This article in the Washington Post about food delivery failures to the Green Zone in Baghdad, forcing U.S. military and diplomatic brass/staff to eat preserved meals instead of fresh fruit and even Baskin Robbins ice-cream shipped over from Kuwait had me scratching my head – why would the U.S. ship food into Iraq from far away instead of using local supply? (Not that I’m opposed to the ice-cream part, far from it, as someone who has got B&J’s Cookie Dough ice-cream from a kind American diplomat, I think the Americans could spread a great deal of goodwill by distributing such things far and wide!) Security concerns must be pretty high, but that’s something they deal with anyway to recruit Iraqi employees and so on, surely? To what extent do U.S. choices about food supply in Iraq reflect regular military practice, the peculiarities of occupation/insurgency, available food technology now as compared with earlier wars, or just the habits of diplomats and military folks used to getting their Amriki food fixes at the commissary?
I turned to my Resident Military Expert (who has been very busy of late arranging food provisioning for eleventh-century Sicilians – don’t ask) for an explanation, and he graciously agreed to write a guest post on the subject. Here it is!
Keep in mind that the diplomats are only riding piggy-back on a huge military supply system. In the big bases, Ben and Jerry’s is only the tip of it. There’s multiple main courses, a salad bar, a cold-cuts bar, a dessert selection, and sometimes a curry bar (sorry, but they do call it that) run by the desi employees. I even had kimchi in one base where there was a South Korean contingent. Note that most front-line combat units are in smaller outposts and do not get the full spread of meals except when they visit the larger bases, but the military does get most units hot food on a daily basis, including regular steak-and-lobster nights.
Up until the 18th century or thereabouts armies generally lived off the land, requisitioning crops as they went. A particularly far-seeing commander might issue letters of credit to farmers who lost their produce, or organizing food markets in advance, but generally an army could only eat what the countryside 10-20 kilometers away from their line of march could produce — and territory previously traversed might not sustain another army until the next harvest. In a pinch — such as a siege, where the army was in one place for a long time — commanders could put together a supply train, with rivers being the preferred way to organize large-scale transport and roads a distant second-best. Logistical concerns explain the rather odd patterns of movement in many pre-industrial military campaigns, where armies sometimes seem to dance around each other. The analogy is not exactly precise, but helps in visualizing certain medieval and early modern campaigns if you think of a game of Pac-man, where you gobble up the dots as you go and you only fight if cornered.
Supply lines really got going in the mid- to late-19th century with the advent of canned food and railways. The cost is more than justified by the advantages in terms of mobility and just generally not having to worry about whether the next district over has adequate food supplies for your force. Not coincidentally, this is also around the time when ammunition (which of course can’t be scavenged locally) starts weighing as much or more as the food. By the Second World War, food is almost an afterthought after fuel, ammunition, spare parts and other gadgetry, and (if you’re in a desert) water.
External sources of food would be particularly important in a counterinsurgency campaign for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s hard enough not to piss off the civilian population when you’re searching their houses; it’s even harder when you’re nicking their foodstuffs. Secondly, while it would be difficult to slip your enemies poisoned food if they’re maneuvering around your countryside in huge columns, it’s much easier if they’re sitting in one place. There have been a few reports of insurgents slipping Iraqi soldiers poisoned watermelon during the height of the summer heat. Finally, an external source of supply is a source of morale, letting the troops know that even if the strategy is deficient, on a basic institutional level the military still has its sh*t together. If they can get the ice cream to your FOB [forward operating base], or the energy bars to your combat outpost, then they can also get you out in a hurry if necessary. Nothing gets morale down faster than the sense that your parent institution has abandoned you.
Also keep in mind that foods you buy anywhere are likely transported from far away; except for the security concerns, it’s probably not qualitatively more difficult to get melon from Kuwait to Baghdad than it is to get it from the melon-fields of California to a Piggly Wiggly in Alabama. Ice cream might seem like a lot of resources to ship, but given the morale pay-off it’s probably quite cost-effective compared to the difficulties of getting all the parts, fuel and lubricants necessary to keep incredibly complicated machinery running at a high pace amid 130 degree heat and ultra-fine dust.
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