From Ansbach to Yokota wherever you find a US military base, you’ll find a McDonalds.
US Military bases dot the globe – army, navy and air force. Spreading the Stars and Stripes the way Britain’s Empire once coloured the map red. And where you’ll find the Stars and Stripes you’ll also find McDonalds and Burger King, Wendy’s and a host of others. Some in the most unlikely places.
McDonalds have been at Guantanamo Bay since 1986. The first and only one in Cuba. Other franchises followed. Subway, KFC, A&W, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Starbucks. It’s said that if prisoners co-operate they’re rewarded with Happy Meals. If that’s true, then they have a privilege not accorded to the Cubans. For these eateries are all off-limits to the indigenous population. A minefield and the ‘cactus curtain’ stand between the base and Cuban soil. OK, it’s not a curtain as such but it is a cactus barrier planted with the express purpose of keeping the Cubans out, akin to the Berlin Wall or the West Bank barrier.
The base at Guantanamo is not unique. From Afghanistan to Guam, Iraq to Kazakhstan you’ll find little pieces of downtown USA, close to romantic cities such as Heidelberg, on remote Pacific islands and plonked in the middle of deserts. Bagram Air base is a typical example with its multiple bus routes, more than 30,000 inhabitants, PXes, Internet cafes, fast food outlets – and let’s not forget the barracks and the trappings of war.
Leaving aside the vast and complex question of the US military presence, why this need to replicate their culture and specifically their food culture? Granted local produce isn’t always available or desirable in a war zone, given the current paranoia that sees a terrorist behind every crate of carrots. Nevertheless, even in Iraq steaks, squash and fresh romaine lettuce are brought miles across the dangerous desert so that the troops can eat hearty, healthy food. So what’s with the fast food? Especially since the first warning US troops often get in Baghdad isn’t about being blown up by IEDs but ending up with PCPs: “pervasive combat paunches”.
Is this yet another example of the McDonaldization of the world? It may look like it at first. Go a little deeper and the argument doesn’t stand up. The bases are off limits to locals unless of course they are part of the workforce. That’s no way to spread the word – or the stomach. Then again, not all US operated bases are filled with fast food franchises. Some, like Afghan-run ones, are more basic; in some cases consisting of no more than a cluster of mud and stone buildings.
Gastronomic outposts are nothing new. It all started long before Ronald McDonald flipped his first burger. In the Second World War, the Americans flew cakes and cookies to the troops and during the Viet Nam war huge recreational facilities were set up on the beaches. At one time the US operated its own autobahn rest stops in Germany, where GIs could get gas and a burger. Once more, these were off limits to locals.
Many Americans enjoy European, Asian and other ethnic foods. Besides, throughout the world, McDonalds has adapted its ‘burgers’ to other cultures. Almost certainly driven by commercial imperatives, and giving the lie to any imperial ambitions. In India, in deference to the Hindu religion, the chicken based Maharaja Mac replaces the Big Mac. In parts of Canada there’s the McLobster roll. Japan has totally reinvented McDonalds with its shrimp burgers and mashed potato and cabbage burgers. In Chile you can substitute avocado paste for ketchup. In Greece pita bread replaces the bun, in Israel it’s kosher, in the Middle East halal.
What’s really going on? As long ago as 1987, in testimony before a House Subcommittee, Admiral Rodney Squibb told congress that on-base fast-food restaurants not only generate millions of dollars in ‘recreational’ funds for servicemen but also boost morale among the troops. It seems Congress agreed with him and for nearly thirty years the presence of fast food franchises on US bases has just grown and grown. In war zones, in particular, fast food such as McDonalds act as “comfort” foods in what is often a very frightening environment. Studies are now finding a rising number of cases of new-onset depression in combat-deployed troops; the availability of such familiar fare back at the base may help soldiers adapt and provide an antidote to feelings of gloom and dejection.
There’s no doubt that morale is crucial, but there is another equally compelling argument. Recruitment. Today’s US military is not a conscription army; it’s a volunteer army. In the past, standards were low and pay was poor. The generation who served in Vietnam and Korea had to clean toilets, polish brass and peel spuds. There was nothing they could do about it except get on with the job. It’s all very different nowadays.
Today’s young recruits were raised in a world of iPods and the Internet. They’re the Xbox and Wal-Mart generation. They expect, and get, creature comforts and that includes Big-Mac’s and pizzas. If they don’t get them, there’s nothing to stop them walking when their term is up. In a four-year period the US government spends an average of $100,000 on training a soldier (and the figures are similar for the other services). It’s in its interest to keep the troops happy. Should a recruit not re-enlist, not only is that money down the drain but it will cost another $100,000 to train a replacement. So what if it costs $6,000, $8,000 or even $15,000 more– do the math!
Nevertheless, according to Sgt. Major Michael Hall, General McChrystal’s top enlisted advisor, that’s all about to change – in Afghanistan, at least. ‘This is a war zone’ he wrote in his blog earlier this year ‘not an amusement park.’ His reasons have nothing to do with diet or morale or even recruitment. It’s about the resources involved in getting those burgers, fries, pizzas and nuggets to the bases. Mothballing Burger King and the rest will free up prime storage space, more essential than ever with nearly 40,000 additional coalition forces heading for Afghanistan. Equally important, it will make it easier to get essential supplies to the front line.
Judging by the furious reaction on the Internet, they’ll have a job pushing this policy through. The consensus being that the troops need and deserve their treats. I’m cynical enough to believe that ordinary people’s opinion counts for very little with the powers that be. However, in seeking to shut down these concessions, the US military may find it has a different fight on its hands. One some say it can’t win. For it’s up against an opponent mightier than the Pentagon, mightier than the White House – the almighty US dollar. Who constructed the bases? Who manages them? Who decides what goes on there? Not the military and not Ronald McDonald. Not even Uncle Sam. Powerful corporations built, maintain and provision US overseas bases. It will take more than a General to shut them up.
Footnote: In March 2010, in spite of the furious reaction on the Internet and elsewhere, General McChrystal imposed a ban on the franchises. It didn’t last long; nor did he. When he resigned in June last year for being rude about the Administration, his successor Gen. David Petraeus wasted little time in reversing the ban.
© Clodagh Phelan 2/9/10 – this article first appeared on Eat Me Magazine’s blog.