“Wherever you go, we go” was the PX’s old tagline, but that might be more aptly applied to America’s great contribution to the culinary world: fast food.
Every major base in the GWOT has some sort of fast food representation, and has had such since the beginning of the war. Bases in Kuwait, having been here since the first Gulf War, are no exception. On our humble swatch of sand here, the vendor list is impressive: KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Charley’s subs, Subway, Hardees, Burger King, Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, the Pizza Inn, Nathan’s Hot Dogs, a donut shop, and a Chinese restaurant. It’s enough to make a guy wonder if it’s the jihadists’ secret plan to defeat us gastronomically, since they can’t beat us on the battlefield.
Mrs. Melobi asked me why anyone would pay for eating, when the DFAC across the street offers an endless bounty of free food, in such variety and quantity as to boggle the mind. Logic would argue that paying for food would be foolish in this environment, but logic has little to do with it. Rather, it’s that paying for and eating fast food feels “normal” to most Americans, and normalcy is what many people seek here.
Honestly, eating at the DFAC is a little weird. You stand in a line out in the sweltering heat, then are corralled through the mandatory hand-washing station, after which you dry your hands on what you think is a roll of paper towels but is really more like toilet paper, which makes the stuff disintegrate on your hands. (One quickly learns to dab daintily, rather than rub vigorously.) You then proceed to stand in another line, where a bunch of Indians who barely speak English sling huge piles of your chosen food onto your plastic plate, which is divided into three areas, just like if you were on a picnic. Miraculously, these men never get your order wrong, which is more than you can say for many hash-slingers back home, who a) are native English speakers and b) only have to push a couple of numbers on a keypad. After getting your food, you then go get your drink, and hit the salad bar, or get a jelly donut with soft serve ice cream on it (I’ve seen it done), or whatever you desire. Finally, you sit down in the dining hall with a couple hundred of your closest friends and chow down. The whole thing is lit like a hospital ward, all huge banks of fluorescent lamps and white walls, and at the end you unceremoniously dump your tray into a big garbage can and shuffle back out into the heat.
This combination of cafeteria-assembly line-hospital-party hall seems to subconsciously unnerve some people; many complain about the food after the first couple of months, but I wonder if it isn’t really the environment. Some just give up on the place entirely – one of our predecessors said she only ate at the DFAC ten or twelve times in her whole nine-month stay here. I believed it, since every day for lunch she’d come back to the TOC with bags from Pizza Hut, or Taco Bell, or Subway.
The fast food experience, on the other hand, is virtually identical to what you’d find anywhere else in the world. The smells and tastes are all the same, for better or for worse, except that you cannot get mustard on your burger, no matter what. Neither Hardee’s nor Burger King have mustard, nor did they on my last tour in Iraq. It makes no sense, because the DFAC has mustard, but there it is. At any rate, I think that the activity of exchanging money for food is such a habit for many people that it’s just something that must be done occasionally, if only to remember how such transactions work. That’s how it is for me: a little voice nags at me, saying, “you should spend some money on something since you haven’t lately.” OK, if you insist.
Fast food is firmly entrenched in the 21st century war experience, and is unlikely to go anywhere. When General McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, he proposed closing all the fast food joints in operation (sparing the coffee shops, of course – hard to run a staff without coffee). That didn’t happen, though – he resigned before his ban could go into effect, after the Rolling Stone interview scandal, and his successor didn’t try to pick up that policy, instead allowing it to fade away quietly. Here in Kuwait, Americans will likely have a presence here for many years to come, so I’m sure the fast food will stay here too. Maybe by the next time I come around this place, I can get some mustard.