Meredith Lair: Life Needs Frosting, Even in a War Zone

We welcome a guest post today from Meredith Lair, author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War. In the book, Lair focuses on the noncombat experiences of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, finding that consumption and satiety, rather than privation and sacrifice, defined most soldiers’ Vietnam deployments. In this guest post, she explains how some of the material comforts of home have played an essential role in maintaining troop morale in overseas military excursions, from Vietnam to Baghdad.—ellen

Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War, by Meredith Lair“Life needs frosting” is the advertising slogan for Cinnabon, the giant cinnamon roll retail chain that fills shopping malls the world over with a delicious pastry smell that hearkens back to some grandmother’s kitchen in some earlier time. Cinnabon’s “classic” roll is an 880-calorie extravaganza of refined flour, sugar, and fat that speaks, in its decadence and ubiquity, to the core values of American consumer culture: nostalgia, convenience, and self-indulgence. When Americans consume it abroad, the Cinnabon is a deliberate and tasty reminder of home.

During the recent Iraq War, there was at least one Cinnabon, in Baghdad. It was not built to introduce Iraqi consumers to the joys of sticky frosting and warm buns, but rather was intended for American soldiers living on Camp Victory, a vast complex of smaller bases near Baghdad International Airport. Since the Vietnam War, U.S. military authorities have relied on consumerism to maintain troop morale by closing the gap between war-zone and home-front standards of living. As life in the United States since World War II has come to be defined by climate-controlled homes filled with labor-saving devices, leisure time to absorb mass media, and the acquisition of electronics and other consumer goods, American soldiers heading off to war have come to expect similar modes of living when not engaged in combat.

In Vietnam, those expectations translated into vast base complexes that housed thousands of soldiers each, most of whom toiled in supporting roles out of harm’s way. In order to maintain the morale of a disgruntled soldier workforce full of men who questioned not just their presence in Vietnam but also the rationale for the war itself, American military authorities flooded the war zone with consumer goods and created a massive slate of recreational opportunities.

There were no Cinnabons—the advent of private, international fast food chains in American war zones would have to wait until the twenty-first century—but soldiers at rearward bases, and many in forward areas, had incredible food service. The U.S. military erected massive field bakeries capable of cranking out 180,000 loaves of bread a day; enormous cold storage warehouses to chill millions of dollars worth of perishable food shipped from Japan, Australia, and the United States; and ice plants to keep it all cold.

The lack of cows or grassland in Vietnam was no deterrent to providing fresh dairy products to the troops. The U.S. military contracted with two dairy conglomerates (Foremost and Meadowgold) to erect milk-processing plants in South Vietnam that cranked out hundreds of thousands of gallons of milk, cheese, and ice cream each year. Indeed, ice cream was ubiquitous on American bases. It was served at every sixth meal in mess halls, snack bars offered it in between meals, it was sometimes delivered to men in the field, and there was even a floating ice cream plant on a barge that floated up and down the Mekong River, delivering frosty treats to bases and job sites along the way.

Since 1973, the United States has relied on an all-volunteer force to provide for its defense, but concern about soldier morale still vexes military authorities. If American soldiers abroad are miserable, they will communicate their dissatisfaction to the folks at home, raising public questions about the necessity and duration of a war. If those soldiers return home with desperate tales of hardship, they can pollute the pool of potential new recruits. And soldiers’ early departure from the military inflates budgets and imperils force readiness.

The stakes involved in maintaining soldier morale are high, and the U.S. military spares little expense to do so. What that translates to in the field is an urgent campaign to close the gap between war-zone and stateside living conditions as soon as possible, and to keep it closed until the majority of the troops head home. As Colonel Robert McClure, commander of the 1st Infantry Division engineers put it to a U.S.A Today reporter in Kosovo in 1999, “We need to get these guys pumping iron and licking ice cream cones, whatever they want to do” when they are off duty.

Not all military authorities endorse the liberal application of abundance to U.S. war zones, however. In February 2010, General Stanley McChrystal famously ordered the Army and Air Force Force Exchange Service to scale back its concession operations—including Burger King, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, Pizza Hut, Oakley sunglasses stores, and Military Car Sales retailers—on U.S. bases in Afghanistan. Months later, General David Petraeus replaced McChrystal and authorized the return of many fast food establishments in order to boost troop morale.

In Iraq, the bounty of American consumer culture was even more prevalent on U.S. bases, at least for soldiers who served during the peak years of the war. But the recent drawdown created an opportunity for Major General Bernard Champoux to shutter fast-food concessions and cancel recreational opportunities that he felt were making his soldiers soft. He explained to a reporter, “Green Beans Coffee [like a Starbucks, but for soldiers]. Salsa night. Baghdad Speedway [where troops could race remote-controlled cars]. Are you kidding me? There is no longer salsa night. Symbolically, I said that’s the first thing to go.”

So far, the Cinnabon has survived the drawdown. Its presence in a war zone challenges not just conventional ideas about war, but also the wisdom of another American general from long ago. On the eve of the burning of Atlanta in 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote that “war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.” But you can, because life needs frosting, even in a war zone. And, in democracies, military authorities need to absorb soldiers’ discontent. Since Vietnam, they have relied on material abundance to do so, making it easier for the American public to go to war again and again and again.

Meredith Lair is assistant professor of history at George Mason University and author of Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War.