How Meals Win Wars

Camp Leatherneck is discontinuing midnight dinner service for its Marines. It shouldn't.

U.S. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan, listens to an officer during a lunch meal with Afghan National Army on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2006. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)

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.

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.

Sleepy midnight chow became a teeming communion of comrades, and everyone from Special Forces operators to supply clerks, from privates to majors, met nightly to break bread. Even the First Sergeant seemed vaguely human for that singular midnight hour. Morale improved in ways immeasurable, and the pride John took in his work resulted in a renewed espirit de corps that lasted through the end of the deployment. He dragged a lot of people to the finish line.

What he understood and I didn't was that food and war have a fascinating history together. It can be used as a tool of coercion, as Leningrad learned in World War II, when the Germans sieged the city for 872 days and cut off supply lines. One and a half million soldiers and civilians died in the resulting famine. Food can also fuel the body and soul. "An army marches on its stomach," said Napoleon, who was stymied by limited food supplies in the winter months. To conquer and hold Europe, he needed a way to feed his massive and growing army, and offered a cash reward to anyone who could find a way to preserve food supplies. A scientist named Nicholas Appert answered the challenge, and discovered that putting food in jars and then heating it would result in sterilization. The process of canning was born.

Napoleon wasn't unique in his search for solutions to logistical and performance problems of large armies. Today, the U.S. military spends $73 billion on research and development. The goal is to increase the effectiveness of troops on the ground both mentally and physically. That's how you get products as diverse and clever as moisture-wicking socks, digital camouflage, and caffeinated meat. Morale is no small issue 12 years into a war that has seen 400,000 service members deploy three times or more. Improvements at the margins matter—the mandarin collar, for example, won't defeat al-Qaeda, but its effectiveness against the misery of chafing from body armor has improved mission readiness. The midnight dinner service is a lot like that: a small investment with outsized benefits. Take away that meal, and it's unquestionable that morale, already scraping the floor, will erode further.

It's hard to write about these things without every veteran since the Peloponnesian Wars stepping forward to say that they had it tougher—and they're right. Today's service member has unprecedented comfort and equipment. Does that make them softer? Not at all. A soldier in World War II would gladly have worn Gore-Tex boots and the advanced combat helmet. (Soldiers in World War I would have really enjoyed antibiotics.) Granular improvements in the life of a deployed service member are worth celebrating and defending. The Marines at Camp Leatherneck are losing access to a midnight meal, but more than that, they are losing a venue for camaraderie and support. Such things are not to be found in an MRE.