‘When our boys light up,” the Bull Durham Tobacco Company assured customers in 1941, “the Huns will light out.” And so, four years and tens of millions of cigarettes later, they did.
This image, of enervated soldiers finding consolation and inspiration in tobacco, has a long and storied history. From the mud and steel at Argonne and Belleau Wood through to the rubble-strewn streets of Fallujah, the most iconic photographs of war have invariably featured cigarettes. During World War I, the British government noticed that “almost every letter from the front contains a request for ‘something to smoke.’” In Korea, Camel sought to establish itself as the brand of choice for the discerning infantryman. And, even within the last decade, the tabloids have designated American forces as butt-kicking “Marlboro men.” As American soldier Colby Buzzell explained to the Daily Beast in 2009, for many soldiers, “cigarettes and war are inseparable.” “Unlike what you see in the recruiting commercials,” Buzzell recalled, “most of wartime is spent doing nothing except waiting to be told by someone what to do,” and, if you can find any tobacco, whiling away the hours with a “smoke and joke.”
The tradition, however, is under attack. In the 1980s, President Reagan’s defense secretary ordered the military to arrange “an intense anti-smoking campaign . . . at all levels of all Services.” Under President Clinton, servicemen were barred from smoking in government-owned facilities. And now, if the powers that be get their way, Buzzell’s “inseparable” partners may become even further estranged. “In an effort to curb high smoking rates,” Politico’s Jeremy Herb recorded on Monday, “Congress and the Defense Department are mulling over a potential ban on selling tobacco products — cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco — on military bases and ships.” The idea’s progenitor, Chuck Hagel, is not messing around. A department-wide review is already under way and, should the Department of Defense decide to go through with the alteration, the fight could flare up as early as “the lame-duck congressional session.”
This is an issue of discernment and not of first principle. There is, of course, no question that the DOD can follow through with the proposal should it so wish, for “in the military,” Concerned Veterans for America’s Pete Hegseth tells me, “everything can be sold under the auspices of the health and welfare of the troops.” Hegseth is absolutely correct. As anybody who has lived in a country with socialized medicine can attest, behavioral controls are the ineluctable consequence of heavy government involvement in the economy and the unavoidable hallmark of any organization run by the state. Once one accepts that taxpayers are responsible for the consequences of one’s behavior, one must also accept that they have some license to govern that behavior in any way that is deemed necessary. Exactly what authorities will elect to regulate will depend upon the prevailing mood of both the electorate and the culture at large. Sometimes, this will appear capricious and irrational — what the majority likes today, it will happily subsidize; what it does not like, it will prohibit — but, either way, regulate it will. My house, my rules, as the old saying goes.
One does not join the military in order to be free. By dint of their nature and their purpose, the armed forces cannot be anything other than a creature of the state. “You know when you sign up,” Hegseth tells me, “that you’re going to give up a certain amount of autonomy.” Still, that soldiers are expected to be obedient by no means renders as sensible each and every order that they are given; nor, for that matter, does it imply that all decisions taken in the name of the greater good will be devoid of meddlesomeness and micromanagement. As with any socialized institution, the military is a veritable magnet for busybodies and for dreamers, some of whom will make worthwhile adjudications, some of whom will not. Prohibiting personnel from purchasing tobacco on ships and bases, Hegseth suggests, falls firmly into the latter camp, representing a deleterious “broader trend of social engineering” that is born of “the same instinct that has seen the introduction of green fuel and the banning of transfats.” Ideas that gain currency among elites in civilian life, Hegseth explains, “permeate the decision-makers in Washington” before long. The military, in other words, is their sandbox.
This, then, is a question of delicate tradeoffs. Smoking is unequivocally bad for one’s health, yes. But, in free countries at least, we tend not to permit this fact to end our calculations. Instead, we balance what we know about the consequences of tobacco use with other, equally important, ideas: among them our desires to limit the power and scope of the government and to protect the rights of individuals to choose their own fates. Similar computations apply within the military context, too. “Cigarettes,” Mother Jones claims, “kill more soldiers and sailors than wars do,” costing taxpayers “billions” into the bargain. That, certainly, is a real problem. But so is asking a young man to pick up a rifle and risk his life for his country while depriving him of the opportunity to obtain a packet of cigarettes or chewing tobacco. Deprivations, after all, tend to be relative, small hardships being felt especially keenly by those living lives of austerity. For so many soldiers, Hegseth tells me, cigarettes represent one of those “small conveniences” that make life at the front bearable. “I’m not a smoker,” he recalls. “But I was a deployment smoker. It matters when you’re on patrol and there’s nothing to do.”
What of the stereotype of the exhausted, muddy-faced recruit with a Lucky Strike hanging out of a corner of his mouth? Is that still relevant? “Yes,” Hegseth says, emphatically. Were limitations to be imposed upon the purchase of tobacco, he tells me, we would see “outrage from those deployed.” “For example,” he continues, “alcohol is already completely banned. This would be poorly received.” Put another way, Hegseth suggests, “this ain’t coming from the rank and file, the trigger-pullers, or the infantry; it’s coming from leadership with too much time on their hands.” On ships, where supplies would be even harder to get, “you’d see care package after care package chock full of cigarettes,” he suggests.
In our technocratic, data-happy age, we often accord too little time to thinking through the incalculable and the abstruse, preferring instead to reduce the knottiest of questions to the sum of their known parts. It is relatively straightforward to present a compelling case in favor of cutting health-care costs, diminishing institutional liability, and preventing the onset of horrifying disease; but to quantify and judge the more amorphous values at stake in this question requires quite another skill indeed. How does one begin to calculate the significance of morale? Which of the “small conveniences” is serving as the thumb in the dike? And who knows better what they need within a unit of fighters: those throwing the grenades, or those ordering the supplies? Whether or not the lighting of a Bull Durham really helped the GIs to send the ambitions of the Huns up in ignominious smoke we will likely never know. But who among us is ready to risk it the next time?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.