels’s Folly be overturned, or that sobriety is not a weapon in the warrior’s arsenal. But breathalyzer machines on shipboard, and installed at Marine bases, strikes us (to use a related metaphor) as a bridge too far. No less an authority than Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey Jr., of World War II renown, once remarked, “I don’t trust a fighting man who doesn’t drink and smoke,” and he managed to live a long life and vanquish the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Obama’s Pledges: Trust, but Verify

Last October, the State Department assured Republican senator Jon Kyl that “any engagement with North Korea will not be used as a mechanism to funnel financial or other rewards to Pyongyang.” And in another letter last month, Kyl was told “the [Obama] administration has no intention of rewarding North Korea for actions it has already agreed to take.” As a promise to forgo appeasement of the Hermit Kingdom’s youthful new ruler, Kim Jong Eun, this appeared to be solid stuff.

Only it wasn’t. On February 29, a new agreement was announced. North Korea would suspend uranium enrichment and other “nuclear activities” at its Yongbyon facility, permit some inspections, and halt long-range missile launchings. And what would North Korea get in return? Nothing at all, the State Department said.

Oh, yes, the United States will send 240,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea. But that’s for humanitarian reasons alone, the department said. It’s not a quid pro quo. 

Please. Should anyone accept that alibi? Even the mainstream media had trouble believing the timing of the deal and announcement of the food aid was a coincidence. The aid will supposedly be monitored to make sure it goes to starving North Koreans, not the military. But it’s never worked before. “We are simply feeding young Kim’s dictatorship,” said former United Nations ambassador John Bolton.

The explanation about food aid being unrelated to the deal was bogus. And so was the notion that North Korea wouldn’t be credited with pledges it had made before, then violated. It was.

All this raises a question. If the promises about North Korea are so cavalierly cast aside, what about President Obama’s insistence he has “Israel’s back” against Iran and its nuclear weapons program? The Scrapbook has a pretty good idea what Ronald Reagan would advise: Trust, but verify.

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