While the Navy is often recognized as a source of modern marvels of engineering, not every aspect of Navy life progressed with the times. One punishment – an option that sounds more suitable for the medieval era than today – has remained on the books for centuries. However, it will officially be eliminated on January 1.
Skippers on Navy vessels have long had the power to punish sailors for minor offenses without the need for a trial. One potential punishment – tossing sailors into the brig and only allowing them bread and water – has been on the table for centuries.
The penalty has gone through many iterations over the years. Prior to an update in 1909, sailors could be held in irons and limited to bread and water for up to 30 days. After the change in 1909, the maximum penalty was seven days.
By 1951, it was further limited, with three days becoming the maximum. A medical exam prior to receiving the punishment was a new requirement in the 1980s, and, today, sailors are allowed three unlimited servings of bread for each day they are being punished.
Navy commanders are given a significant amount of authority, especially when it comes to dealing with small infractions. Mainly, this is because they can spend long stretches at sea and may need an opportunity to act swiftly to quell poor behavior.
While the “diminished rations” punishment seems incredibly antiquated, it has actually been used as recently as 2017.
One destroyer that was serving in the Pacific, according to a report by the New York Times, earned the dubious nickname, the “USS Bread and Water,” for the skipper’s liberal use of the punishment for minor infractions like missing curfew.
“It sounds medieval, and that is sort of the point,” said Capt. Kevin Eyer, who used the punishment regularly for minor misconduct prior to his retirement 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.”
But, starting on New Year’s Day, the bread and water punishment will no longer be an option.
In 2016, Congress passed sweeping changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The updated rules take effect on January 1, 2019, and are designed to be more efficient and fairer.
The changes include the elimination of the diminished rations option, though commanders will have alternatives for addressing minor infractions on Navy vessels, such as denying shore leave.