03 Februar 2007


Twenty-five some-odd years ago, my friends and I used to buy old MRE's at a military surplus store. They were very handy, albeit in a tenderfoot sort of way, for our camping-and-mayhem excursions in the Mojave desert. Eating MRE's, to our pubescent Reagan-era minds, had a touch of glamour. By partaking of the same food our troops do, we partook in a secular act of Communion with what Gustav Hasford called the "phony tough and the crazy brave." Back in the days when the main threat came from what turned out to be a quite civilized "Evil Empire," fiddling around with MRE's seemed rather quaint, but today, with a very real and serious war going on, they are no laughing matter. So when a Marine friend of mine "souvenired" me a whole carton of MRE's the other day, I was most interested to find what our men and women are eating.

According to my friend, each package costs about $12 at a surplus store. That seemed shocking--we used to pay about $1.50. The price increase is deceptive, however, because today's MRE bears about as much resemblance to their 1980s forebears as the latter did to the C rations issued during World War II and the Viet Nam war. For starters, the offerings are more eclectic than ever: the packet before me reads "Menu No. 23 Chicken with Cavatelli." I've eaten in quite a few elegant Italian restaurants in my day, but at this moment I confess that I don't know what Cavatelli is. More astounding than this whiff of haute cuisine is the packet's size--it holds one of the older rectangular MRE's (the kind we used to buy, a plastic package encased in cardboard about the size of one of the 1980s CD wrappers), plus a very large assortment of goodies. Please note, by enumerating these items I am NOT attempting to belittle or critize the military, which I have always admired deeply and still do. Nothing is too good for our people over there. The military is America in its purest form. So this cataloging affords insight into the peculiar combination of ingenuity, toughness, softness, luxuriousness and thoroughness that comprises the contemporary American character:

1. The main meal (noted above): "Breaded Chicken Breast Patty with Pasta Shells in Tomato Sauce with Rib Meat." 8 ounces. 280 calories, 100 fat-calories, 1000mg sodium (42% RDA), 105mg cholesterol (36% RDA).

2. Spoon, plastic, olive-colored.

3. 1 clear plastic pouch containing a) two chiclets; b) a 1/8 oz. glass bottle of Tabasco sauce (not generic); c) a tightly folded paper napkin; d) a moist towlette; e) a packet of Domino sugar (not generic); f) an olive-drab matchbook "designed especially for damp climates" (Vietnam-era procurement guidelines, perhaps); g) one packet of single-serving Taster's Choice Instant Coffee; h) a 4-gramme packet of iodized salt; i) a 4-gramme packet of "creamer, non-dairy, dry."

4. One 34-gramme plastic package of "Beverage Base, Powder Orange, Type II Fortification D. 130 calories, 0 fat-calories, 20mg sodium (1% RDA), 0 cholesterol.

5. Wheat Snack Bread, 1 piece, 57 grams. 170 calories, 40 fat-calories, 120mg sodium (5% RDA), 0 cholesterol.

6. One Ziploc-type "Hot Beverage Bag," warning the user that "To avoid a burn, beverage heating time should not exceed 6 minutes. Use caution when handling HOT beverage bag." Detailed instructions for filling the bag with water and adding beverage powder to "appropriate fill line." Serving can be 6, 8, or 12 ounces.

7. A small pouch, about the size of an airplane vomit bag, containing heating chemicals. Basically today's version of Sterno. Instructions--and I am not making this up--tell the user to lay the opened bag on a "Rock or Something."

8. One rather large Fig Bar, 2 ounces. 200 calories, 30 fat calories, 0 cholesterol, 220mg of sodium (9%). Doesn't quite taste like a Fig Newton--slightly drier and less sweet, a bit crunchier, too--but still quite enjoyable, no strange or chemically taste. Better than some generics I've bought in the past. Completely fresh.

10. Cheese Spread with Bacon (fortified). "Knead package before opening." 1.5 oz. This one's the real calorie-delivery system: 180 calories; 150 fat-calories (26% RDA, but zero trans-fats!); 360 mg sodium (15% RDA); 25 mg cholesterol (8% RDA). I'm going to pass on this one for now.

Compared to what the soldiers of earlier eras had, all this probably seems luxurious. But that does not change the fact that war is hell. I am fully confident that no soldier of the past would suggest that today's military has it easy. And this food is really quite decent. It is wonderful that modern technology can palliate the horrors our people endure, but that alone doesn't justify putting them in harm's way in furtherance of misguided policy, nor does it excuse the failure to equip them with adequate armor and weaponry.