Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Military Age vs. Drinking Age: Flipping the Switch

In a post yesterday in the Economist.com's Democracy in America blog, a contributor considers the drinking age vis a vis the age of military service and comes at the issue from a different angle:

There's been a bit of a hubbub recently about the fact that soldiers under the age of 21, like other Americans under 21, are barred from purchasing alcohol. Society trusts us to fire automatic weapons in America's name, the soldiers ask, but it doesn't trust us to drink a beer? It's a reasonable point...But I would take the opposite tack: teenagers should not be firing automatic weapons in America's name. We should raise the minimum age for soldiers on combat duty to 21.

The author goes on to cite studies that would suggest the mind isn't fully developed until someone reaches there 20s. To be honest, I have never considered this idea before, but I think it has a lot of merit. The author of the post makes a particularly prescient note that:

Adults tend to find recruitment campaigns based on macho athletic fantasies and evocations of the World of Warcraft experience somewhat less convincing than teenagers do. But for a military that expects to spend much of its time drinking tea and building collaborative relationships with local community leaders, rather than blowing things up, that's probably a plus.

Quite right. For those of you that have seen Restrepo, the documentary released in conjunction with Sebastian Junger's book War, I think the point will ring especially true. We see the well-intentioned army captain, Cpt. Dan Kearney, in the movie participating in jirgas with the locals, and we're given the impression this captain is a vast improvement over the captain that preceded him. That said, I was certainly left with the impression that the new captain just couldn't connect. Cpt. Kearney was too macho, too battle-ready to tolerate the tea-drinking, the circular conversation, and the round-about approach that defines the region he was sent to pacify and develop.

Of course there are myriad reasons why this it is impractical to raise the age of eligibility for military service, but they could be managed with proper resources. At some point, it may be worth discussing if we need a larger military or a smarter military and considering that the two are naturally complementary.

4 comments:

Colin said...

The author goes on to cite studies that would suggest the mind isn't fully developed until someone reaches there 20s. To be honest, I have never considered this idea before, but I think it has a lot of merit.

I've heard this trotted out before and there is considerable reason for skepticism regarding such claims:

Alcohol expert Dr. David Hanson of the State University of New York at Potsdam argues such
assertions reek of junk science. They're extrapolated from a study on lab mice, he explains, as well as from a small sample of actual humans already dependent on alcohol or drugs.


Further, as the article notes, all European countries have lower drinking ages (my first beer outside the house was served to me by a bartender in the Netherlands at age 15) and yet I think you'd be hard pressed to make the case they are any less intelligent than their American counterparts.

Jason said...

I agree (and so does the author of the DIA post) that we should consider lowering the drinking age.

My post does not suggest the drinking age of 21 is appropriate, but rather the military service eligibility age of 18 could be inappropriate.

Colin said...

Well, if someone's intelligence is insufficient to serve in the military at age 18 (and I believe it is, as 18 year olds take orders rather than give them) then we should probably also reconsider the voting age. If someone is too dumb to serve in the military then they probably aren't smart enough to be making decisions about the future of our country either.

Jason said...

The post wasn't about intelligence, and I think someone 18 years old is smart enough to decide to have a drink, vote, and contribute to the military. My contention is about emotional readiness to deal with the consequences of combat.