When is a soldier responsible for his own behavior, and when is that behavior the responsibility of his command? Answering that question is a fundamental challenge for U.S. forces when they deploy overseas.For the 20,000 troops participating in Operation Joint Endeavor, Gen. George Joulwan is taking a personal interest in their behavior. NATO’s commanding officer has banned the consumption of alcohol by the men and women serving in Bosnia. That prohibition is for the length of the deployment, which is expected to last about a year.
Certainly, Joulwan has the best interests of the mission and his troops in mind in making the decision. There is a fine line, though, between decisions that are prudent and those that smother field commanders with a hairy web of micromanagement.
Our soldiers have no inherent right to unlimited standards of behavior while in Bosnia, even if they are there to help. Still, they are sacrificing a great deal and risking even more by being there. They are entitled to a certain amount of latitude in carrying out a semblance of a personal right.
Christian church services might offend some Moslems, yet the general is not banning them. Surely the commanders in Bosnia could figure out a solution to help their troops morale while at the same time not offending local sensibilities or diminishing their capability to conduct their mission.
What are the reasons to deny soldiers the occasional alcoholic beverage? Is it a fear that drunken incidents will wreck the peace mission? Is NATO worried that soldiers can handle the stress of mines, snipers, warring factions, but not the temptation of a few drinks? The decision seems remarkably arbitrary, given the length of the mission.
Bosnia’s roads are littered with mines. There are constant warnings about attacks by terrorists. And GIs are away from their families. To deny them the right to occasionally put aside that stress and enjoy a beer is absurd.
The message to soldiers is: We trust you to fight for our country, we trust you with million-dollar weapons, we trust you and your commanders to make the right decisions. But we do not trust you or your superiors with a legal, recreational product.
It is these little, bitter bureaucratic dictates that slap the espritde corps out of a unit. These men and women are professional soldiers. They are adults doing an adult job. Treat them like it.
For the Army, it is a choice between trusting the people on the ground who are actually risking their lives and the chance for perfect public relations. Up to this point, public relations is winning the battle over the foot soldier in a rout.