Military Chow: The Four (or Five) Basic Food Groups

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“Had it not been for the rum ration I do not think that we should have won the war.”
~ A medical officer of a battalion of the Black Watch, 1922

Lines of Departure - Food Groups

I’ve been talking about rationing for some weeks now, and hinted at a lasting problem with our system. This is the final column in this series and, yes, I am going to talk about that problem. First, however, a little history.

From time immemorial, soldiers in action have needed a little extra something to get them through the tough times. Generally, that something was alcohol.1 Indeed, Victor Davis Hanson, in his The Western Way of War, makes a very credible claim that the average Hellenic hoplite getting ready to attack was almost but not quite drunk. From Hellenic heroes to heroes of the Soviet Union, with their quarter pint of vodka daily,2 suffice to say that the history of alcohol in action is old and by no means entirely ignoble or useless.

The use, officially, in our forces, has been suppressed for some time. For example, the last United States service to have a rum ration was the Navy. This was done away with on 1 September, 1862. However, the movement to abolish it seems to have arisen earlier, possibly with a letter from Naval Academy Chaplain George T. Harris to the then Secretary of the Navy, circa 1842. From there it may have taken off as a fashion du jour. Certainly the Naval Journal of the following years devoted quite a bit of space to it, to Temperance, to the wickedness of demon rum, and to a general busibodiness rarely to be found these days outside of some parts of New England, California, and New York City whenever a self-righteous toad named Bloomberg is elected to be nanny-in-chief.3 It took many decades from the fall of the rum ration to the effective abolition of alcohol aboard ship, which abolition marched pretty much in lockstep with the Temperance movement. As everyone knows, the Temperance movement, was, of course, a complete success, as was its daughter, Prohibition, with no bad side effects, all of which side effects, of course, do not exist, nor do they continue to plague us today. And the Mafia is Bush’s fault. And racist.


About the Navy and a rum ration I am, in any case, unqualified to comment. Perhaps some experienced sailor can take up the slack for me, which is to say, spit at and curse the memory of Chaplain George T. Harris, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels,4 and, while he’s at it, Carrie Nation.

I can speak, if not for, then at least about the US Army.5

You’re probably thinking of the four basic food groups as being things like meat, dairy, grains, and fruits and vegetables, right? Perhaps this is so, what with today’s decadent mores, but in the not so distant past? Not on your life; in the American military of days of not so long ago, provided we define food as, “that which keeps you going,” the five basic food groups were tobacco, coffee, C-Rats, and – usually after returning to garrison – pizza and booze. In other armies, though differing in detail, the principle still held good. Pizza we needn’t discuss and combat rations we’ve already discussed at length. The less said about military coffee, the better. Instead, think about alcohol and tobacco.

Sadly, this being a publication for a general audience, I cannot really express my unreserved feelings and opinions on the subject of not having an alcohol and tobacco ration. Words like stupid, self-righteous, ignorant, short-sighted, arrogant, ill-informed, unfeeling, puritanical, and blind hardly do justice to the issue, while “hang the mother^*^)ing Puritan a$$holes,” if I actually said that, might be considered an incitement to mutiny, as would, “Shove General Order 1 up the nearest conforming general’s ass.”67

The basic problem is not all that easy to see given the relatively low level of violence and loss we’ve experienced in the current campaigns and the few preceding those.8 Often quite intense where it was intense, on the whole the recent campaigns compare favorably with almost any campaign of the last hundred years, by any serious army of the last hundred years.

However, current and very recent experiences aside, for the more typical, higher intensity combat that has characterized most of the last century, the basic problem is that the normal soldier, let alone the weak one, is on a one way express elevator to lasting or permanent psychiatric damage. His days in actual combat may run to as few as sixty before he turns into a complete basket case. Yes, really.9

Note that our troops’ ability to endure in the longer run has generally been less than that of others. To this I attribute some peculiarities of political and social outlook, more or less unique to us, and largely arriving on our shores circa 1620, vicinity Plymouth, Massachusetts. For others, those not cursed with Puritanism, there are several things that can be done to reduce or slow the damage, most of which other armies do or have done. Among these are unit rotation, which we’ve been doing for a while now, but which I do not expect to survive peace. Some armies, too, have provided field brothels, which just isn’t going to happen, what with the Ouled Nail10 being out of business and all, to say nothing of the PIV=Rape11 feminazis running for their feinting couches. It’s useful, also, to have enough units to allow regular rest and retraining, as units. Sadly, we are unwilling or unable to pay for those. Moreover, one doubts that our young male population is tough enough, on average, to fill them.

We could also have a tobacco and alcohol ration, as we used to. Ooooo… alcohol…. oooo… tobacco… oooo…. doubelplusungoodthoughtcrime….oooo.

Maybe, but the real crime is in not understanding soldiers as they are, and the ways in which we really can change neither them – their almost inevitable psychiatric breakdown – nor war, the express elevator to same.

But why alcohol? Why tobacco? It’s simple; they have a calming effect which relieves stress, in the short term, which is the term we care about, the term in which wars are won or lost, and which can often make the soldier more effective in action, delay his breakdown, and – and this is where this column fits into this series on combat feeding – allows him to actually eat the food provided.

Comment expected from the ignorati at this point: “How do you expect a drunk soldier to hit a target? What about his future health?” Answer: “A) Who said anything about getting him drunk? B) How do you expect a soldier so nervous he’s shaking like a leaf in the October wind to hit a target? How healthy is he going to be half starved, gut shot, or painting on the walls of his padded cell with his own shit? Dumb ass.”

That’s right; his food may be superb, but if the soldier is a nervous wreck he will not eat it. Weight loss, degradation in health, increased stress, and rapid onset of psychiatric problems, usually follow. One doubts that pills will help. One notes, too, that heroin began as a spiffy way to avoid morphine addiction among the wounded. How’d that one work out, by the way?

Thus, I would ordinarily propose that each MRE come with one 25ml bottle of 160 proof grain alcohol. In times of relative calm, when feeding an MRE for only one meal in three, it would come as a nice little bonus, and would be calorically dense to make up for the loss of weight that usually accompanies action. In action, the three miserable ounces of booze would still be calorically dense, and would help the soldier endure the stresses of his duties, and eat his rations.

As for tobacco, it has somewhat less going for it than alcohol. One notes, however, that when we say “Anti-tobacco Nazis,” we’re closer to history than most suspect. Oh, yes, while the German Army of World War II issued a tobacco ration to its troops, the purity and cleanliness crowd of the SS, as a general rule, did not.12 Self-righteous fanatics usually have trouble seeing people as they are, be those fanatics political extremists or New York nanny-mayors.

There is, however, a problem with returning to having either an alcohol or a tobacco ration in the United States forces. Moreover, this goes beyond cowardly flag officers and posturing ape politicians, as well as the occasional pompous ass of a sergeant major that decides to lock up the cigarettes.13 This may be well illustrated by what I call the parable of the desert boots.14

You see, in my garage somewhere, in a box I haven’t looked in for almost twenty-five years, there is a pair of desert boots. Are these the very boots I wore through the run up to and conduct of the First Gulf War? Why no, this particular pair of desert boots I was issued the night before boarding a plane to come back home, after the war. There had been none during the war, or at least none for such as myself. Rather, we made do with regular combat boots or, more commonly, jungle boots.

On the other hand, I cannot recall ever seeing a comfortably ensconced staff or support weenie of any rank – and I saw a LOT of comfortably ensconced staff and support weenies around nice, comfortable, paved Riyadh – that lacked a pair of desert boots. Whether you take my explanation in A Desert Called Peace at face value or not – short version: short-sightedness among staff colonels and generals feeding moral cowardice among service support officers and NCOs – the end result seems unquestionable; to wit, that no one in or closely supporting a combat unit would have a pair of desert boots, or anything good to have, until the needs and desires of genuine REMFs were met in full. You might call it the trickle down theory of service support.

What that means in our case is that just about every non-Mormon, non-Moslem REMF in the Army will be stone drunk every night for months before an ounce of decent booze gets to the line, without employing extraordinary means – tight control, relief of weak leadership, and perhaps liberal employment of the firing squad or fustuarium15 – to combat the trend.16

Don’t miss Part I and Part II in this series.


1 Though in some cases it seems that hallucinogens or other drugs were employed. See Richard A. Gabriel, No More Heroes: Madness and Psychiatry In War, Chapter Five, The Chemical Soldier.


3 You can find the fanatical dipshits, waxing lyrical, here:

4 Alleged to be the eponymous origin for “a cup of Joe.”

5 Note that the Army had a rum ration early on, sometimes generous, sometimes chintzy, and sometimes varying with the circumstances.

6 GO 1, basically the no fun General Order, forbids, among other things, the consumption of alcohol.

7 To show how long this has been going on, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, ahowed a General named Pinney as one who: “made himself obnoxiously conspicuous by forbidding the Rum Ration. He was, of course, over anxious to demonstrate his elasticity of mind, but the ‘No Rum Division’ failed to appreciate their uniqueness in the Expeditionary Force. He also thought that smoking impaired the efficiency of the troops and would have liked to restrict their consumption of cigarettes. General [Pinney] had likewise demonstrated his independence of mind earlier in the War by forbidding the issue of steel helmets to his Division…[this]…was, of course, only a flash in the pan (or brain-pan) and [his] reputation as an innovator was mainly kept alive by his veto on the Rum Ration.”

8 It is often said that the First Gulf War wasn’t a real war. I think the troops Killed In Action or maimed for life would be most surprised by this news, because for them it was as real as it gets. This should hold similarly for those killed or maimed in Grenada and Panama. What it was, though, was a fairly easy and comfortable war for most, most of the time, and not a paradigm for the future.


10 It’s hard to say to what degree the stories about the Ouled Nail are true. Rather, if true, they’re hard to credit. A North African tribe, theoretically Moslem (but in practice perhaps pagan), the young girls of the tribe were allegedly trained as prostitutes from an appallingly early age, then went out to earn their dowries for marriage. When the French Army got control of their area, it seems to have been the Reese’s Cup of military morale maintenance. I seem to recall reading that one of them, a Mimi des Ouled Nail, did good service, not always on her back or knees, either, at Dien Binh Phu.

11 I find the notion of “Penis in Vagina equals Rape” to be highly questionable. Rather, it seems to me that if no woman can ever give informed consent then she is either a child or a beast, in which cases the crimes are pederasty or bestiality, not simple rape. Ahem.


13 Alleged to have happened with some preposterous number of cigarettes donated by the tobacco companies for the First Gulf War. Instead, those who smoked ended up smoking vile Iraqi Sumers.

14 I’ve written it up in A Desert Called Peace, as well. Look around page 467 of the paperback edition.


16 Rear echelon units seem always to have problems with discipline. Most of the drug abuse during Vietnam, for example, sprang from the rear. See R Kaplan, Army Unit Cohesion in Vietnam: A Bum Rap, Parameter, September, 1987, at page 64.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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  • Nohbody
    • KenWats

      Chewing tobacco got me through ranger school. It also allowed me to function (for short periods) with very little sleep- which came in handy during several exercises. With that stuff in, I was awake and aware when the rest of the platoon was struggling to stay awake. Took a while to kick the habit, but I’d take chewing tobacco over driving a humvee over a cliff because I was too sleepy to see it.

    • Tom Kratman

      Ah, but doubleplusungoodthoughtcrime. Politically incorrect. How dare you deny that the Surgeon General and Nanny Bloomberg don’t know what’s best for you?

  • Ming the Merciless

    Rear echelon units seem always to have problems with discipline.
    Case in point: Red Army atrocities in Germany and Eastern Europe tended to be committed by the rear echelon units, not front-line troops.

    • Tom Kratman

      Yep. I recall reading, maybe in Shirer, about a Red Army infantry company that made great friends – and only that – with the women of a Prussian town in 1945. They were so perfectly correct that the women were voluntarily repairing the Russkis’ clothing. The CO of the company warned the women to leave – “My men are real soldiers, but the ones coming after us are animals” – but they didn’t listen. Shortly after the grunts left the REMFs showed up and the females, down to the age of eight or nine, were subject to a lengthy round – several days’ worth – of gang rape that would be hard to equal.

    • gaige

      Any idea as to why this apparent discrepancy in moral quality between front-line troops and rear-echelon units exists, Colonel?

    • Tom Kratman

      Weaker officers and non-coms, on average, in the service support branches. Oh, there are some studs, too, but they’re badly outnumbered and selected against. Broader exceptions included old fashioned mess sergeants, who tended to be meaner than weasel shit.

    • Matthew House

      I never had a problem with a mess seargent. They used to give me doubles. Of course, I showed up for KP on time, and worked my ass off, no matter what. Never bite the hand that feeds you.

    • Rick Randall

      Also, loss of discipline is more quickly and directly correlated to Los of life and failure of mission for combat arms units than the Fow-Fowty-Fow Double clutching, Motherfucking, Truck Company or the 8965th Mess Kit Repair Battalion.

    • KenWats

      I could see this in my limited experience as an engineer officer. I got to see a Topographic company go to the field early in my career. Those guys knew they’d likely never set up a defensive perimeter in an actual conflict- and they trained like it. And the ones who whined about it or didn’t want to get their weapons dirty got talked to by the NCOs, harshly even. You want a map though, they’d give you a beautiful one and do it right quick.

      Fast forward to my combat engineer platoon, where standards were a little harsher. I fondly remember missing one of my squads at morning chow, while we were in a perimeter with a tank company we were supporting. I asked the squad leader where they were. He pointed to the APC with all the hatches closed and the heater on full blast. “They were bitching it was too cold outside. Figured I’d sweat em out. Go ahead and eat sir.”

      Two very different mentalities for two very different jobs.

  • Ray

    Fusutuarium, damn, those Romans were hard core.

    I recall Bill Mauldin had an Up Front cartoon where a clerk with a CIB on his blouse was telling a medic that he doesn’t get combat pay because he doesn’t fight.

    But the number of Willie and Joe cartoons featuring alcohol in a prominent fashion just emphasizes the importance of booze as a stress reliever.

    • Tom Kratman

      That’s another reason I didn’t really want to get into, but the troops will find something to drink if there’s anything within a thousand miles. Sometimes it will be dangerous crap, too, like the Korean whiskey that the otherwise pretty tolerant Brits had to officially ban during the Korean War, or the torpedo juice allegedly drunk by the conjectually shitfaced crew of PT-109 just before their unfortunate encounter with Amagiri.

    • Rick Randall

      Soviet missile and rocket troops in Afghanistan, drinking what they DAMNED WELL *KNEW* was poisonous industrial alcohol intended for their systems.

  • Neil

    In fairness to the Temperance folks (obnoxious blue-hairs that they were and are), I’ve long suspected that their arguments fell on fertile ground largely because of some really appalling alcohol-fueled command decisions during the Civil War. Not everybody can drink and remain functional like U.S. Grant, and your desert boots example has been true ever since Agamemnon kept the best shields for himself and his household hoplites.

    It might require the establishment of a warrior-monk service branch to make the rum ration viable again…

    • Tom Kratman

      That warrior monk thing is part of the problem.

    • Neil

      Yeah, the trick is to make sure that the monks don’t feel the need impose their own constrained lifestyle on the trigger-pullers. In order to suggest the necessary dose of conceit, I would’ve said “warrior-scholars”, but I’ve known too many scholars…

    • Pugmak

      Warrior monk or Plaster Saint as the problem?

    • Ming the Merciless

      The meddlesome viragos of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union couldn’t have cared less about the quality of military decisions in the Civil War. Temperance was just the only outlet for church ladies to be a giant pain in the ass in the period between the abolition crusade and the women’s suffrage crusade.

    • Neil

      Concur absolutely. But there were reasons why everybody else didn’t just pound their blue noses into the ground. There were a lot of officers (and civilians) who had observed some bad situations as young lieutenants and captains in the Civil War…

  • Jack Withrow

    I agree wholeheartedly. How do we get both back into rations?

    • Tom Kratman

      Kom de revoluuushun, baby.

  • Lawrence F. Greenwood

    I don’t smoke and barely drink anymore but I have no problems with smokers or drinkers and I can understand why they should be part of the MRE. The Cigs can be traded off for more delectable chow or used for trade and the booze? Calm your nerves and honestly sometimes you need a drink. Even in my tech school when I was in the TI’s smuggled in some booze for us to help us get through it. Said it was only right.

    • Tom Kratman

      I recall a female classmate, in law school, who was overstressing about an upcoming real estate exam, and who had not done all that well on the previous exam precisely because of stress. I took her to lunch, just before the exam, poured a few drinks into her, and the bitch scored better than I did. Oh, okay, she really wasn’t a bitch at all, but on the whole rather sweet. Still.

  • Ori Pomerantz

    Why do you think pills won’t work? Is there a reason, for example, to think that one can’t get the benefits of nicotine without the damage of smoke inhalation (the nicotine itself will cause some damage, but as you said – that’s long term and therefore not as much of a consideration)?

    • Tom Kratman

      Booze is large and heavy; pills are small and light. You can control the former because of that inherent nature, but for the same reason cannot control the latter.

    • Ori Pomerantz

      So what you’d need is an MRE type item that reduces stress, but is large and heavy enough to make it obvious when REMFs steal it. I wonder if THC brownies would work.

      Speaker, what do you think?

    • Tom Kratman

      Though I didn’t mention it, there is a social aspect to drink – and remember that war is, before all things, a social activity – that isn’t, so far as I can tell, present in quite the same way in anything else groups of young men do. I mean, have you ever heard of Irish Doping War Songs? No. German Dope Marching Songs? No.

    • Ciarog

      Plenty of young men sit around smoking pot. Not the kind of men who are likely to join the military perhaps, but legalization and the same veneer of respectability now enjoyed by alcohol would do much to reduce marijuana’s association with degeneracy.

      Have any Scythian war songs survived to the present day? Their tribesmen were reportedly known to sit around their campfires watching hemp bushes burn, and no one ever questioned their military prowess.

    • Tom Kratman

      I’d have to see it, and see benefit in the experiment, even if it worked, short term. Why? Comment above; it is too lightweight to be controlled and limited.

  • Jack Withrow

    This is kind of off topic, but why does the Military still insist on enforcing General Order #1? I saw many violations of the Order in Afghanistan and about the only punishment I saw was people getting sent home, which is really not a punishment at all. Women were routinely sent home after getting pregnant in theater with no punishment. No action was taken against the male involved in every case I was aware of. Booze was readily available through either smuggling thru the mail from home or thru ISAF/NATO channels. And then to top it off some US Soldiers were not under General Order #1 if they were assigned to ISAF HQ with their parent unit being part of USAEUR.

    • Tom Kratman

      Never, because at the first accident or incident having the faintest whiff of alcohol to it, the general responsible for lifting it will find his career is over..because….you know…reasons…and “doesn’t he care?”

  • Lloyd A Behm II

    They pulled down a bunch of hescos on Al Taqaddum to replace them with concrete barriers and found they were about half full of rotgut booze bottles and weapons. The booze was getting through, or purchased from locals either inside or outside the wire.

    • Tom Kratman

      Brewing and distilling were an Iraqi state monopoly, last time I was there, and the alleged quality of the latter sufficient reason in itself for a booze ration.

    • Lloyd A Behm II

      Oh yeah. I honestly found it hard to believe we had so few cases of alcohol poisoning.

    • Tom Kratman

      I know. Amazing, is it not?

  • Ciarog

    What about amphetamines? I hear that high command started trying to stamp them out after Tarnak Farm, but my brother says that go-pills were still reasonably easy to get when he was in the Navy. He spent a fair share of his deployment on dexedrine and adderall*, and a lot of its effects (improved concentration, better endurance, heightened awareness and reaction time, higher pain tolerance, short-term calming effects) seem like they would come in handy.

    Funnily enough the SS and Wermacht had no problem with meth; 200 million Pervitin pills alone were distributed to their forces between 1939 and 1945. They also baked it into chocolates for their plane and tank crews, which sounds awesome.

    * “Good work drug” he said, “but it completely removes any filter between your mouth and your brain.”. Having spent most of my high-school and college years on one upper or another (thus my present abstinence), I can relate.

    • Tom Kratman

      I’d be reluctant to step away from the traditional.

    • Ciarog

      So you’re of the opinion that American military experimentation with brown-brown and psilocybin may be ill-advised? Fair enough.

      Though come to think of it, we sort of tried the latter back when the CIA was juicing up everyone they could get their hands on with LSD…

  • Andrew Foss

    You’d have to move alcohol and tobacco from supply class VI to Class I, then have to modify the MRE menus item accessory kits to include liquor miniatures and cigarette 4 packs. Then prevent joes and pogues from ratfucking cases to get lit. You’d basically have to have DFACs serving alcohol to the fobbits, and probably a lot initially. (Basic psychology: “Here, have as much as you want.” results in less being taken than “Take two.” and it’s easier to keep tabs on consumption, as few are going to be swiping any and black marketing it to others.)

    Putting alcohol in the MREs would screw with the pointy end tossing a ration to an LN to be humanitarian: I know humanitarian rations exist, but we /NEVER/ carried them: My truck in Iraq was loaded down with ammo, water, fuel and two cases of MREs that ended up being enough for about a week of continuous operations without being resupplied. And energy drinks. An additional case of rations wouldn’t fit without major loadppan adjustment, paperwork BS and physical effort.

    Then there’s the UGRs given to the pointy end: dropping a bottle per case begs easy ratfucking and resealing, miniatures would end up screwing someone out of a drink (the trays feed more than they say they will, and then there are units that’ll get a UGR designed for a company/battery/troop for a platoon.

    Then there’s the problem of MKTs: giving control of the alcohol to the cooks requires a lot of trust that they’re being honest.

    A better solution would be to just allow soldiers to receive alcohol shipped from home and drop the fucking hammer on being too drunk/hung over to go on mission or to do your job.

    • Tom Kratman

      Not necessarily. The toilet paper in an MRE is Class VI but shows up _in_ class I. That said, you bring up some interesting points and proposals. I don’t think I’d go with shipping it from home, because a) the mail has already gotten to be more of a burden than it’s worth and b) the sheer generosity and on-going quasi-Teutonic love affair between the American people and their armed forces would ensure the troops were, or could be, perpetually shitfaced and, if the combat arms leadership might control it, the SSP leadership will not. In the mess halls I;d say, “beer, nothing stronger” and “one per per man per meal eaten in the mess or brought forward.” That’s not because I don’t agree that “take as much as you want works for one purpose, but it will also work for trading across the wire with the locals, which can be a problem. We might also contemplate a “splice the mainbrace” approach by having supply carry a single can of serial numbered, railroad sealed Everclear, subject to inventory daily, as with everything else in the arms rooms with a serial number on it. Then there’s the approach the Germans used, at least sometimes, which is that it gets issued to the NCOs who control it.

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