One of the great traditions of the United States Army is the collective crusty wisdom, passed down from senior NCOs to junior NCOs and thence to the junior enlisted soldiers and generally taken as gospel truth.

Take, for instance, the hazardous nature of an MRE heater. A sure way to get angry, shocked stares and harsh words is to activate an MRE heater indoors. As soon as you break out that heater, you can’t count to ten before somebody will make a comment like, “I know you’re not going to use that in here!” The conventional wisdom says that the gas emitted from the heater is highly toxic and if used indoors will basically result in a mass-casualty event.

An MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) has a chemical heater that consists of a bag and a packet of anhydrous crystals that heats up when wet. Pop your packaged food in there, add a little water, and a few minutes later you have something approximating a hot meal. As with everything in the Army, the bag is festooned with warnings and instructions, but the number two warning says: “Vapors released by activated heater can displace oxygen. when ten or more heaters are used inside a vehicle or shelter, ensure the ventilation system is operating or a top hatch or door is open.”

What does this warning tell us? One, the vapors can “displace oxygen.” Displacing oxygen does not equal “instantly lethal.” Two, since it gives a warning about using “ten or more” heaters, obviously the volume of “toxic” gas emitted is pretty small. Three, the warning doesn’t even prohibit the use of ten or more of these lethal gas-packets – it just says to open a door!

Good luck explaining this to anyone, though – trying to explain the warning, even by reading it right off the package, will just result in sad shakes of the head and mumblings about “what a moron” and “must be from Alpha Company [idiotic chuckle].”

There are many other examples, but it all comes down to a giant mythological tradition based on totally fabricating explanations for things that aren’t understood. Tomorrow: I’ll tell you all about the Army’s latest cosmological theory – crystalline spheres!