A Prehistory of the MRE
Today the Meal, Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, represents the highest example of military ration technology such that it has become present in nearly all modern-day combat operations. Though the moniker, “Meal, Rejected by Everybody” (and other more worse variants) remain popular, the fact is that MREs have improved greatly since they were first fielded back in 1983. The commitment on the part of the US Military and Department of Defense to the science of nutrition in the field and the improvement in Meals, Ready-to-Eat are merely the latest solution to an ancient problem: “how does one feed and maintain a standing professional army?” Thus the history of the MRE is inseparable from the history of professional armies themselves. Understanding how different cultures in different time periods (including the U.S. Military) have responded to the problems presented by military rations is essential to understanding an important logistical part of military history and illuminates our understanding of the current state of MREs.
The lack of sophistication of military rations in the pre-Roman era can be briefly explained by the fact that before the Romans no civilization seriously considered the military as an entity that stood apart from civilian life. Among advanced civilizations only the Hellenic empire founded by Alexander the Great had to consider the logistics of feeding large armies far away from supply lines provided by a home state, but its relatively brief duration meant that the Hellenes never developed sophisticated distinctions between civilian and military life. For the Romans, however, this distinction was crucial. As a civilization that fought to expand and defend a vast territory over the course of centuries it was necessary for them to develop advanced methods of maintaining a vast standing army and military rations were vitally important to that project. The Romans thusly developed the most advanced system of military rationing in antiquity, not to be surpassed until the modern era. Overcoming the difficulties of spoilage was the foremost challenge for the Romans. In an era that preceded modern methods of preservation the problem was overcome primarily through foraging and the storing of dry cereals (wheat, corn, and other grains) in granaries at the forts the army would establish on each particular campaign. According to Josephus the Romans were each equipped with a sickle for cutting down grains in conquered territories, a necessity given the sheer scale of the operation that they were engaged in. During the conquest of Britain, for instance, it is estimated that a Roman soldier would consume just under 3 pounds of corn per day leading a total daily consumption of thirty-three and a half tons! Most of the corn was produced by native (non-Roman) populations on vicii, civilian encampments adjacent to Roman forts. The vicus became an essential feature of Roman conquests and the community that would develop around Roman fort culture often became the source for the development of provincial economies and many provincial elites soon found it beneficial to ally with the conquering Romans for their own enrichment. After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire the logistical sophistication of military rationing would see little significant advancement until the modern era.
Throughout the medieval period and Early Modern era advances in military technology were extraordinary the pikeman and walled fortresses of the Middle Ages became obsolete as gunpowder made the musket and cannon necessities for any civilization that hoped to protect itself. The 18th and 19th century turn toward science meant that in the field of military nutrition researchers were increasingly applying the scientific method to military rations. James Lind, a British physician, authored his “Treatise of the Scurvy” in 1753 and was one of the pioneering works in the field of military nutrition. In 1778 an American, Benjamin Rush, published “Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers,” which advocated that a soldier’s diet should consist of mostly vegetables. While both Lind and Rush made important advancements in the field of military nutrition, military rations still remained hopelessly chained to cereals, meat, and, less often, fruits and vegetables, none of which were shelf stable. The necessity of maintaining and defending lengthy, expensive supply lines meant that armies were slowed down by attending to these realities and that campaigns were largely conducted during the spring and summer months when it was possible to defend them. Napoleon, who hated the fact his Grand Army could not campaign with the speed he desired, offered 12,000 franc to whoever invented a practical way of preserving food for military use. This led to one of the most significant leaps forward for shelf stable foods when French confectioner Nicolas Appert submitted his design for preserving foods in airtight bottles in 1810, after years of experimentation. Appert’s bottles were sent to sea with French Navy that same year and it was found that the food was preserved for months earning Appert the nickname, “The Father of Canning.” Appert’s method was so practical that within a few years that Peter Durand, an adopted Briton originally born in France, had perfected a method of canning using tin cans. By 1813 Durand’s tin cans were standard military rations in the British Army and Navy.
In America the United States Military was also busily working on methods to improve military rations. Already by 1775 the Second Continental Congress had decreed that the Continental Army was to have a pint of milk and a ration of beans, peas, or vegetables in addition to their daily provision of meat and bread. The outbreak of the Civil War led to a number of formal scientific studies into the diet of soldiers. The eminent German-born chemist Eben Horsford (inventor of the modern formula for baking powder) developed a military ration for the Union Army that was considered the first practical individual ration due to its portability. Unfortunately it provided little nutritional value and was soon rejected. Various researchers continued their inquiries into military nutrition and continued to improve military rations for the U.S. military, but it was not until World War I that military nutrition became a formal concern with the creation of the Division of Food and Nutrition of the Medical Division, U.S. Army.
In 1917 U.S. Military troops overseas were provisioned with the generally adequate Pershing garrison rations when available. These however lacked meat and dairy products and were impractical as field rations due to their lack of portability. When troops did go into the field they were provisioned with the “Reserve Ration” consisting of a pound of meat (either bacon or jerky) and hard tack biscuits, while the “Reserve Ration” was a vast improvement over the previous “Iron Ration” it still did not provide an adequate balance of nutrition while troops were in the field and were intended strictly for consumption when troops were unable to access the garrison or camp kitchen. In 1938 the “Reserve Ration” was replaced by the famous C-ration, canned, pre-cooked, or prepared “wet” rations, that were intended for use when fresh food (A ration) or unprepared packaged food (B ration) were unavailable and when survival bars (D or K rations) were inadequate. The prevalence of the C-ration during World War II led to its notoriety and eventually, its infamy. Notoriously boring, C-rations consisted of two varieties the M-unit (meat variety) and B-unit (bread variety). Troops living for extended periods of time on C-rations complained of its monotony and the overly heavy weight of the cans in which they were packaged and researchers often noted that they did not provide an adequate variety of substantive nutritional content. In order to deflect these complaints the Quartermaster’s Branch, charged with providing nutrition to the U.S. Military, insisted that C-rations were only for short-term, infrequent use. Use of the C-ration continued until 1958 when it was replaced by the similar “wet” ration, the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) ration. The MCI proved to be only a modest improvement over the C-ration and was still widely despised by troops with particular disdain for certain entrees (the Ham & Lima Beans entree was referred to as Ham & Motherf****s). Like its predecessor the U.S. Military intended for the MCI ration to be used only infrequently, but in reality troops stationed in Vietnam often had to survive off of these hated rations for weeks at a time.
The MCI was the standard field ration for U.S. Military troops until 1975 when the Meal, Ready-to-Eat was finally developed and the Department of Defense made it the standard. The MRE immediately represented a vast improvement in portability and nutritional variety over the MCI, but early variations were still disliked for their poor taste and texture. Over the course of thirty-seven years private and U.S. Military researchers have managed to make MREs much tastier, a significant advance for Military ration technology. As technology improves one expects that the future of shelf stable military rations to be bright indeed.