“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
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
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: https://books.google.com/books?id=m9sZAAAAYAAJ&dq=us+navy+rum+ration+1842+chaplain&source=gbs_navlinks_s
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. https://www.qmfound.com/history_of_rations.htm
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 Amazon.com 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 baen.com.
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