|MRE - Meal Ready to Eat|
'Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics', the
military experts are fond
of telling us, but it sounds as though they didn't spend enough time listening
to their own advice in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Recent reports are that the supply line is so stretched that the front line
troops are only getting one MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) per day. Of course if it's
anything like hospital food, that could be an advantage, but it still indicates
severe supply problems for the US forces.
And it's not only supplying their own troops that the coalition has trouble
with. The world witnessed the hand-outs of the first supplies to desperate
hungry Iraqis in Umm Qasar,
and many were appalled by what they saw. Soldiers tried to control the Iraqi
crowd, but were overcome and had to let the Iraqis help themselves. Fit young
men boarded the truck and dropped large boxes of supplies to the crowd, who
fought over the boxes like seagulls over bread crumbs.
Instead of handing out food in small packets, which even small children could carry, and
no-one could carry too much of (powerful men have the same number of hands as
women and children), it was issued in large boxes ensuring that fewer people
got food, and those who did were the strongest and fittest. An unlikely
So what is the optimal way to hand out food in such situations? Markets
work well in most situations, and people who understand markets know that
rewarding need destroys incentives, and causes more hardship in the
long-term. But this is clearly an example of market failure. These people don't
have money to buy the food,
they have little to trade with, and are close to starving.
Shocking though it is, the answer is a Soviet-style queuing
system. Telling people in advance when food will arrive, making them queue, and
handing out a small amount to each person in the queue. The cost for each
person is the time waiting in the queue, so the people who get the food are the
most desperate - the ones who are willing to wait the longest.
While this won't feed those who are too sick or weak to queue, there is no
system which will solve that problem in the short term. It's the lesser of the
Strange that with all the logistics experts in the US military, they haven't
thought of this. Perhaps because markets, and market failures are not part of
the military mind-set.
Large armies do in fact have a lot in common with command economies. The
1.3 million people in the US army do not work within a market system (though
they may trade externally with markets). Everyone in the US military works
strictly for the good of the machine (or for the furthering of their careers
within that system) - just like a command economy. This explains why the
military is so inefficient, and why a hammer can cost $US500.00, and it can
only survive by taking tax
money out of the capitalist economy which supports it. Perhaps it also explains
why market insights are beyond the military planners.
Meanwhile, Iraqis scrabbling and fighting for food have lost something more
valuable than the food itself - their dignity. People will remember the loss of
their dignity far longer than the hunger and physical suffering which the war
The US has just made the peace a little bit harder to win.