by Adam Weinstein
“This is not going to end nicely,” my fellow contractor whispered behind me, nervously. We’d already been on Camp Victory in Baghdad for seven months, and we were blessed enough not to see any real nastiness in that time. But that looked like it was about to change. A riotous buzz ahead of us was expanding fast, like bacteria on a lab slide. A few soldiers paced angrily, their pupils small, their lips moving without sound. Some ran hands over the trigger guards of their rifles. A gaggle of Iraqi interpreters chattered hotly, their hands arcing in unpredictable gestures. All looked ready to pounce on a hapless merchant who’d lost control of the situation. I glanced behind me to locate quick cover, fearing that a fist or a steel slug might soon be loosed.This wasn’t Sadr City. We were in the PX—the base’s convenience store—and a new tax had just been slapped on cigarettes, jacking the price of a carton up by five bucks. That scene ended without bloodshed, only a few muttered obscenities. But it was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about a government study released last week that recommended a ban on smoking in the military, to be policed with urine tests. The general reaction to the study among soldiers I know was: Bullets and mortars. Desert heat and polluted Mideast air. And now this? Shut up, do-gooders; go hug a tree someplace, and let me have my menthols.
The second thing that came to mind was how many of my own military memories revolve around smoking. I took up the habit in the Navy. Later, as a contractor in Iraq, tobacco built a bridge between me and the soldiers I worked with. We smoked to celebrate. We smoked to commiserate. We smoked when we worked hard. We smoked to avoid work. We smoked because in a foreign country, where Uncle Sam owned our butts and Al Qaeda wanted to torch them, the ritual of lighting up made us feel whole, safe, individual, like we controlled our own destinies—even if that control was an illusion. Like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, who blazes up after storming a hill—then gets his ticket punched by a lone Japanese sniper.
Sounds a bit like a cigarette ad, all rawhide and grit, doesn’t it? Like the Marlboro man, the mythos of the American warrior has always rested on romantic contradictions. He (and the archetypal warrior is always a “he”) takes personal initiative, but always follows orders. He is capable of terrible violence, but only in the name of peace and justice. He’s egalitarian, but in a male-driven, largely homophobic sort of way. And he keeps his body in peak shape—except for his chemical vices.
And today’s soldier has vices aplenty. You can attack smoking, but it’s only one symptom of a larger self-destructive trend. A 2007 study found that service members are twice as likely to use smokeless tobacco as civilians, using four cans of snuff a week on average. Most service members are accustomed to seeing a uniform pocket with the permanent circle of a Skoal can crimped into the cloth. Some, like me, have mistaken a shipmate’s dip-spit can for a perfectly good can of Coke. Dipping is as much a sport in the military as target shooting or complaining about one’s lot in life. The government’s report mentions smokeless tobacco in passing, but focuses nearly all of its recommendations on burning butts.
Our new wars have suborned new dangerous vices, too. The military’s base-exchange stores recently reported that sugary carbonated energy drinks like Monster and Rock Star have surpassed Gatorade, Coke and even water as the deployed soldier’s drink of choice. In a war zone, where survival requires hypervigilance, often on little or no sleep, it’s par for the course to see service members walk out of the PX with pallets of the fizzy rotgut, along with caffeine pep pills and dietary supplements—which until recently included the controversial Hydroxycut. Even inside the wire, where the guard is down a bit, it’s not unusual to see caffeine-fortified soldiers tweak, get shaky, exhibit heart issues, faint or lose hydration and good judgment. A nicotine ban likely will just push more sleep-deprived soldiers toward Red Bull and Ephedra substitutes, whose side effects remain largely unstudied. In this drug-addled environment, attacking cigarettes is kind of a larger metaphor for our Iraq adventure: win a battle, lose the war.
But military culture can—and should—change, no matter how long it takes. The doctors who wrote the military smoking report recognize this: they acknowledge that it could take 20 years to implement a total ban. It took a world war and a civil-rights movement to erase institutional racism from the ranks, and the fight against sexism and homophobia is ongoing. It took several years of slogging in Iraq and Afghanistan to adapt the military to 21st-century warfare, but it was well worth it. Likewise, if the health risks of smoking among soldiers can be done away with, even incrementally, then it’s time to start. It would lead to a fitter force. It would cut down on the staggering health-care costs for veterans. And it would save lives in the long term—an oft-stated priority for the generals and admirals who command America’s serving sons and daughters. Sure, it would signal the end of an era. Sure, there would be more tense moments like mine in the Camp Victory PX. And there would be angry sergeants muttering, “What would John Wayne say?”
But John Wayne isn’t saying anything. He’s dead—lung cancer. Go figure.
Adam Weinstein served four years in the Navy and is a journalist specializing in defense affairs. He is currently at work on a memoir of his time as a military contractor in Iraq. He smoked half a pack of cigarettes while writing this story.