No more bread and water: Navy scraps an age-old penalty
The U.S. Navy has come a long way, from its first wooden frigates to today’s nuclear carriers. But in all that time, one thing remained almost as fixed as the North Star: A skipper’s power to throw troublesome sailors in the brig with nothing to eat but bread and water.
Though it sounds like something from an old pirate movie, the antique penalty is not only still on the Navy’s books, it is still actually imposed, despite a century of abolition efforts.
A sweeping update of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, passed by Congress in 2016, will take effect Jan. 1, bringing dozens of changes intended to make the system fairer and more efficient. Most are the kind of procedural tweaks that concern lawyers, not sailors. But the bread-and-water part will be felt on all decks...
...‘It sounds medieval’
That regulation is no mere neglected relic from a bygone era. As recently as 2017, a destroyer in the Pacific was known as the USS Bread and Water because of the skipper’s liberal use of the penalty to punish missteps like missing a curfew or drinking under the legal age...
...“It sounds medieval, and that is sort of the point,” said Capt. Kevin Eyer, who regularly sentenced sailors to bread and water for minor misconduct before he retired in 2009. “Sometimes you just need to scare a kid. We want them to succeed, but you need to give them a kick in the pants.”
Eyer said that when he joined the Navy in 1982, the penalty was common and never frowned upon by the top brass, who traditionally give ship commanders broad authority.
But the culture in the Navy has drifted away from corporal penalties like bread and water, and officers increasingly view them as counterproductive.
“It just seems anachronistic and stupid,” said Capt. Scott Tait, who joined the Navy in 1992 and has commanded two destroyers.
“I actually can’t believe it’s still around,” Tait said, adding that he had never imposed the punishment himself, nor had he seen it used. “People used to joke about putting guys on bread and water, but I was well into my career before I realized I was actually allowed to do that.”
When young sailors need a minor course correction, he said, instead of ordering a spell in the brig, he often orders them to write reports on works by authors like Patrick Henry or Ayn Rand.
“Some people need to think about character and the consequences of their actions,” he said. “But I don’t want it to impact their permanent record, which could hurt their chances of promotion down the line...”
Having spent a year in jail, as a supervisor, not a tenant, a lot of what we do can sound "medieval." Strapping a fighting suspect to a restraint chair, or in leg restraints (sometimes known as hog tying), securing them in solitary until they wear themselves out. Crude methods, but effective. And I challenge any social justice warrior to come into a jail and use his "de-escalation" techniques on some of these morons.
But I got to say, I'm still shocked it bread and water confinement was still allowed. I know a solider can refused non-judiciary punishment under Article-15 of the UCMJ, and request a court martial. However, sailors at sea, to a degree, don't have that option because they are at sea and there are not full military justice facilities available. Hopefully this change to the UCMJ makes justice more efficient in the Navy.