One-third of Americans may be obese, but we're not too fat to fight.

The state of the universe.
April 23 2010 5:57 PM

Not Too Fat To Fight

The obesity epidemic has nothing to do with national security.

Read more of Daniel Engber's columns on obesity and health care reform.

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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.

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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?

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