September 26, 2018 4:34PM

M.R.E. Pizza May Seem Trivial, but It’s Not

The New York Times recently reported on a breakthrough at the United States Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate, the group that develops and tests combat field rations or Meals, Ready to Eat (M.R.E.’s). After twenty years of testing, the Army has finally created an M.R.E. pizza that fulfills the stringent requirements to survive extreme weather, pests, and combat conditions with a shelf life of three years. Considering the challenges of meeting these standards, this review from an artisanal pizza chef is quite glowing: “You know, they’re not far off…. It’s familiar. It reminds me of the frozen pizzas I had as a kid.”

As the Times notes, the M.R.E. pizza exemplifies some of the ways that the end of the draft in 1973 has forced the military to find ways to attract and retain the talent required to sustain an all-volunteer force:

But the deployment of M.R.E. pizza is not just a victory for food technologists. It is an indication of how much the military has been forced to change its culture since the draft effectively ended in 1973.

To recruit and retain the volunteers it needs, the military has built up an elaborate social support structure for troops and their families. It now offers child care and family counseling, continuing education benefits, improved base housing, and fitness centers that can rival those in luxury condo complexes. The core mission still includes service under spartan conditions in dangerous lands, but there has been a growing focus on delivering small comforts when possible.

Walter Oi, an economist who passed away in 2013, was a key contributor to the shift away from the draft and towards an all-volunteer military. One of his positions during his impressive career (achieved despite the loss of his sight in 1956) was as a staff economist on President Richard Nixon’s Commission on the All-Volunteer Force, or the Gates Commission. As David R. Henderson recounted in his eulogy for Oi in the spring 2014 issue of Regulation, Oi recognized that the budgetary costs of the draft neglected the hidden costs imposed on draftees.

Based on his research, the Gates Commission’s 1970 report recommending the end of the draft found that eliminating conscription would increase the federal budget by much less than the military estimated. This finding and Oi’s analysis of the impacts of ending conscription were, in the view of the executive director of the Gates Commission, “a watershed in the cause of voluntarism” and helped convince draft supporters that an all-volunteer force was practical.

Even after the draft ended in 1973, Oi continued to fight against any calls to reinstate the draft. In particular, he published two articles in Regulation, in 2003 and 2007, that directly refuted claims that the all-volunteer military unfairly burdens low-income Americans. Oi used data to show that the claims were unfounded and argued that, with the end of the draft, “Military pay was raised to be competitive with wages in the civilian labor market. It was the right thing to do, to eliminate the hidden tax that had been placed on draftees. Members of the [all-volunteer force] enlist to serve their country, to get training and post-service education benefits, and engage in something that is worth their while.”

Walter Oi’s work acknowledged the hidden costs imposed on draftees and the inequality of conscription. Americans who since 1973 have enjoyed the freedom to choose their occupation and the soldiers who enjoy the benefits an all-volunteer force has conferred, including M.R.E. pizzas, owe thanks to his contributions.

Written with research assistance from David Kemp.