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.
"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.)