Too Fat to Fight?
Remember the recent flap over the retired generals fighting to for school lunch reform, arguing that our kids are too fat to fat? Daniel Engber makes a persuasive case that they’re wrong.
In addition to pointing out that the armed forces have easily met their recruiting goals the last few years, he points out that 1) fat people can be fit and that 2) the military throws out perfectly capable soldiers for being overweight, seemingly for aesthetic reasons.
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?
We had a couple of guys in my ROTC class who were both shortish and barrel chested. Both excelled in the training. Neither were commissioned. They just couldn’t meet the height-weight standards.
Even more infuriating was the large number of perfectly good soldiers we threw out while I was on active duty simply on the basis of weight. Particularly affected were mechanics. Their schedules were nightmarish, as vehicles frequently went down and, the Army being the Army, the policy was that the vehicle crew and the mechanics would stay as late as they had to to get the work done. Even — as was usually the case — when we knew that a stopping point would come because a needed part wasn’t in and the job wouldn’t get finished until the next day, anyway. So, the guys would work late into the night, munch on some pizza, and go to bed late. They’d be authorized to skip morning PT since, after all, we didn’t want them doing dangerous work on two hour’s sleep. Eventually, this lifestyle caught up to them.
Beyond that, an increasing number of military jobs involve nothing more physically demanding than sitting behind a computer and moving a mouse. But people in these slots are held to the same fitness and weight standards as infantrymen. It’s pretty inefficient.
Engber’s right: The policy isn’t based on being fit enough to fight. Or, at least, it’s based on more than that. Part of the military esprit de corp is about self-image as warriors. And fatties and slobs don’t fit it.