The military is awash in tradition. Challenge coins, the Court of Neptune, Mustache March. When bullets fly, folklore becomes psychic armor, offering magical protection as long as certain rules are followed.
One of the most bizarre and stubborn superstitions emerged some time in the 1990s, perhaps as early as Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It was called “the Curse of Charms”—the belief that if your MRE contained a package of Charms—hard, square-shaped fruit-flavored candy wrapped in colorful rolls of ten—you must throw it away, far away, or else bad things would happen.
The Charms Candy Company, now owned by Tootsie Roll Industries, was born in New Jersey before World War I. During World War II, Charms won a contract to include its candy packages in K-rations as “high energy food supplements.” In the 1970s, the company would win renowned for its innovative “Blow Pop”—a kernel of bubble gum encased in a hard candy lollipop. Throughout, Charms candy continued as a staple of military rations.
Then, after the switch from C-rations to MREs, something happened to Charms. The innocuous little blocks of corn syrup and artificial flavoring took a dark turn. Marines began associating them with all sorts of bad luck. Over time, an elaborate pseudo-science developed around the superstition.
Eight days after the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003, Marines speculated that the rash of problems they encountered en route to Baghdad was a result of men eating Charms.
“They’re bad luck and maybe too many people have been eating them, given what’s happened this week,” said one corporal.
The Marines explained it this way: eating the lemon flavored candy caused their vehicles to break down. Lime triggered the torrential desert rain storms. Raspberry—well, that was the worst. It portended death.
“I always throw mine away,” said Sgt Kenneth Wilson. “Every time I eat the wrong color something bad happens.”
One could trace the US invasion route by following the trail of discarded Charms littering the desert.
The superstition soon infected the Army. It got to the point where even carrying an unopened pack of the stuff was considered unlucky. Drill Instructors ordered recruits in training to discard them in the field.
Charms became so untenable that the DoD Combat Feeding Directorate (which develops the menus of military rations) removed them from MREs in 2007.
There was a precedent for the Case of the Unlucky Charms. In World War II, some Marines stationed in the Pacific swore that airplanes delivering rations that contained apricots routinely crashed. Subsequent generations of Marines swore off apricots in any form—fresh, canned, dried, even juiced. Members of the 1st Amphibious Tractor Battalion at Cua Viet in 1968 blamed a spate of deadly attacks on C-ration apricots.
“There is no doubt about it,” said one Marine at the time, “apricots do cause enemy rocket and artillery attacks.” Once a can is opened, the word goes out to “standby for incoming.”
In 1995, foreshadowing the Charms debacle, the DoD dropped apricots from MREs.
So, what’s behind the ubiquity of superstition in the military? Psychologists tell us that our desire to control an unpredictable world and resolve uncertainties drives our imaginations to link co-occurring, non-related events. Someone eats purple candy, then gets shot. Our brains’ primitive occipital lobes—the rearmost parts of our cerebral cortex—immediately connect these two events, and a superstition is born.
The more stress and anxiety we experience, the more we turn to superstition. Historians have tracked a rise in superstitious behaviors during times of war, economic distress, and civil conflict.
What probably doomed Charms more than anything else was its bland effect on the 21st century palate. In a world of fizzy Pop Rocks, giant Gummies, super-sour Warheads, and Atomic Fireballs, Charms seemed a weak throwback to subtler confections. Throwing them out was no big sacrifice.
Now, if M&Ms should ever break bad, then we’re really in trouble.