Commentary: Marines carry on age-old pastime of field bartering

28 May 2013 | Cpl. Michael S. Lockett

What is the field? “It’s getting out into the dirt, sleeping on the ground, conducting training readying us for a combat environment,” said Cpl. Ryan Burnett, field radio operator with Company K, Battalion Landing Team 3/2, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “About a week to two weeks is normal. Depends on what we’re doing.”

A typical field operation places the Marines of the company, battalion, or entire MEU in the woods, dirt, sand, or whatever other type of environment is appropriate for an extended period of time, devoid of civilization and the comforts that come with it.

Comforts like stores. Like hard currency.

“There’s nowhere to use money. Civilization doesn’t go to the field with you,” said Burnett. “You bring what you need and you live off that.” Marines are out training, with no way to get anything else. You have exactly what you brought.

And, it turns out, what you can trade for is absolutely anything.

“Anything and everything is negotiable out in the field, regardless of rank,” said Pfc. James Marsh, police sergeant from Lawrenceburg, Ky., with Co. K. 

“Cigarettes, dip, candy … soft drinks, care package goodies -- anything that anyone else wants,” said Burnett. When energy drinks are available at all, they usually go quickly, commanding a high price. The best parts of meals-ready-to-eat, largely depending on the persons in question, are also frequently traded.

“It’s about comfort-based amenities. Even something as small as space on a wooden table. In order to get supplies, you make deals,” said Marsh.

A field environment is regression to an earlier form of economy -- back to this for that. Out here, it’s the Dutch trading the Mannahatta Indians the island that would turn into New York City for $24 worth of beads and wampum. The culture of trading alone out here, other aspects of field life notwithstanding, are enough to excite an anthropologist.

There’s two schools of thought regarding the rates of exchange for the goods and services rendered. One school argues that it’s a straight barter: hard goods for hard goods. “It’s a commodity based economy,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua Wartchow, weapons platoon sergeant from Doylestown, Penn., with Co. K. The other works with IOUs, with the promises of an equal or favorable rate of trade upon return to civilization.

I followed one series of exchanges to satisfy my own curiosity. A half can of dip was traded into a Mountain Dew. A further half can of dip was exchanged for another two cans of Mountain Dew. Those three Mountain Dews and an owed favor were bartered for a pack of cigarettes, which was parceled out in short order for candy, homemade beef jerky, and drink mixes.

The bartering system isn’t limited to Marines, either. “There’s definitely cross trading with other countries,” said Wartchow. “You can trade American stuff for head wraps or food.”  Marines frequently trade for unit patches, knives, flags, t-shirts, and anything with memorabilia value -- souvenirs from deployments to the far corners of the world, having experiences that not even many Marines enjoy. “In 2004, we worked with the Philippine Marines, and we traded our skivvy shirts for their t-shirts,” said Wartchow. “It helps build rapport if you trade something. It helps bridge the gaps.”