The Marines Secret Weapon: CoffeePosted: August 21, 2013
Every American knows the story of the Boston Tea Party and its implications on the Revolutionary War. Lesser known, but perhaps of greater relevance to a nation recognized more for coffee breaks than tea time, is the fact that America’s taste for coffee is inextricably linked to the history of its military.
We weren’t aware of it until just recently. But in hindsight, it made perfect sense that we would become obsessed with coffee when we joined the Marines. As we later discovered, we were part of a long line of men whose enthusiasm for the drink was closely tied to their experiences in the service.
As Capt. Robert K. Beecham wrote in his book, “Gettysburg: The Pivotal Battle of the Civil War”: “The power of the soldiers to endure the fatigue of the march and keep their places in the ranks was greatly enhanced by an opportunity to brew a cup of coffee by the wayside.”
Coffee’s popularity grew in the years following Reconstruction. But it didn’t become a household staple until the confluence of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the advertising age and the cultural mixing that occurred during World War I. As William Ukers explained in The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, “the 2,000,000 soldiers who went overseas and there had their coffee three times a day…since returning to civilian life are using it more than ever before.”
By the time of World War II, American servicemen were consuming 32.5 pounds of coffee per capita, per year, with the Army Quartermaster Corps going so far as to roast, grind, vacuum pack and ship its own beans overseas. Meanwhile, legend has it that when soldiers in Italy encountered espresso, they watered it down to make a concoction similar to the coffee they drank at home. There are many competing accounts, but some people surmise that these were the humble beginnings of the drink we now know as an “Americano.”
Years later, when it was our time to join the Marines, Vietnam veterans told us stories about burning C4 explosive to make their coffee in the jungle. We weren’t as cool — the rations we were issued came with a flameless chemical heater — but like those before us, coffee would serve as one of the few constants in our otherwise nomadic existence.
There usually wasn’t much time, and more often than not we would simply choke down a packet of dry instant coffee for its caffeine. But, when possible, we would sit for a few minutes and bond over a cup with another Marine.
In the early days, while we were being trained as officers in Quantico, Va., we picked up the coffee habit during breaks between classes. The instructors explained that in just six months, we would be on the receiving end of more than 1,600 hours of formal instruction, what they called a master’s degree in death and destruction. The result was a perpetual sleep debt as we struggled to keep up with the fire hose of information.
When we weren’t out in the woods, we drank black coffee to stay awake during class. Nobody talked about recipes or ratios — on breaks, you threw a dollar into the metal tin, you filled up a plastic foam cup and you got back in the classroom. All you cared about was the caffeine keeping you stimulated for the next hour. At night, as we reviewed tactics and influential battles, it was the same story. Burned, bitter, black coffee by the liter, a constant companion. Make a pot, share it with the rest of your team, and settle in for a few hours of studying.
In the Field
Each Meal Ready to Eat came with an entree, a snack for when you were on the go, a dessert to help with morale, and an assortment of small items to provide variety. Sometimes you would get a packet of hot chocolate, other times instant coffee or apple cider, and other times tea. Since Marines have different preferences, an intricate barter system evolved, and it was especially useful when assembling the components to make coffee.
“Hey man, I’ll trade you my Skittles for that packet of Irish cream cappuccino.”
“No way, Irish cream cappuccino is gold. You’re gonna have to sweeten the deal.”
“All right, fine. You can have my chocolate chip cookies, too.”
You never knew exactly what you were going to collect, or if there would even be time to heat the whole mess up. But whatever the result, you shared your concoction with your buddies. It was bad form to keep it all to yourself.
As platoon commanders, we would often share with our platoon sergeants and squad leaders while we gathered around a map and discussed our plans for the day. Whether in the forests of North Carolina, the mountains of California, or the deserts of Afghanistan, the ritual provided a sense of continuity.
At the end of deployment, we found ourselves on a desert outpost far removed from the violence and the realities of war. We were each drinking some sort of syrupy, iced coffee creation. The coffee wasn’t great, certainly nothing to write home about, and yet it felt opulent.
Sitting there, still armed to the teeth but sipping our drinks, we thought back to the last time we had shared coffee. The patrol bases we commanded had been a few miles apart, and every so often we’d get a chance to meet up. As we watched our coffee percolate, we talked about how our Afghan Army and police partners were progressing.
It probably sounds frivolous, two infantry officers sharing coffee and stories in the middle of a war. No disagreements from us. It absolutely was frivolous, and that was the point. In the downtime between missions, after everything important had been accomplished, everyone looked for a way to decompress.
When we got back from deployment, we came across a podcast that inspired us to learn more about coffee. We never expected it to become an obsession. Coffee was more than just a drink. It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.
We found ourselves in coffee shops, writing about the Marines and trying to sort through the complex emotions and thoughts we had about our experience. We’d spent the last four years in such a different world, and the last six years in such a different mindset, that as we transitioned out of the Marine Corps we realized we had to reconcile the two.
And then suddenly, in the middle of the process, it clicked. We loved coffee, we enjoyed writing, and writing a book about our favorite drink would tie so many of our other interests together. Photography, travel, meeting new people, community, and time with friends — it was all part of readjusting and a window into what we might do next.
Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are the authors of Perfect Coffee at Home and former infantry officers in the United States Marine Corps.