A critic of America’s Noble Experiment once inveighed, “The only thing Prohibition has accomplished is that a man who wants a weak drink is compelled to take a strong one, and a man who wants a good drink is compelled to take a bad one.” Those words still apply to U.S. soldiers in war zones in the Middle East. Officially, alcoholic beverages are forbidden at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. But war-weary servicemen have become adept at smuggling in booze, according to an article in the March 13, 2007 New York Times (“For U.S. Troops at War, Liquor Is Spur to Crime”). One ploy is to have stateside friends ship the booze in bottles of mouthwash, coloring it blue or yellow to disguise it. Another option is to barter with the locals for “hajji juice,” a clear, high-proof, illicitly distilled Iraqi spirit. But, like moonshine of dubious quality back home, hajji juice can have violent and unpredictable effects. The Times article tells of one soldier who, drunk on Iraqi hooch, starting firing at random with his M-16 rifle, riddling a contractor’s rental car. He’s now serving ten years in Leavenworth. If the troops are going to get alcohol one way or another, wouldn’t it be safer to provide them refreshing, wholesome, low-alcohol beer? John Hlinko thinks so. A Washington, DC resident, Hlinko toils as an on-line public relations specialist for a firm called Grassroots Enterprise, which “uses the Internet to create movements around causes, companies and products.” But back in the early 1990s, he worked as an investment banker in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, so he knows what it’s like to be in a rabidly dry country far from home. Westerners, he recalls, used to make wine from homebrew kits. “It wasn’t very good, but what soldiers are drinking now could be dangerous!” he warns.
Raise a Toast to a SoldierA brainstorming session with a colleague, Bill McIntyre, led to the website www.sixpacksforsoldiers.com. The site allows browsers to upload photos of themselves raising a toast (beer, wine, Jack Daniels, grape juice, it doesn’t matter what beverage) in honor of American troops abroad. By the time the Fourth of July rolls around, the two will tally up the toasts and for every photo posted, “we’ll deliver a real beer to a real soldier.” This “beerpartisan effort,” as Hlinko and McIntyre call it, featured about 300 photos from 32 states and DC as of late March. For every online toast, Hlinko estimates, the site has gotten about 100 hits. Hlinko and McIntyre have offered to pay for their “beer lift” out of their own pockets. And if the site takes off and attracts a million postings by July 4? “Then we’re screwed!” laughs Hlinka, who adds that the two partners might seek donations from breweries. “We’ll pop that can when we come to it,” answers McIntyre. Hlinka admits that if he and his partner come up with beer, they’ll probably wind up donating it to returning troops on American soil rather than shipping it overseas. As of press time, he said he hadn’t contacted anyone from the military. It remains to be seen how enthusiastic the Top Brass will be about the idea. A Pentagon health study revealed that binge drinking in the Army rose 30 percent between 2002 and 2005, according to the Times article. The story also stated that of 665 criminal cases leading to conviction of Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 120 involved alcohol. (It didn’t say, however, over what time frame these convictions took place. A month? A year? Since 9/11? Jack Shafer, editor at large of Slate magazine and a media critic of overblown drug exposes, commented in a March 15 posting, “If you were the prosecutor in a U.S. county of 168,000 [the number of U.S. troop stationed in combat zones], you’d count yourself pretty lucky if you convicted only 120 people of alcohol-related crimes in a year. “) Nevertheless, Hlinka asserts, “The last thing we want to do is is become an issue.” He says he wants to do something “respectful” that will include alternative beverages for troops under 21. And what type of beer will he supply for those of legal drinking age? “I’m thinking American beer,” he replies diplomatically.
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News,a long-time resident of Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.