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Toward a Hair-Shirt Army?

Ann Marlowe

In the middle of the Marja offensive, General Stanley McChrystal has turned his attention to what seems to me to be a non-problem. He just ordered commercial fast food establishments at American bases in Afghanistan to shut, along with many stores selling non-essential items.

MWR should never be the distracter that changes the focus of the mission,” General McChrystal stated, using the military acronym for “morale, welfare and recreation.” I’m not sure how the amount of activity I’ve seen at the half dozen fast food outlets at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) could impair readiness – much less the scene at the solitary little Subway at the Salerno Airfield in Khost.

According to Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Hall another item that’s to go is first-run film screenings. The argument is that they will “free up much-needed storage facilities” in Bagram and Kandahar to make room for additional equipment to support the surge troops.

How much space does a film reel take up? Seeing a movie in a public screening room is a communal, social experience; watching on your laptop in your bunk is not. A real screening is a harmless plus in a war zone.

I myself avoid fast food to the point of preferring to go hungry, but banning it strikes me as silly—and culturally fascinating. It’s all about a new monasticism, exemplified by the General himself, who only eats one meal a day. It’s about ideology rather than practicality. And it’s historically at odds with the culture of soldiering, which until well into the 20th century still retained the raffishness of both its aristocratic and its ruffian origins.

My guess is that this new monasticism is another way the American public has outsourced our wars: Our soldiers should be ascetics, with lots less opportunities for fun or relaxation than they used to have, while citizens at home become more and more coddled, unfit, and unwilling to defend their country.

The typical enlisted soldier in the American Army in Afghanistan doesn’t have a cushy life. He lives in a remote combat outpost—and enjoys it. But he also gets homesick. It gets old patrolling a muddy little bazaar where the most exciting thing on offer is off-brand Pakistani chips, and there is nothing like civil society: No art, culture, or sports. Maybe once a month, this 20-year-old man gets to go on a convoy to one of the bigger bases—perhaps Salerno or KAF. Why is McChrystal so keen to deprive him of the pleasure of a Whopper and shake?

I read that significant numbers of soldiers are prescribed anti-anxiety or anti-depressant meds, and weird drug abuse like inhaling canned air is apparently rife, so isn’t keeping the harmless little indulgences of life a more reasonable option?

To be fair, Hall promises improvements in gym facilities and more bandwidth for “more affordable (perhaps even free) Internet services.” This is a good step. While gyms at the bases in regional headquarters are excellent, they become much less impressive as you move to more provincial capitals like Qalat or Mehtar Lam. And in a tiny, remote outpost like Nawbahar, Zabul, the gym is outdoors and consists of pretty beat up old equipment. Yet it’s in places like this that a higher level of fitness is needed. Staff officers at KAF aren’t going to be running in full battle gear across a 6,500-feet elevation plateau chasing the Taliban.

Some would go further than I in rewarding our troops. A retired Army lieutenant colonel and Vietnam vet, Charles Krohn, recently published an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that we should bring back the Vietnam-era two-beer-a-day ration as a way of preventing binge drinking. As to readiness issues, he wrote of Vietnam in a private e-mail to me that “the issue was irrelevant when soldiers went to the field: (1) we had enough to carry and (2) field operations were life and death, and we all wanted to load the odds in our favor.”

Afghanistan can be a strange place to be deployed; in many areas, there is no shooting war, but then you drive your Humvee down the road one day and your legs are blown off. The young men and women who volunteer to serve there deserve some consolations. They aren’t to blame for the fact that the generals have not won the war—and taking away their little comforts isn’t a substitute for a strategy.

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