The Army’s War on Fat

April 21st, 2010 at 2:27 am | 22 Comments |

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If you need a reason to care about the politics of obesity, look no further than national security. Seriously.

Yesterday, Mission: Readiness, a non-profit organization of retired military leaders, released Too Fat to Fight, a report on the national security risks posed by America’s epidemic of fat. The report’s message isn’t exactly top secret. Senior recruiting officers concluded a year ago that 48,000 recruits had been rejected for military service solely because of obesity since 2005.

So it’s no surprise that the military establishment is supporting anti-obesity campaigns through organizations like Mission: Readiness. The military’s concerns about rising obesity rates are shared by a growing number of senior Republicans, including former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Senator Dick Lugar, and Oklahoma City Mayor Mike Cornett.

The problem is not abstract. Take that 48,000 figure. We can’t assume that all of those recruits would have ended up in combat roles. But suppose they had, and all of them had been available for combat duty in Afghanistan or Iraq. If so, their enlistment would have been worth a dozen heavy brigades of additional capability, when capacity was urgently needed. But because those rejected recruits couldn’t even maintain an acceptable diet before enlisting, they never saw wars they were volunteering to fight.

It’s not just the rejected recruits who are in trouble. These days, soldiers can find fast food and subsidized fructose just as easily as civilians can. Even as the Army rejects the obese, those already in uniform are bulking up as well. According to a 2009 Pentagon report, obesity suddenly spiked in the Army after 2003. Now, at least 1 in 20 servicemen and women on active duty are “clinically overweight.”

The problem extends right up the supply chain to the front line. As of the end of April, U.S. bases in Afghanistan must shut down their Popeye’s, Burger King, and Pizza Hut franchises by order of General McChrystal. In previous wars, the U.S. Army was already the best fed army on the planet. But that wasn’t enough; G.I.s now deploy with the same fatty, sodium-rich foods that their cousins eat back home. (To be fair, American troops aren’t the only indulgers: Canadian troops fighting in Southwest Afghanistan have their own Tim Horton’s, offering donuts and coffee served ‘double-double.’)

McChrystal’s staff justified the policy as a matter of logistics, insisting shipments of fries and milkshakes were filling shipping and storage space needed for reinforcements, ammunition and combat supplies.

In the only editorial I could find condemning the move, The Washington Times blamed the change on McChrystal’s spartan lifestyle, arguing that the General expected soldiers to live as modestly as he did. The paper felt it was “destroying morale” to deny G.I.s the thousand-calorie comforts of home, insisting there is “no clear evidence that fast food interferes with mission effectiveness.”

That’s not actually true. Consider this: the Army is having trouble keeping Americans fit, even in a job where officers can simply order you to exercise if you show up lacking the necessary motivation. Yet in Iraq, as unhealthy food options multiply and operational tempos slow down, obesity is winning its own little war. That same 2009 Pentagon report called the Army’s eating binge “a significant military medical concern because it is associated with decreased military operational effectiveness”– a direct contradiction of the Washington Times’ argument. Soldiers who overeat on Iraq duty supposedly have a nickname for the consequences: the “Baghdad Bulge.”

America is not the only country fretting about the fighting fitness of future generations. And America’s largest military rival is raising similar concerns as unhealthy diets and poor fitness become a global phenomenon. In China this past March, the President of the Beijing Sports University lashed out publicly at his own nation’s bureaucrats, complaining that the next generation of young Chinese wouldn’t be physically capable of fighting a future ground war (Japan was his hypothetical enemy of choice).

If the United States hopes to defend itself and its interests in places with bad roads, thick jungles, hot deserts or high mountains, the health of the average volunteer soldier is going to have to improve, and fast.  The culture of gluttony is fuelling an explosion in health costs for America’s civilian population. So it’s no surprise to see the side effects appear amongst those Americans brave enough to serve in uniform.

Recent Posts by David Gratzer



22 Comments so far ↓

  • Ryan

    David:

    The Oklahoma Mayor Mike Cornett is actually Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett (Mick, like short for Mickey…and Oklahoma City is proper, we are not like New York…the first name doesn’t imply the city, so you have to specify). Thanks.

    -An Oklahoma City resident

  • steevlak

    What about when John Candy enlisted in Stripes? He wasn’t too fat.

  • nhthinker

    Two brothers and a nephew are veteran Marines. Marines don’t seem to have these “softness” problems that the Army does.
    I’d also be curious if the Army will release the breakdown of the problem by gender and race/ethnicity.

    I’d also be very interested in the red precinct- blue precinct breakdown of this problem of young Americans being unqualified to serve for one of the key reasons: 1) not graduating HS, 2) obesity 3) criminal record

    The lack of breakdown of statistics by the Army is very suspicious.

  • getzburg

    Two brothers and a nephew are veteran Marines. Marines don’t seem to have these “softness” problems that the Army does.
    I’d also be curious if the Army will release the breakdown of the problem by gender and race/ethnicity.
    Hey guys, uh, I think nhthinker might be a racist ex-marine. Maybe. Just sayin’.

  • dendup

    Just so you now what level of fitness the Army requires:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Army_Physical_Fitness_Test

  • nhthinker

    I just tried the USMC fitness calculator.
    I consider myself out of shape but I easily scored First class.
    I’d probably have to train for a month or two to to get to Army Ranger qualification.

    http://usmc.pftcalculator.com/PftIndex#

    Do you think Gratzer will tell us his score?

    BTW, Getzburg’s musings are wrong on so many levels- I wonder if Getzburg is an Army retiree or was just kidding.

    Also of note, the surgeon general would have probably qualified as obese when she took her job- she has slimmed down a lot and should probably be represented as a success story in the fight against Americans being out of shape.
    http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=8129947&page=1

  • Gramps

    nhthinker // Apr 21, 2010 at 9:18 am wrote: ~~ “I consider myself out of shape but I easily scored First class”

    Way to go jarhead…or brother of a jarhead and I use those terms; in a good, kind and benevolent manner…

    Question still remains…can you pass the mental quotient and capacity bench marks?
    These “yard birds” can…!
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8631486.stm

  • balconesfault

    I think blaming the food chain is only addressing a fraction of the problem.

    Blame a society which has laid out infrastructure for the last 60 years with the assumption that the ideal condition of man is being able to walk out the door, climb into a car, drive anywhere, and park as close as possible to the front door of wherever you’re going.

    Since cars are regarded as the best use, the transportation grid is laid out to maximize the speed that cars can get from point A to B … so bicycle and pedestrian use of roadways becomes more and more dangerous – and parents respond by driving their kids, well, everywhere.

    Compound that with kids being put in daycare centers because of two working parent families, and growing up with the idea that physical activity is something you do during specific designated times during the day … as opposed to something you do at any time mom gets tired of you hanging around and kicks you out of the house. I’ve done a lot of volunteer distance running coaching at the HS level in the last 15 years, and I’ve found that while the kids have been conditioned by years and years of youth baseball and soccer and basketball etc to work out hard when I’m there … they’ve almost wholly lost the ability to just get together and workout when not supervised, since organized youth sports start so incredibly young these days that nobody seems to understand the concept of doing anything active when parents aren’t around to direct them.

    And it should go without saying that real tennis, baseball, etc are much better conditioning than Wii tennis, baseball, etc … that running around the back yard with toy guns is much better exercise than playing some first person shooter game on the computer.

    /curmudgeon mode

  • nhthinker

    balconesfault

    “/curmudgeon mode”

    Sounds like you are longing for the good old conservative days when kids were allowed to play an unsupervised game of tag without bleeding hearts being overly concerned that the out-of-shape kids would feel a bit of social pressure to get in better shape.

    But that can’t be right, can it?

  • Carney

    nhthinker, you took the words out of my mouth. Adopting a warrior ethos is far more important than getting rid of hamburgers, but for the PC paper-shufflers who get to the top ranks and appointed to civilian jobs (others being culled by Senate Armed Services Committee staffers), it’s much easier to go after Burger King.

  • nhthinker

    Gramps,

    “Question still remains…can you pass the mental quotient and capacity bench marks?”

    Well, brains atrophy quickly and it has been at over 2 months since the Bell Laboratories lawyers filed my last patent application for solving a problem.

    I have been known to get in the car without my keys, so these crows are at least one up on me.

    At 8 , I could hardly read anything and couldn’t write a lick – I could beat anyone I knew at chess though, including teenagers and adults.

    I still can’t write a lick but I get by.

  • sinz54

    balconesfault: Blame a society which has laid out infrastructure for the last 60 years with the assumption that the ideal condition of man is being able to walk out the door, climb into a car, drive anywhere, and park as close as possible to the front door of wherever you’re going.
    I know.

    Here in MA where I live,
    I see the school buses delivering school kids to their homes literally door to door. The school bus stops in front of one house and a kid gets out. Then the school bus drives just 50 feet to the next house and a kid gets out. If the kid lives on a cul-de-sac, the bus will go into the cul-de-sac to deliver him to his house. Etc. What’s the matter, a kid can’t walk ONE BLOCK to his house?

    I got more natural exercise as a kid growing up in New York City than I got later in the suburbs. I had to take the subway to school. The nearest subway stop to my home was 5 blocks away. When I got off the subway, the high school was about 6 long blocks away from the station. And some NYC subway stations are big; you can get tired just panting through the 34th street or Times Square stations, with all their ramps and stairways, to change trains. You heard the train approaching, you ran through that station to get to the train.

    New studies show that’s really 80% of the benefit of exercise. You don’t need to do vigorous aerobic exercise to stay healthy. Just get off your behind and move around: Mow the lawn. Do simple repairs on your car. Take a long walk. Etc.

  • balconesfault

    Sounds like you are longing for the good old conservative days when kids were allowed to play an unsupervised game of tag without bleeding hearts being overly concerned that the out-of-shape kids would feel a bit of social pressure to get in better shape.

    Well, the reality is that if I hang out in the more liberal parts of town – yuppified Central Austin, and latino East Austin – I’m a lot more likely to see kids riding their bikes around, playing basketball on the local court, kicking a soccer ball in the street. If I hang out in the more conservative parts of suburban Austin (where I admit I live) I see largely vacant wide streets (fronted by some very nice yards!) and parents who drive their kids 1/4 mile to the neighborhood swimming pool.

    It’s not a conservative/liberal/bleeding heart thing. It’s about urban design that makes neighborhoods friendly to kids. Hell – newer neighborhoods don’t even have alleyways anymore, with privacy fences backing up to one another – the 1950′s planned neighborhood had alleys that were generally free of traffic, and as a result ended up being great byways/playgrounds for kids. The move towards larger public parks/sports complexes and away from the local neighborhood ballfield/basketball hoops (seems that schools are also larger and therefore spaced farther apart) makes playgrounds less accessable by foot. Streets are designed to be massive arterials feeding cul de sacs … and parents are (rightfully) worried about junior even riding his bike on the sidewalk to the park that’s a mile away when the traffic on the street just a few feet away is flying by at 45 mph (posted) and 55 mph (reality).

    So looping back I’m not even claiming any greater virtue for the yuppies and hispanics whose kids I see outside playing. It’s just that the older neighborhoods that they live in are conducive to kids doing stuff safely, from getting to a playground to going to the store or library to getting to school. The newer ones were laid out with a different mindset.

  • nhthinker

    balconesfault,

    I see it differently. It mostly comes down to those with a financial choice pick moving to neighborhoods with larger yards. They can afford to choose to sign their kids up for organized sports and other organized extra curricular activities and have support systems to be able to cart kids to the places they need to get to. Mothers are deathly afraid of their kids being abducted and never want to be unaware of where their kids are. Totally different than 40 years ago mainly because the media reports the abductions where as 40 years ago most were kept relatively quiet. Because a large percentage of kids are signed up for organized sports- the density of kids available for a sandlot game is reduced considerably. The boys&girls club or the public basketball courts are places where you still see pick up games for 10-15 year olds.

    At 14years old, I was allowed to ride my bike 3 miles to school and be gone for many hours at a time without anyone worrying where I was. I always came home so there was nothing to worry about, right?

    So sandlot games really require bunches of kids just hanging out in the neighborhood until they reach a critical mass. It’s typically mothers’ concern that keeps kids from hanging out. Mothers are not kicking the kids out of the house like they used to.

  • Rabiner

    I’d say that urban planning and legislation has made it more difficult to be an active adult than it was to be an active teen for me.

    I live in a city which doesn’t allow adults to play pick up soccer but if you were a teenager you could (its a provision to keep Hispanics out of the community when they didn’t make up 40% of the population like they do now). City parks also haven’t adapted to the times in terms of popularity of activities versus the ability to play those sports. The park I live next to has 2 softball fields and 1 basketball court. It would make more sense to convert one of the softball fields to a soccer field and have 2 basketball courts that are actually 10′ tall instead of the typical 9.5′. Lighting is poor on this one basketball court and has a tree that overhangs on one of the rims so it typically deflects shots from the left side. When more than 15 people show up on an evening to play people just leave instead of waiting for the next game since they’d have to wait such a long time to play.

    There are some good things about the neighborhood I live in for children. The park is centralized in the neighborhood and and is at least 3 blocks from any major street to minimize traffic. 10 years ago they redid the sand area so everything is much safer for young children. Rather than concrete there is a soft ground along with sand which is regularly tilled so it remains lose. Any slide that was higher than 15′ was removed and replaced with other things like jungle gyms. Now it is utilized my mothers in our community and nearby neighborhoods. However they have done nothing for children older than 5 years old to maximize the usage of the park or any park in my city.

    What I find however is that the biggest problem contributing with obesity is diet. Diet in this country is influenced by a lack of education regarding food choices, access to healthy foods, costs of healthy foods versus unhealthy, and government policy that distorts food prices. Public Schools are not required to teach students about food, eating or the affects that eating different foods will have on your emotional state or physical state. Ignorance about how unhealthy a cheeseburger and fries is one of the reasons people continuously consume them. Healthy food costs more today than unhealthy food to reach the recommended caloric daily intake. Its more expensive to buy a banana than a candy bar. Its more expensive to buy water than soda in some places. A small bag of frozen fruit is more expensive than a 4 pack of drumstick ice cream when both are 4 servings. Our public policy has created incentives through subsidizing food production, particularly on corn. Corn is now used as a sugar substitute in just about every processed food and since it is so heavily subsidized it is cheaper to make than just about anything.

    Due to the expensive nature of eating healthy it is no wonder than the poor are more likely to be obese in this nation. In addition the poor have less access to healthy alternatives due to markets and supermarkets being unwilling to move a store to a poorer neighborhood. Food Deserts are a real problem in these communities and the void is filled with cheap and unhealthy fast food restaurants. ( http://www.wallacecenter.org/our-values/level-1-folder-1/experts-react-to-usda-food-desert-study/ )

  • sinz54

    Rabiner: Corn is now used as a sugar substitute in just about every processed food and since it is so heavily subsidized it is cheaper to make than just about anything.
    One issue on which free-market conservatives agree with pro-health liberals is that the agribusiness subsidies should go.

  • Rabiner

    can’t we be free-market liberals? As someone whose studied economic systems, particularly Russia and China’s different transformations to Capitalist economies, I’d say I’m very much for eliminating subsidies which have negative impacts. The tax code currently is the single most distortive policy we have in this nation. I am not referring to the Progressive tax code specifically but rather to the thousands of tax breaks which create incentives to change behavior.

  • LFC

    Interesting to see similar recollection to mine about how kids were free to play away from home for hours at a time. In the summer, I’d often disappear in the morning, reappear for lunch, disappear again all afternoon, show back up for dinner, and go back out to play when it was dark. We’d head off into the woods to go fishing, or ride our bikes miles from home. Now I hear parents speak with fear about the concept of allowing their children any unsupervised time at all.

    Also interesting to see the discussion about planning and layout. When I lived in a condo, the place was mobbed at Halloween. I just assumed that because our doors were closer and kids from outside the neighborhood wanted to go there for a bigger sack of booty, but one of the attending mothers from a nearby neighborhood of houses told me it was because we had sidewalks, streetlights, and speed bumps. She was afraid to allow her child to run around on their own street. She said that the street was marked 25 mpg, but the cars regularly drove at 45 mph. They also had no streetlights.

    It’s a lot cheaper to create a development with no sidewalks or streetlights, so that’s how things get built. It’s also cheaper to build straight roads, rather than curving them to force lower speeds. That’s just the economics of many modern developments.

  • Rabiner

    LFC:

    “It’s a lot cheaper to create a development with no sidewalks or streetlights, so that’s how things get built. It’s also cheaper to build straight roads, rather than curving them to force lower speeds. That’s just the economics of many modern developments.”

    You mention this and its very true. It’s also reflective of property taxes which at least if you live in California that can’t support amenities such as street lights or sidewalks that must be maintained.

  • nhthinker

    LFC,

    I had a stop sign in front of my house. During a town meeting broadcast to the entire town, a town selectman bragged that he never stopped at it: the other selectmen laughed. He then cajoled the police chief to get it removed. I collected signatures from 42 out of 44 houses in the neighborhood that wanted to keep the stop sign. I forced the police department to watch the intersection at the time of day the selectman went to work. (He stopped, of course, when the police car was there.) And boy, was he mad at that use of the police.

    He got the stop sign removed and then moved out of town the next year. Local politics are an amazing thing.
    And to inappropriately weave this more to the topic- the selectman in question was obese. ;)

  • LFC

    NH, that’s an interesting story. I imagine that with so few areas having actual central planning, the inappropriate (though not illegal) use of small neighborhood roads for commuting is pretty common. The removal of the stop sign simply made it a better road for commuting which, of course, was not the road’s intended purpose.

    If we had a bit of planning in advance so that it was more advantageous to take streets made to move cars rather than slipping through the back roads, it would result in safer neighborhood streets. The problem I see is that this planning would normally be done at a granularity that falls between somewhere town and county, so I don’t know who would take it on.

    I grew up in a classic Levitt community in New Jersey. The town was separated into “parks”, with roads in between designed to move cars and streets off of those designed for people. We had sidewalks and streetlights everywhere, and every park had its own elementary school so small kids didn’t have to walk too far to go to school. It really was a decent place to grow up.

  • JonF

    Re: Totally different than 40 years ago mainly because the media reports the abductions where as 40 years ago most were kept relatively quiet.

    I am not so sure about that. Back when I was growing up (I am 43) I recall strict lectures to NEVER take candy from strangers– in fact, don’t even talk to them! So there was paranoia even then about creepy people snatching kids. But parents did not allow these fear to dominate them. Nor did they think that being a good parent meant they had to haunt their children’s every free moment. I’ve known families with stay-at-home moms (and one with both parents mainly at home, supported by self-employment) and they simply cannot leave their children alone. There’s no “Run along and play and leave the adults alone.”