war on the rocks

A Combined History of Combat and Alcohol

February 12, 2016

“If society is sometimes threatened by intoxicants, it is equally threatened by the lack of them.”

— Roger Scruton


In his book I Drink, Therefore I Am, philosopher, wine connoisseur, and author Roger Scruton elaborates on his above point: “Without intoxicants we see each other as we are, and no human society can be built on so frail a foundation.” Scruton is arguing that we may have confused cause and effect in the development of human society. Perhaps cooperative, peaceful groups of humans did not work together to discover and produce alcoholic drinks, but rather that alcohol helped selfish individuals form cooperative, peaceful groups.

Perhaps not. But, it’s a fun thought nevertheless. While the cause-and-effect of alcohol and human society may be confused, the cause-and-effect of alcohol and military history is uncharted territory. It might be uncharted because the land is barren, but at least barren land leaves plenty of room for imagination.

The history of combat is not quite as controversial as the history of alcohol, but it may be just as confused. What follows is an attempt to compound the confusion by mixing combat with alcohol. As with most alcoholic bouts, the ingredients get stronger the deeper we go, and any clarity that results is probably just a warm feeling, not a real understanding of the world.


One telling of the evolution of military tactics describes it as the transition from “melee” to “mass” to “maneuver.” These pages recently speculated about a fourth transition: “swarm.” Each transition is marked by an increase in centralized control and greater sophistication of the fighters involved. Transitions in alcohol have followed a similar path. The history starts with melee:


Melee is the pell-mell combination of combatants. In a fight scene from The Lord of the Rings, for example, fighters charge the field haphazardly. Perhaps leaders are involved, but only loosely. The battlefield is chaotic and most fighting is, by today’s standards, not very potent.

Dandelion wine is the pell-mell drink of the alcohol world. It’s the combination of any and all available ingredients until the mix is potent enough to pass as alcohol rather than tea. The flowers (or weeds) don’t take any prodding to grow. With a gallon of them, the only other necessary ingredients are a pot of water, sugar, and yeast. Add heat, wait a few months, and the result is a wine that anyone with access to untilled land can enjoy. The process is decentralized, the ingredients simple. The wine isn’t uniform or sophisticated, but it fills a fundamental need.


The transition from melee to mass came when combatants found ways to work together. Mass triggered the era of control — regulated units under the command of powerful leaders. Historical figures like Alexander used the new power of organization to bring empire and order to a disorganized world. How can alcohol, whose purpose is to loosen inhibitions, mimic an increase of control?

Alcohol’s control is more behind-the-scenes, shaping what a society does, without that society quite noticing what’s happening. “Culture” operates in the same behind-the-scenes way, and culture indeed has an alcoholic equivalent: wine. Wine made culture, arguably, by bringing people together. The Greeks used wine as a lubricant to congregate and discuss ideas that they wouldn’t dare discuss sober. It made them cooperative when they wouldn’t naturally be, a cooperation that strengthened their society and Alexander’s armies.


The transition from mass to maneuver expanded cooperation. Rather than one group learning to work together, the doctrine of maneuver combined groups of different specialties, each with a special role to play in supporting the others. Maneuver is complementary addition, not additive addition. Artillery wasn’t just an addition to infantry; it made the infantry more effective.

This is the era of the cocktail, the era of potent combination of ingredients that complement each other. As with maneuver doctrine, cocktails don’t just combine ingredients, they pair ingredients in a way that brings out the best in others. An old fashioned is more than the sum of its parts, just as a military working together in air, land, sea, and space is more than the sum of its parts.


Beyond the era of maneuver is a speculative tactic: swarm. Networked, autonomous units would communicate with each other in real time and adapt to local conditions. Swarm would be the combination of the best aspects of previous tactics: the (slightly controlled) chaos of melee, the sophistication of mass, the potent combination of maneuver, all decentralized, yet plugged into a central network.

The tactic is speculative because the technology to provide it isn’t yet practical. Autonomous units are still experimental, as is the networking required to bring the units together. Yet, the necessary components are imaginable. Maneuver warfare is sometimes called network-centric warfare, and the units we fight with are growing more capable of operating on their own.

Swarm at first seems like a throwback to melee’s pell-mell style. But swarms are potent because their units are sophisticated and adaptable. The (sort of) drink that goes with swarm (i.e. the equivalent of decentralized sophistication in the alcohol world) is the craft distillery. Craft distilleries combine local, unique ingredients to supply concentrated alcohol across the country, while plugged into local environments and specific consumers. Vodka distillers in Texas and bourbon distillers in New York tout local ingredients. What happens as they are increasingly networked to the communities they live in?

Increasing complexity and increasingly decentralized execution. It’s as if the developments of alcohol and combat have been borne along by the same wave of human ingenuity. We have been intensely interested in improving both the drinks we consume and the way we fight. Perhaps the next step is “swarm” in combat, and distilleries that speak to their customers automatically. Even if the next step is different though, one thing is certain. For better or worse, we’ll continue to get better at combat and alcohol.


Brad DeWees is an Air Force TACP and instructor of political science. His academic interests include military innovation. His drinks of choice range from single malt scotch to craft beer. The views here are his own. He’s on Twitter: @b_dewees.