Generals Against Obesity?

full-metal-jacket-gunny-hartmanSome retired military officers have formed something called Mission: Readiness to highlight the impact of our unfit youth on national security.

A group of retired military officers says high-calorie school lunches are threatening national security.

A study by the group Mission: Readiness finds that school lunches are making American kids so fat that fewer of them can meet the military’s physical fitness standards. That, in turn, is putting recruitment in jeopardy.

A report from the group, being released Tuesday, says that 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are too overweight to join the military.

One of the officers, retired Navy Rear Admiral James Barnett Jr., says many young Americans are simply too fat to fight.

The officers are pushing for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation’s school lunches healthier.

I’m dubious of the study, since the Army put out the identical statistics three years ago. (See: Most Youth Ineligible for Army.) But, whatever, it’s doubtless true that our kids are out of shape and that this has some tangential impact on the military.

But Bernard Finel argues that the “fetishization of military service” exemplified here is problematic.

We consider our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines not just patriotic citizens, but paragons of virtue.They are portrayed as selfless, brave, brilliant, kind.They are, in short, in popular imagination our best and our brightest.

The status of the military has become so elevated that advocates of all stripes now use military “validators” to promote their positions on virtually every public policy issue. Retired general officers are actively recruited to lend their prestige to campaigns to spread awareness of global warming, the need for better public diplomacy, initiatives to improve schools, efforts to combat prostitution, and so on. In the often cynical world of issue advocacy, one of the first steps in any campaign is now to get some brass on board.

[…]

But look, this isn’t healthy — no pun intended.  Do we really want/need retired military officers stepping in to lobby on school lunches?  I mean, if we’re only going to trust the military, then let’s just scrap democracy and go right to military rule.  Or if we’re not, let’s stop pretending that we need a group of retired flag officers to give credibility to each and every policy issue.

Oh, and by the way, ever seen what they feed kids at boot camp?  Talk about high calorie.  Ooof.

Bernard and I are in broad agreement that our society defers too much to the military.   You see it in  policymakers up to the president hiding behind flag officers to support their policy preferences, the Chickenhawk debate, and all manner of other instances.   I’ve written about the topic many times over the years (see, for example, “Rumsfeld Blames Generals for Troop Strength,” “Petraeus Fetishism,” “Congress and Military Service“).

It’s a natural phenomenon, really.  We’ve had an all-volunteer force since 1973, meaning most adult men in this country have managed to avoid not only going to war but military service of any sort.   Because of that, there’s not only a sense of guilt and sheepish unwillingness to challenge the views of those who have “earned the right” to talk about the issues but also an overinflated sense of the heroism of ordinary service.

That said, however, I’m not sure why retired officers shouldn’t be allowed to speak out on the issues like anyone else.   To the extent that they’re viewed as credible role models on an issue, they’re excellent spokesmen.   And, heck, if kids are willing to listen to Michelle Obama on the problems of obesity, why wouldn’t they listen to a very fit war hero twenty years her senior?

I’m more conflicted on retired generals speaking out on war policy, since they are often portrayed as speaking for those on active duty who can’t.  But, as I noted extensively when this was a hot issue a few years back (see: “Serving Military Officers and the Rumsfeld Debate,” “Retired Generals Call for Rumsfeld Resignation,” “Revolt of the Generals?,” and “Prosecuting Retired Generals,”) there’s not much that one can do about it.

UPDATE: Via Tyler Cowen, it seems that maybe the generals should draft Elmo and his Sesame Street brethren to help.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    We’ve had an all-volunteer force since 1973, meaning most adult men in this country have managed to avoid not only going to war but military service of any sort. Because of that, there’s not only a sense of guilt and sheepish unwillingness to challenge the views of those who have “earned the right” to talk about the issues but also an overinflated sense of the heroism of ordinary service.

    Bring back the draft, no deferments.

  2. That said, however, I’m not sure why retired officers shouldn’t be allowed to speak out on the issues like anyone else.

    No, of course, they can… and should as citizens on any issue that is of concern to them.

    My criticism is not of them, but rather I was making a broader cultural critique.

    And yes, I agree largely with your diagnosis about the latent guilt that drives a lot of this deference.

  3. JKB says:

    The 27% to over weight to join the military is a consequence of the smaller and ironically leaner volunteer military. Something tells me that if needed as cannon fodder that 27% would not be getting designated 4-F. Plus, if memory serves, basic training was very slimming.

  4. TangoMan says:

    Oh, and by the way, ever seen what they feed kids at boot camp? Talk about high calorie. Ooof.

    A quip that doesn’t deliver the intended point is pretty pointless, no?

    Calorie intake balanced against calories burned are not the same between high school activities and boot camp.

  5. sam says:

    Oh, and by the way, ever seen what they feed kids at boot camp? Talk about high calorie. Ooof.

    Dude, dude…I absolutely guarantee you that if I consumed 3500 calories a day when I was in boot camp in the Marines, there was always room for more.

  6. Triumph says:

    A group of retired military officers says high-calorie school lunches are threatening national security.

    The thing that I find funny about this is that there is very little distinguishing school lunches from the crap that passes for food that you are served in an army mess hall.

    I have visted scores of state-side military bases over the past decade and have had numerous occasions to eat in the mess halls. The standard fare is soggy mac ‘n cheese, vegetables boiled to oblivion soaking out all nutrional value, and fried chicken.

    The food is not only nutritionally-problematic, but it is universally poorly prepared and of poor quality (fresh ingredients are AWOL from the military meal in place of frozen & canned atrocities).

    For all of the money the DoD gets, you would think the soldiers would have better food–although they have largely contracted these things out to well-connected corporations like Haliburton who have little incentive to produce decent meals.

  7. James Joyner says:

    I have visted scores of state-side military bases over the past decade and have had numerous occasions to eat in the mess halls. The standard fare is soggy mac ‘n cheese, vegetables boiled to oblivion soaking out all nutrional value, and fried chicken.

    If so, that’s truly bizarre. The Army was making a very concerted effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to provide healthy choices: Salads, fresh fruit, lean meats, etc. Yes, snack bar fare and “comfort foods” were available, too, but there was plenty of opportunity to get health fare.

  8. sam says:

    If so, that’s truly bizarre.

    My last experience in a military chow hall was almost 50 years ago, and things may have changed, but I doubt it. I know that most of the guys I was with had never eaten so well in their entire lives. The food was really good. I mean, it was good. One of the things military commanders know is that good morale and good food go together. I can’t believe they’ve would forgotten that in the intervening years.

  9. Triumph says:

    If so, that’s truly bizarre. The Army was making a very concerted effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s to provide healthy choices: Salads, fresh fruit, lean meats, etc.

    The last time I was on a base was in ’07 at Ft. Knox. They did have salad bar & fruit–however, the quality was atrocious. It was like a bad Morrisons Cafeteria. On the “hot” line was the mac ‘n cheese which was the colored in the most day-glo orange hue I’ve ever seen.

    I admit that I’m an Obama-style, arugula-loving epicure so my standards are high, but I felt bad for the troops having to eat that crap.

    The other thing that was unnerving was that I was part of a delegation that was meeting a base commander. We walked in to the mess hall and all of the poor privates–who were apparenly in basic training–had to stand at attention while we got to jump the queue in front of them!

    These kids were obviously hungry as hell and had probably spent the morning doing push ups, while we were sitting in conference rooms dealing with our business; but we got to eat first!

  10. superdestroyer says:

    I would suspect that the obesity rate has much more do with changing demographics and the change in sports for teenagers.

    Look at your average suburban high school of 2000-4000 students. The P.E. classes are a joke because they try to do too much. The sports teams are dominated by kids who have been taking lessons and play on travel teams. Gone are the days that an average kid can play on their high school teams. Thus, most high school kids get zero exercise.

    The military, especially the Marines, needs recruits who were high school athletes and are good shape before the beginning of boot camp/basic training. The school are producing fewer of those these days.

  11. roger says:

    I have this cynical thought that by the time the kids get to the age of being able to serve, the military might be using all sorts of drones and robots that we’ll need the videogaming prowess of those kids.

    Still, this is an interesting way to get people to realize there’s a real issue with school lunches and vending machines at the schools.

  12. Couldn’t find a picture of a commissioned officer?

  13. James Joyner says:

    Couldn’t find a picture of a commissioned officer?

    Nothing that iconic. I was going to go with one of Petraeus but he’s not retired. Was briefly going to go with one of Norman Schwarzkopf but that would have been mean under the circumstances.

  14. zenpundit says:

    I find the premise dubious that the public schools are responsible for making children obese. C’mon, let’s think about where the refrigerators and cabinets of snacks are located. Or who buys all the Happy Meals and from whom students get their lifelong diet patterns.It’s not Mrs.Mahoney’s third grade Halloween party that made Johnny too fat for his Army physical