Napoleon May Have Lost Europe, But He Was Right About One Thing

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Knowing young men as we all do, you might think the first thing they would mention about a place they’d been to would be the members of the opposite sex.

How many. How cute. And — above all — how willing.

Close. Very close. But truth is women are number two.

Number one is food.

Napoleon got it right when he said an army marches on its stomach. If he said it, that is. There seems to be some doubt.

Ah, the good old GI stomach. The good old whining, grumbling, never satisfied GI stomach, the source of more complaints in five minutes of any military day than everything else put together.

Why? Because the very first thing the military does after you raise your hand and swear away your life is to try to change the way you eat. Shoot! It starts even before they find time to issue you a uniform. It’s like they can’t wait to get you hungry.

Let me ask you a really stupid question: What is it that any active healthy young man wants to cram into his face?

Green vegetables? Red vegetables? Yellow vegetables. Any color vegetables?

Uh-uh.

Fresh fruit? Liver? Fiber? Vitamins? Roughage? Protein?

Uh-uh.

And uh-uh to a whole lot of other things too.

You know what he wants. Fats. Nice juicy fats. And good old carbohydrates.

The same things he’s been inhaling ever since his arm was strong enough to lift a cheeseburger. And plenty of them too. Far more than he could possibly need just to keep going.

But does he get it?

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Out in Washington, in the Pentagon somewhere, they have a group of anti-happiness specialists who work hard at creating the “Master Menu,” which dictates what every GI on the planet is supposed to eat at each meal each day.

(Leaving out MRIs. Ugh!)

Of course they have a lot of people out there in Washington who spend their time trying to tell us civilians what we should or shouldn’t do, and how much of our hard-earned money we need to send in so that they can keep on telling us.

But they make a special effort for GIs.

Waste of time! People have been listening to their stomachs instead of to nutritionists as far back as the Romans. Plutarch recounts a tale told by Menenius Agrippa way back in the first century, a fable in which the other organs of the body join up in a mutiny against the stomach, claiming that they are being put to unnecessary hardships to keep the bone idle stomach satisfied.

I’ll give you three guesses who comes out on top.

Anyway, talk to any GI about a place he’s been and inside of two minutes you’ll be talking about food. For example, take the first time I flew into Aviano, Italy. As I stepped out of the jet on a clear February day and drew in a deep breath of cold mountain air I marveled at the beauty. Set at the foot of the Julian Alps, with skies the bluest blue and snow-clad mountains gleaming in the sunlight, Aviano was a winter paradise.

An old air freight buddy spotted me walking across the ramp with my AWOL bag in hand. He came strolling over. “Hi, Garrett. You going to be stationed here?”

“No, just here to teach a few classes.”

“Boy are you going to love this place! We eat over at the Italian NCO Mess any time we want. Fresh caught trout. Big blocks of parmesan. Eighteen kinds of pasta. Wait’ll you see it!”

I have to admit it. I forgot all about mountains, sky, clear air, and whatever. We walked inside together. The subject was food. We hadn’t seen each other in nine years. We had both been clear around the world. It took just six seconds for the subject of food to come up and we talked about it for the next hour.

“You know, in Weisbaden there’s this little restaurant ...”

After that we got around to less important things, like the row of bullet scars stitched up my buddy’s left arm.

I’ll never forget my first mess hall. I’ll never forget it because I got so sick of being a radio operator in an Air National Guard outfit minus radios I volunteered to work in it as a baker.

We cooked and baked on Number 5 soft coal ranges. To stoke them up you opened a lid, took an iron rod, stirred the firebox, and tossed in more coal, trying not to breathe in black soot.

The troops used to ask, “How come you guys put so much pepper in the mashed potatoes, but they never taste hot?”

We didn’t explain. They just put it down to military magic.

I’ll also never forget the days when we served liver.

The rule in the military in those days was — and probably still is — “take all you want, but eat what you take.” It was a phony rule, of course. You could have all the broccoli you could force down, but if you reached out for a second pork chop you’d draw back a stump. But they meant the “eat what you take” part. There was always a KP pusher standing by the door to see what you tossed into the trash. If it was more than a very small handful he just handed you a plastic apron; you were on KP.

Liver was entrapment, pure and simple. Someday, step into a mess hall when they’re frying liver. You’ll swear the best steaks on Earth are on those grills. On liver days, guys strolled into the mess hall, took one whiff, snatched up a tray, rushed over to the serving line, and stuck out the tray with a big grin. The cooks, always happy to have more KPs, slapped a big old slab of fried liver on the tray. That was it. Eat the stuff or work.

Most people worked.

I suppose liver fanciers must have thought they had died and gone to heaven. For them, “take all you want” was actually true.

Once or twice a month.

So we talked about food, all the time and everywhere.

Hey! Women you can find anyplace. But a big juicy burger ...

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