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Grog, wine mess, and breathalyzer

March 6, 2012

Grog, wine mess, and breathalyzer. Three, maybe four, interesting and separable topics. Muddled somewhat in otherwise very useful news report.

In 1913, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels issued a revolutionary order: no more alcohol on board ships. According to official Navy myth, sober sailors mocked their boss by nicknaming their coffee — the strongest drink still allowed on board — a “cup of Joe.”

Two separate historical events are confused in this statement. The abolition of the grog ration for all hands took place in 1862 as part of the war effort in the ultimately successful federal campaign to thwart the rights of co-sovereign states under the Constitution. The event was celbrated in song:

“Farewell to Grog” // Jack’s happy days will soon be gone, / To return again, oh never! / For they’ve raised his pay five cents a day / But stopped his grog forever. // All hands to split the main brace, call, / But split it now in sorrow, / For the spirit-room key will be laid away / Forever, on tomorrow.

The civility of the officer’s wine mess remained intact until 1913. The lack of adult beveradges to relieve the inter-personal abrasivness of awkward but necessary social events held without the soothing and smoothing presence of persons of the female persuasion continued through the great wars, cold wars, police actions, deadly debacles, assorted semi-wars, and rumors-of-war respites of the twentieth century.

(As a very junior officer I witnessed a wardroom reception with the father of the deceased Marine lieutenant for whom our ship was named, and the creator of the cartoon character adopted as our ship’s mascot, and our squadron commodore, all simultaneously present. A trifecta of awkwardness. Adult beverages in liberal amounts would have been welcome to most, if not all.)

A century later, current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is one-upping Daniels, ordering the installation of breath-test machines on all ships and submarines, as well as on Marine Corps bases. One can only imagine how he will go down in naval lore. According to Mabus, the breath tests are not intended as a crackdown measure but rather to help identify sailors who might be struggling with booze. The alcohol testing is part of a broader new Navy program designed to improve the physical and mental well-being of those having difficulty coping with the stresses of a decade of war. – WaPo. article linked above

The medical use of the breathalyser rivals the law enforcement use in great value to us all. Those who drink and drive are clearly identified in the vast majority of cases where it is properly used. In medicine, it is a sure measure of the severity of alcohol related disorders.

(I was on the staff of a VA alcoholism ward when the device was first introduced. The nursing staff had a difficult time understanding that a device to measure the blood alcohol of an alcoholism patient is akin to a device measuring temperature in cases of fever.)

The special need for accurate independent measurement in both law enforcement and medical applications is due to a basic effect of alcohol on all humans. Even small amounts will decrease competence while producing a illusion of increased competence.

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