There’s been some discussion recently about the US Navy’s moves to ban tobacco from exchanges on its posts, and even onboard ships. Nobody’s going to argue that smoking is a good idea – it’s not, and causes a whole range of health problems – but banning sales has been criticized for being simplistic and probably ineffective. If sailors can’t get cigarettes on post, they’ll buy them off post. If they can’t buy them on ship, they’ll bring a three-month supply on board before the ship sails. There’s also a near-certainty of a black market developing, and that’s not going to be good for discipline.
Now the US Army looks like its jumping on the health bandwagon, and they’ve chosen a target that some health extremists are already calling “the new tobacco.” Yes, that’s right; Army dentists are gunning for sugar.
Sugar’s a dense, easily metabolized source of energy and soldiers lead busy lives, so it’s natural that they’ll have an appetite for sugary drinks and snacks. When you’ve just showered after morning PT and have 5 minutes to grab a bite before heading for the ranges, a bowl of muesli and a glass of carrot juice just doesn’t cut it somehow. Long shifts in a radio truck in some damp forest? What’s going to keep you alert: soy milk or Red Bull? It’s a no-brainer; soldiers like sugary products because they help them function at their peak.
The problem is that soldiers have teeth. This isn’t as vital as it was in the days of the Revolutionary War; back then wannabe British redcoats had to be certified as having four limbs and being “sound in wind and teeth” before they could enlist, because good teeth were required to bite the ends of musket cartridges. Dental health is still important though. A soldier who gets a toothache on operations is going to have performance issues and might even need to be evacuated from theater. It’s understandable that the Army wants to avoid problems wherever it can. That’s why service personnel get access to dental care.
Nobody can object to the Army providing dental health advice to its troops, but the worry is that once tobacco has been reduced to a black-market item, sugar will end up in the crosshairs. Is it really the military’s place to regulate the lifestyle of soldiers to that extent? There are health and fitness standards and it’s everyone’s duty to comply with them. Fail and there are consequences, but trying to micromanage things to ensure compliance isn’t going to work. Soldiers are energetic people with a lot of initiative, and if they want cookies and energy drinks, they’re going to get them. Imposing regulations that will be widely flouted is a bad idea – it’s corrosive to discipline, because once one regulation is held in contempt, others will lose their power.
There’s already enough controversy about the new personal appearance regulations, with many soldiers feeling that the Army is going too far. Soldiers voluntarily surrender a lot of their rights when they enlist; there should be a clear line around what they have left and the Army shouldn’t be trying to meddle inside that area.