Most law isn’t made in Congress or in the courts. It’s made by bureaucrats interpreting their grants of authority. In the Air Force, those bureaucrats are called “generals.”
Brig. Gen. Darren James chose to commemorate Veterans Day by interpreting himself to have just a little more power over airmen, and letting them know about it. In an email he sent to everyone at Al Udeid, the installation commander gave his his people one more rule to follow, and one more disciplinary threat to ponder.
From: James, Darren V BrigGen USAF AFCENT 379 AEW/CC
Sent: Wednesday, November 11, 2015 7:44 AM
To: AUAB Al Udeid/ALL
Subject: MUST READ: 379 AEW Drinking and Driving Policy Change: Effective 20
Team Al Udeid,
We are changing the policy on drinking and driving, effective 20 Nov, which
will make it illegal to operate and/or drive a motorized vehicle on base
with any alcohol in your system. This brings the CC and BPC into compliance with the standards on the rest of the installation, as well as reflect the host nation law off-base, allowing us to focus on the most important reason we’re here … the mission.
I have recently directed all units to review the policy as it relates to
alcohol use, but I need your help. I ask that you support and guide those
around you so they do not face the consequences of breaking this policy. If
you or your Wingmen are drinking, plan for transportation that does not
include someone who has been drinking getting behind the wheel.
The no drinking and driving is a clear standard. Those who violate the
standard will be held accountable.
I need you, every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DoD Civilian and
Contractor, to have the moral courage needed to step in and ensure all
installation personnel act appropriately. Keep your privileges. We hold
ourselves to a high standard; a standard we meet every day with every
Thank you for the amazing things you do day in and day out, for focusing on
the mission, and continuing to improve our installation.
Brig Gen James
DARREN V. JAMES, Brig Gen, USAF
Commander, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing
Mission Wingman Partners
It’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of the base’s hapless denizens already observe the rule James establishes here without needing to be told. In fact, at Al Udeid most airmen don’t drive at all. Vehicles on the base are ordinarily driven by senior management, and to the extent there’s a traffic safety problem, it’s because the base has too many managers trying to zip around the base to too many make-work meetings under the pretense that anything they’re doing is actually important.
But the rule is problematic anyway, for the simple reason that it’s possible to have a small amount of alcohol in your blood and not be impaired. In fact this happens virtually any time anyone drinks, because the impairment wears off long before alcohol fully metabolizes. While a single beer results in no impairment for an ordinary adult, it can take up to two hours for the alcohol in that beer to metabolize out of the bloodstream.
In other words, James’ policy criminalizes a subcategory of sober driving.
Under Al Udeid’s already ridiculous drinking restrictions, recently lampooned by Conan O’Brien during his visit to the base, airmen are limited to three beers in single sitting. This makes getting impaired in the first place nigh on impossible for most people.
Some will say it’s harmless to create this rule because nothing will change. This ignores the reality that rules come with enforcement regimes. When the policy takes effect, anyone suspected of having had a drink in the several hours preceding the operation of a motor vehicle (suspicion established by any subjective inference heavy enough to bend one of Al Udeid’s non-existent blades of grass) is now subject to a test. Any trace of alcohol in the bloodstream will subject that person to disciplinary action … not for creating a public safety hazard … but for violating James’ order.
The circus act will certain to follow sap precious resources and focus. Al Udeid will see no improvement in public safety, but it’ll see more discipline cases. All in pursuit of what James calls a “high standard.”
But it’s got nothing to do with standards and everything to do with misapplication of authority. Issuing an order that restricts liberty by a few more degrees … not because it’s necessary or constructive, but because you can. Not because of a valid public safety concern, but for reasons of control and the flexing of authoritative muscle to enforce a personal vision or set of preferences.
Examples like this are why Al Udeid isn’t known for warfighting, but for its miserable panoply of rules, all designed to allow commanders to avoid one of the prime challenges of command: contending with the messy consequences that attend when human beings have the freedom to make mistakes. It’s a mindset not unique to Al Udeid, unfortunately. It has infected the entire Air Force, and explains in large part the ongoing brain drain that is crippling the service’s future.
It’s also an indication of subpar leadership. Airmen at Al Udeid, if they were permitted to give James honest feedback without fearing for their livelihoods, would tell him to stop wasting time on alcohol and tobacco restrictions and instead focus his energies on improving their living conditions. The base is a mold-riddled and filth-addled mess. Morale facilities are inoperative or run down. Basic logistical support is a constant challenge. It’s a depressing place to spend time (or more aptly, “do time”), and this kind of approach just makes things worse.
That’s what Al Udeid inmates might say. I’ll go a step further and say if this is why we have Brigadier Generals, we have entirely too many of them. Everyone at Al Udeid is an adult, and yet it is run more like a juvenile detention facility than an Air Force base. For years, one-star after one-star has added new layers of restrictions, rarely peeling any away. It’s a one-way ratchet of ever-tightening misery, all self-inflicted.
As we mark another Veteran’s Day with airmen arrayed around the world voluntarily defending us, we should expect more. When we accept commanders exerting their authority for paternalistic control and masquerading it as leadership … when they refuse to trust in the judgment of their people … when they infringe on individual liberty more than is necessary to accomplish the mission … we fall short of deserving the selflessness of those standing watch for us.
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