Hunger, a Weapon of War

An army marches on its stomach.
~~ Napoleon Bonaparte ~~

Unfortunately, war is the human condition. And where there is war, there is hunger.

From time immemorial, hunger has always been a weapon of war and each side will use it, if possible. An enemy’s hungry army, along with time, is often the only weapon the victor needs. “My kingdom for a horse” might better read “My kingdom for a plate of food.”

Hunger siege of leningrad
Siege of Leningrad

Techniques used historically; and more recently in conflicts in Sudan, Mozambique, Somalia, and Liberia; include siege and “scorched earth,” both of which affect soldiers as well as civilians if the soldiers end up living off the land. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” during the American Civil War is an example of the “scorched earth” policy. And one of the longest sieges of World War II, the 900-day siege of Leningrad, still causes people to shudder.

Hunger Andersonville Our First Meat
Civil War Soldiers Scrounging for Food

Why?  What happens when hundreds of thousands of able-bodied soldiers are slowly starving?  Mutiny is always a possibility, as George Washington almost learned during that heart-breaking winter at Valley Forge. But mutiny has to occur before the hunger has been going on too long. Otherwise, the human body and spirit are too worn down to protest much.

According to the scanty reports on the physical condition of the Iraqi POWs in Desert Storm, those men had been eating only one meal a day for weeks. Unless those meals were high in fat and rich in protein, thereby assuring an adequate energy intake, it is highly improbable that one meal per day will provide all of a soldier’s greater-than-normal nutritional needs. Stress and increased physical activity intensify nutritional needs. More than likely, Iraqi soldiers were eating foods high in carbohydrates and low in fat. In other words, foods deficient in energy, protein, and vitamins. On this dietary regimen and within a matter of days, Saddam’s army began to manifest the symptoms of slow starvation.

The first symptom, confirmed by the post-WW II studies done by Ancel Keys on human starvation at the University of Minnesota, is lethargy and a consequent decrease in work productivity. The human body simply slows down in order to conserve energy. In wartime, the implications of this are obvious:  lethargic men make poor soldiers.

But there’s more. Along with the lethargy comes a decreased ability to handle stress. Again, that is hardly something a commanding officer wants in a soldier. Noises begin to bother the hungry man. He loses his ability to concentrate and plan.

Hunger surrender leafletDisoriented, the soldier becomes highly susceptible to food cues. He devotes most of his time, both waking and sleeping, to thinking about food. Food fantasies keep him going. Knowing this, in Desert Storm, Allied Intelligence printed up those now-famous flyers on surrendering:  one side of the flyer showed Iraqi soldiers enjoying a sumptuous meal after surrendering.

But the most damaging symptom of starvation, from the point of view of a field commander, is the increasing egocentricity (or selfishness) of the starving soldier. Survival is so deeply ingrained into the human brain that starving people simply do not care about anyone or anything other than themselves. The starving soldier loses his desire and ability to participate in group activities. He forgets what he is fighting for. Once again, hardly the perfect situation when a war is on.

Going hand-in-hand with starvation is disease. Starving people suffer from serious intestinal disorders and skin lesions.

Hunger MREs 1
Meals Ready Eat, Brownie (Photo credit: Phillip Stewart)

In fact, in years past, many troop deaths were due to disease and not combat. For example, during the Spanish-American War, of 5,462 troop deaths, only 379 were combat-related. The rest resulted from the poor food available to the U.S. Army in those days. Fortunately, while U.S. armed forces today may not be eating the same menu as that found at high-class restaurants, during Desert Storm, they ate far better than did the Iraqi army. Not surprisingly, Iraqi POWs manifested some starvation-related disease symptoms. Because large numbers of POWs were taken, allied medical personnel had their hands full in trying to prevent lethal epidemics among the prisoners.

The development of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat and K-Rations, which Ancel Keys helped to develop) changed the face of warfare.

History teaches us lessons. In every war, and in every event, there is something to be learned. We know that hunger can be a lethal weapon, for we have wielded it ourselves.

M.F.K. Fisher, in reality a philosopher posing as a food writer, put it very well when she wrote,

I believe that one of the most dignified ways we are capable of, to assert and then reassert our dignity in the face of poverty and war’s fears and pains, is to nourish ourselves with all possible skill, delicacy, and ever-increasing enjoyment. And with our gastronomical growth will come, inevitably, knowledge and perception of a hundred other things, but mainly of ourselves. Then Fate, even tangled as it is with cold wars as well as hot, cannot harm us.

(Now that we know something of hunger, the preciousness of feasting becomes clear.)

For further reading:

William C. Davis, A Taste for War: The Culinary History of the Blue and the Gray (2003).

Darra Goldstein, “Women Under Siege: Leningrad 1941 – 1942.”

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

4 thoughts on “Hunger, a Weapon of War

  1. My husband is reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. He has been describing what they go through to find food. Reading this series of posts and reading Darra Goldstein’s Women Under Siege, will make me thankful everyday I have more than enough to eat and I need to be more mindful of what and how I am eating. Yes, very thought provoking. Thank you for the great blog.

  2. Cynthia,

    This has been a very thought provoking series. Very interesting, especially in light of the upcoming Thanksgiving celebrations. I posted a blog a few days ago about how Thanksgiving seems to get overrun by the more commercialized Halloween and Christmas. How I wish people would realize that food, such a base and “common” thing in our society, is truly a reason to give thanks.

    Happy weekend,

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