Personal Essays

Photograph by Nickolas Muray

Breakfast, Lunch, and Winners

Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has been picked to lead the war in Afghanistan, and on only one meal a day. One week spent in the general’s reduced-calorie footsteps.

“Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the ascetic who is set to become the new top American commander in Afghanistan, usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness.” —The New York Times

Armies run on their stomachs, but not McChrystal. The man about to take over American command in Afghanistan used to run 12 miles to work without breakfast. The so-called “Soldier Monk,” he has spent most of his career in the shadows, commanding the military’s most elite and secretive units, including those responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein and for the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Some of McChrystal’s fans go as far as crediting him with making the surge a success. It’s enough for Seymour Hersh to call him “Cheney’s Chief Assassin.”

And he does all this on one meal a day. To get better acquainted with the man as he prepares to control one of the most volatile states on Earth, I spent a week as a McChrystal disciple, joining in his eating regimen—skipping breakfast, lunch, and all between-meal snacks—to see what it was like.

Perhaps cutting back on tri-daily gorging was all it takes to increase productivity, run a nation, and earn a cool nickname.

Day One

On day one I eat as normal. Don’t want to dream too big all at once. I eat a giant lunch watching a documentary showing a Qatari debating team take on the world and lose. The team lacks the cut-throat attitude I was hoping for, which deflates me further, even more when I realize I’ve just lost 90 minutes of my life and I feel sluggish. This is followed by an hour sucked into the internet’s black hole, making the post-lunch slump last two and a half hours.

Repeated daily, this equals almost 1,000 hours a year. Malcolm Gladwell claims that one can become an expert at something after 10,000 hours’ practice. For McChrystal, his commands have been punctuated by downtime studying at Harvard, at the Naval War college, and working at the Council on Foreign Affairs as a military fellow. Combined with 33 years of military service, McChrystal’s expertise in national defense is a sure bet; whether his asceticism is responsible for his success, or something holding him back from genius, is unclear.

Day Two

Nine hours until dinner and I’m at a loss to explain how abstaining from two-thirds of the day’s nourishment can possibly help anything. I try to keep busy. The Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky supposedly ate meat at every meal to build his strength. McChrystal is probably more interested in improving his mental agility, not increasing his physical prowess—as a commander, he needs to focus most on his mental muscles, right?

I go for a run and listen to an audiobook on my iPod, as McChrystal is known to do. The experience is hell.

Hunger gradually goes away. As the afternoon progresses I find myself more focused, resisting the need to engage the post-lunch autopilot that often destroys an afternoon’s productivity. In addition, my hungry stomach asks me how the hell the task I’m doing is more important than eating, and this helps me stay on track. I was told by a doctor when I was 13 that my stomach is abnormally large. Maybe it also has its own brain.

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy suggests that a food rationing situation is best dealt with by fasting for 24 hours, causing the body to use subsequent rations to better effect. I do the opposite, tricking my stomach whilst my mind knows that a huge meal awaits. Eventually when I eat, consuming a massive amount of pasta, roasted vegetables, and three different cheeses, I transform into a slug, but only for 10 minutes. Then I process a thousand emails.

Day Three

It becomes the internet’s job this week to provide the morning’s nourishment. I learn that members of the Congressional Black Caucus are queuing up to fast for Darfur. They will ask fellow members of Congress to join them in June—hoping their rumbling stomachs speak louder than words, I presume.

Again, my body eventually accepts its state as lunchtime passes, and I can focus for much longer. When I eat dinner, staging again a shock-and-awe attack on my gut, I am unable to do anything afterwards except nap.

I probably deserve rebuke from nutritionists, but global security rests on the shoulder of a man who only eats one meal a day! It’s my duty as a concerned citizen to test his methods. Unless McChrystal spends much of the day snacking, I imagine that after he consumes his single meal, he too must need to sleep. But I can’t quite picture him giving heed to fatigue.

In his command roles, says the Washington Post, McChrystal “favors flatter, faster organizations and is known for preferring a small staff that is overworked rather than a large one that has time to grow unfocused.” His asceticism isn’t just eclecticism, but a managerial style and a dieting method, even a productivity seminar. I see a self-help book on the horizon.

Day Four

When he worked at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan, McChrystal is reported to have run 12 miles to work every day from his home in Brooklyn. Let this guy loose in Afghanistan, give him a counter-insurgency to defeat, and he’ll still have energy to burn. Who knows where it comes from. His stomach may run on empty, but run he does.

Breakfast-less, I go for a run and listen to an audiobook on my iPod, as McChrystal is known to do. The experience is hell—I want to be motivated into putting one foot in front of the other, not concentrating on the preface to Afghanistan, A Military History by Stephen Tanner. I take a cold shower on return—seemed like the ascetic thing to do.

Day Five

Waking up and plugging myself into the internet, I receive a receipt from an eBay seller instructing me to “GET PAST THE DISBELIEF AND GET ANGRY,” warning of a new U.N. law supposedly to be enacted January 1, 2010 to up the carcinogenic ratio in foods to engender population control.

I hear of a friend whose diet is strictly neolithic: He eats only raw beef, seeds, berries, and uncooked fruit and vegetables. Sounds like the hipster alternative to the Atkins diet.

Now, it wasn’t as if I was bidding on a vial of Dan Brown’s blood. Firstly, it’s terrible business sense to scare away happy customers with nutritional prophecy. Secondly, if someone does have enough power to legislate changes to the nutritional make-up of foods to make them slightly more killer than usual, I’d rather not know about it. The fact that I’m hearing this from a hammock salesman is baffling.

Food conspiracies I ignore. But claims that it was McChrystal who was responsible for the surge’s success do get my attention. Bob Woodward from the Washington Post and Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger, contend that is was McChrystal’s work running the terrorist-hunting unit, the Joint Special Operations Command, who provided the “untold success story of the surge and the greater war on terror campaigns.” If so, perhaps he’ll be a good man to have at the top in Afghanistan—Cheney’s ex-tool or not.

I leave the house for a weekend away, remembering the good old days when it was possible to just buy stuff from hammock people. Driving past Stonehenge, I hear of a friend whose diet is strictly neolithic: He eats only raw beef, seeds, berries, and uncooked fruit and vegetables. Sounds like the hipster alternative to the Atkins diet—but make sure that beef is grass-fed, organic, American, free-range, and massaged daily.

Talk of food works up an appetite, and I break the day’s fast around sunset with a huge pizza from the first fast-food joint I can find.

Day Six

Today I eat early; an Ethiopian all-you-can-eat buffet is too great an opportunity to pass up. Later in the afternoon, a car stuck in a ditch causes energy harvested from lunchtime to be put to the test. Before we get the car moving, my knee buckles and begins to swell. Imagining great energy required to fix the busted knee, pizza becomes necessary for dinner. If in Ramadan a fast can be broken by driving just 14 miles out of the city, I permit myself to make an exception, thinking that Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal must occasionally celebrate a success in the field at one of the many Pizza Hut franchises spread across U.S. military bases. No one said the man was a machine.

Day Seven

Again, lunch is the only meal of the day. The sun’s too hot, the knee too painful, the sleep too brief, and the journey home too long. The week has caught up with me. Returning home, unable to deal with the heat, I move inside into the cool and sleep until sunset—at which time I declare the week’s asceticism over with no bang, just a sleepy whimper.

But there’s something worth keeping from McChrystal’s routine. Such was the change in my mental agility that it’s perhaps time to alter the routine shoveling of an unnecessarily large amount of calories into my mouth in the middle of the day. Let’s hope McChrystal’s years of asceticism do some good—it would be nice to read history books down the road that immortalize a man who gave up so much in the service of his country, including cheeseburgers. In the name of slugs everywhere, I hope he succeeds.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith