When you’ve been writing these for as long as I have, you start seeing arguments everywhere. They sprout from exhausted soil, even from the most outworn rhetorical tropes.
Take the issue of the draft age. I’m sure we’re all familiar with formations of the type “An 18-year-old can be drafted but he can’t vote [before 1971], drive a rental car, kill a hooker” and so on. Just last week, we saw that template applied in this space to the age of consumption, as a columnist wrote that “we live in a country where 18-year-olds can… be drafted, yet cannot legally drink.”
It’s an entirely valid point, but one likely to be overlooked. It’s a child not a choice, no blood for oil, guns kill people, and we are inured to slogans.
And yet sometimes slogans conceal deep truths.
I refer you to John Keegan’s seminal 1976 work of military history, The Face of Battle. Keegan set out to write on war from the soldier’s perspective and he began with the most basic question of all: How is battle even possible? What would make otherwise sane young men run headlong and willingly into the jaws of iron death?
It turns out that, from the Middle Ages to the Great War, there is one constant: Alcohol.
Such a constant that it receives its own entry in the index: “drink, and will to combat, 114, 115, 183-4, 245, 333.”
It becomes clear that alcohol—“which, as we know, depresses the self-protective reflexes”—has quite simply made war possible.
Turn to page 114: the Battle of Agincourt, 1415. English against French for dominion of France, familiar to anyone who’s read Shakespeare’s Henry V. “There was drinking in the ranks on both sides during the period of waiting and it is quite probable that many soldiers in both armies went into the mêlée less that sober, if not indeed fighting drunk.”
Turn to page 183: the Battle of Waterloo, 1815, a veritable frat party gone horribly wrong. “Many of the soldiers had drunk spirits before the battle, and continued to drink while it was in progress. Corporal Shaw was… guzzling gin at about noon, drunk and running amok when he was cut down by the French cuirassiers… and Dallas, the commissary of the Third Division… managed to get a cart forward and rolled a barrel into the middle of a square, where it was broached, and the contents distributed, during the closing stages of the battle itself.”
Turn to page 245: the Battle of the Somme, 1916, which included the most lethal single day of World War I. “The last thing almost everyone had received [before going over the top] was a strong tot of rum-Navy rum, and extremely alcoholic…. J.F.C. Fuller, investigating a confusion in the Sherwood Forester Brigade, was told that the whole of the leading wave was drunk.”
So we have three data points, separated by 500 years, each remarkably similar in this one key regard: evidence enough for Keegan’s claim that, throughout history, drinking has been “an inseparable part both of preparation for battle and of combat itself.” Millions of soldiers have given their lives for their countries simply because they were intoxicated, to the enduring credit of the intoxicating agent.
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But flash forward to the present. The United States, unique among nations, bans drinking until the age of 21. But according to the Defense Department’s demographic figures, hundreds of thousands of American military personnel are underage! Among all members of the armed forces, 9.9 percent are between the ages of 17 and 19, and a whopping 33.4 percent are between the ages of 20 and 24. That means that as many as 443,486 soldiers, sailors and Marines have absolutely no access to alcohol.
Four hundred thousand of our fighting men and women potentially going into battle stone-cold sober! I’m sure I am not alone in seeing this state of affairs as a profound risk to national security.
For the sake of our armed forces, it is imperative that the drinking age be immediately lowered to 17.
As for the unrestricted drinking that would result among our significant number of unenlisted youth? Such are the sacrifices we make for freedom.
And you’re not against freedom, are you?
Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior. His column appears every Friday.