This month, the Marines in Afghanistan will no longer have access to a midnight dinner service at Camp Leatherneck. This is reportedly due in part to the 2014 drawdown process, whereupon the bulk of U.S. forces are slated to leave Afghanistan. On its face, this isn't such a big deal. Service members, after all, aren't entitled to Taco-Bell-esque "fourth meals." (They are entitled, in fact, to surprisingly little.) The problem is that midnight meals serve a purpose beyond sustenance. For those Marines who aren't going anywhere for another six months, the loss of this hot meal will hurt morale and readiness.
When I was in Afghanistan, a soldier named John was attached to our unit. He was a little old to still be an E-5, which meant he wasn't doing something right with his career, or had made some mistake in the past and suffered a demotion as a result. (A popular joke goes: Q. What's the fastest way to make E-5? A. Make E-6.) He was a cook, which isn't the most glamorous job the Army has to offer, and he smoked incessantly—Marlboro reds at the start of his deployment, eventually graduating to some type of Korean cigarette that burned exactly the way I imagine throat cancer to burn. He was a nice guy, and we talked often, usually next to an ancient, disused fire pit that had been converted to the world's largest ashtray. A few weeks after arriving, John was given charge of our camp's midnight chow, a meal that wasn't previously offered.
Improvements at the margins matter. Take away a meal, and it's unquestionable that morale, already scraping the floor, will erode further.
I don't know what goes into the job of Army cook. I don't know the baseline for success, nor what failure would look like, aside from food poisoning. Observationally: Cooks seem to put 10 or so basic meals into rotation, changing up the sides on occasion, and incorporating whatever new item is sent from wherever it is the Defense Department finds food. (Boxes are marked with labels as "Pork, imitation, pre-formed" or some such.) In other words, no Army cook ever had an aneurysm from thinking too hard about his or her job.
But John seemed to come close. Watching him, he seemed like the kind of guy who wanted to do something big, something meaningful, but was worried about the consequences of even asking for permission. The start of his reign as midnight cook involved reheating lunches and dinners that weren't appetizing even when they were fresh. It was obvious this pained him, and next to the giant ashtray, he talked a lot about this chili he wanted to cook. It was a family recipe. He talked about the ingredients, and about scaling the recipe for a company-sized crowd and how great the response would be.
His enthusiasm seemed weird, and borderline delusional. When finally he worked up the courage to ask for permission, and later received it, all anyone heard about for what seemed like weeks was this chili he had planned. In retrospect, he was like a dot-com startup with a strange idea and clarity of purpose. ("...and the entire 'tweet,' as we call it, will be limited to 140-characters. It's going to change everything.") Only instead of Twitter, at the time it seemed like Webvan.
When the big night finally came, two things struck me: A lot of people showed up for midnight chow, and the chili was really, really good.
That night marked the beginning of a transformation for the battalion of soldiers. John didn't just create a meal; he created a social event, and having been proven correct once, he launched a one-man culinary quest to improve the lives of his fellow soldiers. He began serving nightly meals of remarkable sophistication using a very limited number of ingredients. (Afghanistan is notable for its lack of Whole Foods.) Midnight dinner services were planned weeks in advance. During the day, when he should otherwise have been asleep, he was constantly to be found supervising kitchen preparations, and every midnight, he attempted to outdo himself, and almost always succeeded. (He operated on an elaborate combination of stimulants and Ambien.) One night, while burning through his Korean cigarettes, he started eyeing the giant ashtray. Somewhere, somehow, he found suitable metal grating, and the disused fire-pit was soon resurrected as a big grill. Barbecues became a regular event.