Read more of Daniel Engber's columns on obesity and health care reform.
"My name's Dewey Oxberger; my friends call me 'Ox'. You might've noticed I've got a slight weight problem," said John Candy to his fellow Army recruits in the 1981 film Stripes. "So I figured while I'm here, I'll lose a few pounds. I'm gonna walk out of here a lean, mean fightin' machine!"
In real life, the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Ox wouldn't have made it through the barracks door. The movie's release coincided with a new weight-control program in the U.S. military. Recruits were already screened for height and weight; now they'd be checked for body fat percentage, too. It's been 30 years since Stripes came out, and the rate of obesity among adults has doubled. A report out this week estimates that 27 percent of all Americans of recruitment age—that's 9 million young adults—are too fat to fight for their country. At a press conference Tuesday, Sen. Richard Lugar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and a group of retired generals and admirals warned that our poor diets and lack of exercise have now become a danger to homeland security.
This week's press bonanza was engineered by Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit that's lobbying for school lunch reform as a means of improving the armed forces. The "Military Leaders for Kids," as they describe themselves, would like to see $10 billion added to the lunch program over the next decade, and schoolwide bans on junk food and soda. The Department of Defense once pushed for free meals in the cafeteria so our children wouldn't be too scrawny to fend off the red menace. Now the generals want to swap out nachos and doughnuts for fresh fruits and vegetables, so our kids won't be too plump to fight al-Qaida.
I'm all for nutritious, low-calorie school lunches. But it's hogwash to say that childhood obesity is a threat to national security. In fact, it's hogwashing [Hog·wash·ing, n. (hog + whitewashing.) 1.The dissemination of misleading information to promote policies related to obesity. 2. The information so disseminated.] There are some very good reasons to worry about the eating habits of America's youth, but military recruitment isn't one of them.
Even the Military Leaders for Kids acknowledge that these are boom times for Army recruiters. In October, the Department of Defense announced that the force had met or exceeded its enlistment goals for a fourth consecutive year. According to the Army Times, there was record-level recruitment for every branch of the military in 2009, both in terms of number and quality of enlistees.
OK, the generals and admirals say, we don't have a problem right this second—but we might in the near future. From 1995 to 2008, the proportion of potential recruits who were screened out for excess body fat rose by two-thirds. The report further claims that childhood obesity rates have accelerated faster than adult obesity rates and that today's children may be the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents. "These longer-term eligibility problems are not going away," says the report.
Except the latest evidence suggests that obesity rates have reached a plateau among both adults and children and that the size of newborn babies—which correlates with size later in life—has been declining. It's also misleading to say the childhood rates are rising faster (or "accelerating faster") than those among adults, since the two statistics are measured on different scales. And don't get me started on the bogus notion that our average lifespan is about to go down for the first time in recent history. (Here's a primer on the confusing rhetoric around childhood obesity.)
So how many Dewey Oxbergers are there in America? The same panel of military leaders released another report back in November, citing claims that 75 percent of the 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States were ineligible for service for one reason or another. The Pentagon's director of accessions, Curtis Gilroy, presented the same numbers to the House Armed Services Committee last March. He said that 35 percent of potential recruits are disqualified for medical reasons, with obesity being a major factor. Another 18 percent have drug or alcohol problems, 5 percent have criminal records, 6 percent have too many children; and 9 percent score in the prohibitive category V on the Armed Forces Aptitude Test.
It's true that if you add those numbers, you'll get something close to 75 percent. But that assumes no two of the above-listed groups are overlapping. In other words, the 18 percent of young people with drug or alcohol problems are entirely distinct from the 5 percent with criminal records. And the 35 percent with medical disqualifications are in all other respects ideal military candidates. (I could find no evidence that these data were corrected appropriately.)
In the new report, the retired generals focus on just one sector of the pie chart—the 9 million young adults who are too heavy for military service. This number comes from the Census Bureau, and once again seems to discount the possibility that some fat people might be too stupid, morally corrupt, drug-addled or burdened by family to enlist in the armed forces anyway. As such, it's a distortion of the facts to imply that every one of them might be in uniform, were it not for their excess weight.
What's really worth focusing on is the number of youngsters who seem eager to serve but fail their physicals specifically because they're too fat. According to the numbers cited in the report, an average of 10,000 men and women fall into this category every year. If recruiters had given every one of those would-be soldiers a magical weight-loss pill in 2009, their enlistment class would have increased in size by just 3 percent. That's not insignificant, but it doesn't compare to this week's headline-grabbers, 27 percent and 9 million.
The other issue here is whether excess weight is really so debilitating for military personnel. It's easy to imagine how someone who's morbidly obese might fare in combat. The "Too Fat To Fight" report tells the story of Todd Corbin, a brave corporal who saved the life of his wounded patrol leader by throwing the man's body over his shoulder and sprinting through enemy fire. What if the guy had been 350 pounds?
Yet fat soldiers are sometimes given the boot for reasons that have nothing to do with their abilities in the field. According to military guidelines, even someone who's fit as a fiddle can be drummed out of camp for having the wrong body dimensions. Consider that a young man who's 6 feet tall must weigh less than 195 pounds, or have a body fat percentage below 26, in order to serve in the Army. (The other branches offer a bit more leeway: In the Coast Guard, for instance, he can weigh up to 233 pounds.) That's true even if he excels on the U.S. Army's Physical Fitness Test. The regulations are very clear on this point: Athletic prowess does not make up for cottage-cheese thighs. In fact, it's listed as one of the "typical excuses" that fatso soldiers should avoid: "I can pass the APFT, so why lose weight?" When it comes to body fat, the regs declare that too much flab connotes, first of all, "a lack of personal discipline." Another document suggests that it "detracts from soldierly appearance." So excess weight isn't just a health problem—it's a personality flaw. Oh, and it makes you ugly.
I don't want to suggest that the military discriminates against the thick-bodied alone. The high standards of appearance apply to skinny people, too. And short people. And tall people. (Forget Prussia's army of giants: If you're a man who's over 6-foot6 or a woman over 6-foot, you can't join the Marine Corps.) Those with severe, untreatable acne may also be excluded from military service, along with anyone with an insufficient number of teeth, extra fingers, or severe ingrown toenails. Some of these requirements seem to have more to do with keeping neat and trim than fighting off baddies in the desert. It doesn't matter if you can do as many pushups as the next guy. Without the "self-discipline to maintain proper weight distribution and high standards of appearance," you're not welcome.
Let's get this straight. The Army wants to enlist as many able-bodied soldiers as possible, yet it treats anyone who's fat as if they have some fundamental defect. According to the report, hundreds of first-term enlistees are discharged every year for being unable to control their weight. (The retired generals blame this rate of attrition for $60 million in additional training costs.) But discipline isn't the problem. For these oversized soldiers, not even the hyper-controlled environment of an Army barracks—and the motivational tactics of the nation's drill sergeants—can provide for lasting weight loss. The "Military Leaders for Kids" get the picture: Diet and exercise don't work over the long term. That's why they're pushing a structural fix for obesity, school lunch reform. If it's not about self-control, then what's the problem here? Are we really too fat to fight?