Kafr al-Hanadwa

Food and War, or Why America Ships Ice-Cream to Troops in Iraq by Mango Girl
May 25, 2007, 10:11 am
Filed under: Conflict, Eat Must Be First

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.

10 Comments so far
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This issue is nicely described in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s “Imperial life in the emerald city.” Apparently, the staffers at the CPA, living in fairly difficult conditions, binged on American comfort food like fried chicken, ribs, meatloaf, burgers etc. to the extent that their daily calorific intake was in the multiple thousands. While this wasn’t a problem for the military personnel that was out on patrol, for the dips and staffers who worked in cubicles preparing Powerpoint presentations it led to a weight gain problem… Chandrasekaran also describes how a young American kitchen organizer put Indian food on the menu after he noticed that the Indian/Pak/Bengali cooks and cleaning staff were eating food that was much better than what the catering company were offering.

Comment by issandr

I need to read that Imperial Life book. Wonder who the young American kitchen organizer is, give them a medal. Though actually I thought the presence of desi food had to do with the fact that so many KBR support staff sent in from Dubai etc were desi.

Comment by Mango Girl

I have to wonder how much oil/gas is being used to transport all this stuff over to the troops — I’m guessing it creates a kind of circular logic with the motivation for the war.

Comment by SPNY

Well the oil issue was always only connected tangentially to the decision to go to war, access to Iraqi oil reserves being seen as a general positive outcome of remaking Iraq in the image of the (neocon) Amrikis. But I remember in that documentary The War Tapes one of the soldiers who was pissed off about having to guard KBR food convoys saying “we’d damn well better be getting some oil out of this.”

Comment by Mango Girl

The Kuwaitis are providing a good amount of the refined fuel used in the US war effort for free. So it’s not much of an issue.

Comment by issandr

And by the way, little linguistic anecdote I’m sure you’re familiar with. Although modern military speak usually talks about the supply centers as “commissaries”, the word used to be “magazine.” Which of course is derived from the Arabic “makhzen”, or storehouse. And Makhzen is the word traditionally used for “regime” in Morocco, where it has the specific sense of the palace and the country’s leading families. Its origins come from the traditional division between “bled makhzen” (the land of the storehouse, i.e. mostly Arab cities that has political power and where grain was collected) and “bled siba”, the land of dissent, which was the rural hinterlands that the makhzen’s army would have to go “pacify” in order to collect tribute. That was basically the nature of the Moroccan state until the French arrived, and after 80 years of centralization and state-building, recent decentralization is finally going back to giving a lot more power to regions — which turns out to work much better in most cases.

Comment by issandr

Inneresting. Does the use of the term “magazine” for ammunition in some sorts of weapons also come from the same source (one assumes)?

Comment by Mango Girl

that meaning (associated with weapons) is an eighteenth century derivation of the other meaning

Comment by issandr

I’ve never seen Ben&Jerry’s in Iraq, I’m pretty sure the ice cream selections are restricted to Baskin and Robbins, though in some dining facilities they also make milk shakes (ice cream+milk, whipped up). One sgt in Ramadi once said to me that if the insurgents really wanted to drive them out, they would stop the ice cream and the internet. Interestingly contractors recently reported that 50% of all convoys are now being hit rather than 10% so maybe someone figured that whole thing out.

While as Steve pointed out living off the land can be rather detrimental to the local population, imagine the difference in attitude towards US troops in Iraq if it was buying its food locally, where possible. Can you imagine the amount of money flowing into the Iraqi economy? As a number of writers have pointed out, this is one of the only situations where the local population doesn’t benefit at all from the occupying troops, rather through job opportunities or helping to supply them. Recently the military announced an “Iraq First” program whereby Iraqi contractors are the first one considered for reconstruction projects… it took them four years to figure that one out.

Comment by Paul

I guess it’s a question of whether or not one sees US army provisioning from Iraq as encroaching on finite resources vs encouraging production. And of course there’s the issue of awarding contracts only to US companies…particularly Halliburton, even though they do get their foodstuffs from the region. I wonder how much of the supply process is really conditioned on efficiency as opposed to using established contractors without stopping to consider whether things could be done better differently.

Comment by Mango Girl

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