What Do Our Troops Eat?

Here's a hint: it's definitely not organic.

A sampling of the delicacies that await you inside an MRE. (Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Network via Lens Culture)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

When you're 7,000 miles away and serving your country, it's only natural to want a taste of home. Which is why, despite health concerns, it's hard not to be sympathetic to the troops who threw a fit over last year's fast-food ban on military bases.

"When we were getting ready for what you knew would be a dangerous operation, many of my men would make a point of going to Pizza Hut right before they left," said one captain. "When you think about it, that's quite significant psychologically."

Significant, perhaps, but not to the lean General McChrystal. Famous for his puritanical views on alcohol and ability to subsist on one meal a day, the fat-free general called for an end to the McDonalds, Burger Kings, and TGI Fridays that were plaguing his troops' waistlines, citing concern over the image they were projecting across Afghanistan.

“This is a warzone, not an amusement park,” wrote one of his commanding officers dutifully after the announcement.

Homesick soldiers will often wait up to an hour for their fast-food fix. (Photo: Rodrigo Abd/AP)

To the relief of the troops, however, with McChrystal's untimely resignation came a resurgence of fast food. In February, Pizza Hut made a comeback at Camp Phoenix on the edge of Kabul, with another teaming up with Burger King at nearby Bagram Air Field.

"[It's okay] for troops to be able to go and grab a burger or a piece of chicken or whatever," remarked General Petraeus' new NCO, Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill. "I don't really think it's that bad."

Regardless of how you feel about Whoppers in wartime, the real gastronomical hardship begins the moment soldiers leave base. When hot food isn't available, all you have is your daily ration, or as the Army calls them, "Meals, Ready to Eat". Better known as MRE's, the rations were developed by the military in 1980 to replace their bland C-rations and have been the standard ever since.

The military's mouth-watering MRE packaging. (Photo: mreinfo.com)

According to the U.S. Army website, a typical MRE contains the following:

  • Entree (chili w/beans, spaghetti or beef stew, veggie burger in bbq sauce, chicken fajita tortilla, etc.)
  • Side dish (rice, corn, dried fruit, or mashed potatoes, etc.)
  • Crackers or bread
  • Spread - peanut butter, jelly, or cheese
  • Dessert - cookies or pound cakes, chocolate pudding
  • Candy - M&Ms, Skittles, or Tootsie Rolls
  • Beverages - Gatorade-like mixes, cocoa, dairy shakes, coffee, tea
  • Hot sauce or seasoning (only in select MREs)
  • Flameless Ration Heater to heat the entree
  • Accessories - spoon, matches, creamer, sugar, salt, chewing gum, toilet paper, etc.

So which of the 24 available entree options is best? According to Jason Bargas, a reporter for the Houston Press, it's the beef ravioli, which he said "had beefier 'meat' and richer, more savory sauce that its canned cousin that I loved as a kid."

Of course, civilian opinion has little sway with the military's daily ground pounders, many of whom call the meals by their preferred name: "Meals Rejected by Everyone Else."

"To look at them just makes me ill," said Air Force Maj. Carol Darby, 34, of Roseville, California. "I'll eat the crackers and peanut butter, but that's about as far as I'll go."

Don't be sad, soldier. You could be British. (Photo: Sgt Martin K Newton courtesy US Army)

But with each meal packing about 1,200 calories and designed to last for up to three and a half years in storage, they can be a lifeline for soldiers out in the field. Just don't touch the candy—according to military lore, the "Charms" are bad luck when ingested in any form. Said one poster on a military website, "The reason Marines hate charms candy is because... it brings on rain. If you dont believe me go camping during a drought, and eat charms. It is a guarentee [sic] that it will rain on you."

But take heart, soldiers—it could be worse. According to one British officer, the Americans have it good when it comes to their food.

"Whenever we saw American rations we would always try to steal or swap them," he said to Esquire. "They probably have the same number of calories as a British ration, but the American MREs are about three times the size. You get lots of extras, like you might get proper cookies or crisps. It would almost be kind of exciting, like opening a Christmas stocking."

The Brits lusting after another country's cuisine? Even in war, some things never change. But really, we shouldn't be too hard on military chefs. They're doing as important a service for their country as are the brave soldiers they're feeding, and as the saying goes, an army travels on its stomach. And sometimes that means you just can't have organics.

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