02 September 2009

Starbuck's Coffee: Now don't get me wrong, though...

Yesterday, I talked about the balancing act between Soldier quality of life on forward operating bases on one hand, and the risk aversion/force protection mentality on the other hand. One of the points I brought up (and was also brought up in a blog post on Wired's Danger Room) was that most of the major forward operating bases had coffee shops run by Starbucks, Green Bean, or Cinn-a-Bon.

But don't get me wrong, I love my morning cappuccino. Indeed, an article--originally posted on the Tucker Max Message Board, no less--further reiterates my belief that coffee is a vital logistical commodity in conflict. So ditch the near-beer and start delivering more cappuccino!

The value of coffee in the American Civil War, from MentalFloss:

Even in the midst of the Civil War, there was still one thing the North and South shared—a serious addiction to caffeine. In that respect, the Union clearly had an advantage. Not only did the North have more than two-thirds of the population and control most of the heavy industry, railroads, and financial reserves in the country, it hoarded supplies of the highly addictive little bean, leaving the Confederacy to wage its own war against java deprivation.

Coffee: It’s What’s For Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Throughout the Civil War, coffee was as prevalent on the battlefields as it is in offices today. In fact, the Union army was fueled by the stuff to the point that, if there was no time to boil water, the Boys in Blue would chew on whole beans as they marched. And at night, Union campsites were dotted with tiny fires, each boiling a pot of coffee like a million miniature Starbucks.

Beyond caffeine cravings, Union troops loved their coffee because it was, literally, the best thing on the menu. Before the advent of helpful (and tasty!) artificial preservatives, a marching soldier’s rations were neither varied nor particularly appetizing. Typically, they consisted of salted meat, unleavened bread (accurately christened “hardtack”), and a little sugar and salt. It didn’t help that Union supply chains were riddled with corrupt food contractors who charged the government top dollar for rotten, stale, and insect-ridden foodstuffs [Starbuck's note: some things never change...]. Coffee, however, was almost always fresh because it was delivered in whole-bean form—making it difficult for even the most dishonest supplier to skimp on quality. Not that they didn’t try, of course. In fact, officials began requesting coffee as whole beans after some crooked contractors tried to up their per-pound profits by slipping sand and dirt into packages of ground coffee.

In 1861, hoping to cut down on the time soldiers spent roasting and grinding beans, the army switched to a concentrated proto-instant coffee. The new concoction, called “essence of coffee,” was made by boiling prepared coffee, milk, and sugar into a thick gloop, which soldiers then reconstituted by mixing it with water. The product reportedly tasted every bit as bad as you’d imagine, and thanks to the corrupt dairymen who sold the army spoiled milk, it also tended to cause diarrhea. Needless to say, the Union army was soon back on the bean.

Southern Discomfort

Noxious as essence of coffee was, Confederate soldiers would have gladly downed a cup or two. But, because of a Union naval blockade, coffee (along with weapons, machinery, medicine, and other vital materials) was in short supply in the South. Before the war, a pound of beans would have set you back around 20 cents in Yankee dough. Once pre-war stockpiles ran out, however, the same amount was running as high as $60 in Confederate money. (Despite the undervalued currency, that was still a lot.)

There was some coffee that made it into the Confederacy—usually carried by steam-powered blockade-runner ships. But, for the most part, Southerners had to rely on coffee substitutes, including various forms of roasted corn, rye, okra seeds, sweet potatoes, acorns, and peanuts. Unfortunately, all these imitations lacked potency, tasted awful, and upset the bowels. The only slightly better alternative was tea made from the leaves of the native yaupon shrub. The good news was that it contained caffeine; the bad news was that it was incredibly difficult to digest. Luckily, there was one surefire way for Southern folk to get their coffee—by making peace with the Union. Soldiers on the front lines often called informal truces so Rebels could swap tobacco for Yankee coffee and then dash back to their camps before they were reported missing.

I know Andrew Krepinevich often talks about America's Strategic Achilles heels--dependence upon satellites, force projection systems, and the like--but I think our military's real strategic Achilles heels are PowerPoint and coffee.


J. said...

I remember in the mid-1980s when the Army started T-rats - platoon-sized boxed meal packages - in an effort to leave the cooks at home. Part of the deal was, no more real coffee, instant coffee packs instead and hot water. God that sucked.

Was a real problem out in NTC-land - some guys started going french-press, at least you could use real grinds. If you had room, you could try to bring a pot and go old-school, boiling the grinds.

Sarah Sofia Ganborg said...

Hej, didn't you like the furry cup of coffee I presented you with?!
Or perhaps green isn't quite your color...?

But seriously, it has always amazed me what you Yanks considered eatable or drinkable. Believe me, no Danish soldier gets that kind of crap (-well at least not at home and when they can avoid eating your MREs and that sort of thing...)

I understand what you are saying about coffee and of course it's true, but consider this: a person who's not at all addicted to coffee and the like doesn't need those things for energy or moral boost.
Imagine you're downed, somewhere deep inside enemy territory. You would need your body working as well and as smoothly as possible and not craving for sugar, spices, coffee and other junk. That would just give you a slight cold turkey on top of everything else and lessen your chance of survival.

Plus the more coffee you drink, the more water the body needs to handle it.

Sorry to spoil the fun a bit... but I think if one could get soldiers, especially those in special forces, on a sensible de-tox and afterwards get them used to a healthy diet, it would influence their performance quite a lot - in a positive way of course! One just gets much more able to push the body a lot further and feels more comfortable with its limits.

So now I guess, I've really managed to piss off everybody!
My husband always says the worst thing one can do is to take the coffee away from people and if you do that to the troops, what you'll get is simply mutiny!

Starbuck said...

It used to be that taking grog (an alcoholic concoction) away from sailors was prone to start a mutiny. Now, it's coffee.

A lot of Soldiers in the elite units are on healthy diets...coffee is one of the few vices. It also has relatively few toxic side effects--just the addiction which goes away after about 72 hours.