Make Lunch, Not War

Are one in four Americans really too fat to fight? The figure appears to be inflated.


Fat soldier
geoffrey dorne / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Obesity is the new flat-footed American burning his draft card while hitchhiking to Canada with flowers in his hair. At least that's what a group of retired U.S. generals would have us believe.

The generals, part of a group called Mission: Readiness, are trumpeting a report that claims one in four Americans of fighting age are too fat to fight in the nation's various wars. And they're using the report to enter the battle currently raging in Washington over the USDA's National School Lunch Program (which I've been highly critical of in several columns, including this one and this one).

Reports this week suggest the group will take its case in favor of expanding the school lunch program to the U.S. Capitol next month.

That's not surprising. The National School Lunch Program has been part of federal law since 1946. The primary justification for the program was that it would serve as "a measure of national security[.]"

It's said that President Truman saw fit to launch the program after learning about malnourished U.S. troops who looked more like Steve Rogers than they did Captain America.

There's no disputing that many young American males—our primary fighting force—are obese.

"The same segment of our population that the military wants to enlist is also remarkable in their ability to eat large quantities of unhealthy food," noted a Civil Eats piece on the report in 2009.

It's certainly an issue that concerns the Pentagon.

And it's enough to spur the retired generals to action. The group has released some version of its report several times in recent years. The latest campaign over the report, timed as it is around the school lunch fight, has garnered a good deal of press.

In particular, it appears the press has eaten up the "Defense Department data cited by the retired military leaders."

The report's relevant data, according to citations in the report, come from the 2009 congressional testimony of Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of accessions policy in the Defense Department's personnel office.

"We have an obesity problem amongst our youth, and we have an education crisis as well," Dr. Gilroy told a congressional committee. "Seventy to 75 percent of young people today have a high school diploma, a bona fide high school diploma. That is a sad state of affairs."

Notably, that's the only mention of obesity in the more than 200 pages of remarks and testimony given by Gilroy and others that day.

"So when we add all of the qualifiers we find that only 25 percent of our young people today age 17 to 24 are qualified for military service," Dr. Gilroy said.

Gilroy also notes that fewer young Americans are interested in serving in the military than they were in years past, and that fewer adults are steering them toward combat.

The Mission: Readiness report notes these and other factors—including criminal records—have made many young Americans unfit to serve. But it's the obesity angle that's garnered the most headlines for the report. Indeed, the numbers are startling.

"About 1 in 4 young American adults is now too overweight to join the military," notes Mission: Readiness.

But the figures used in the report appear to be overstate the problem dramatically. That's according to the Defense Department's own data.

"Today, we recruit from a pool of about 25 percent of young men and women who are even eligible to join the military," said Charles E. Milam, the "acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy at the 2013 American Logistics Association Congressional Caucus and Public Policy Forum," in an American Forces Press Service news story posted at the Defense Department's website last year. "And out of that pool, 27 percent can't even meet basic weight requirements."

Twenty-seven percent of twenty-five percent is approximately seven percent. It's not twenty-five percent. It's nowhere close to that figure.

Of course, that doesn't mean that all those who aren't eligible for military service are not obese. But their data isn't relevant to the report.

Consequently, the Mission: Readiness report should read (charitably) as follows: "About 1 in 4 young American adults who is eligible to join the military is now too overweight to join the military."

If the Pentagon's numbers are correct, then Mission: Readiness has magnified the scope of the problem military recruiters face many times over. Which is not to say recruiters have it easy.

"Military recruiters have an extremely difficult job in any circumstance," says Jason Foscolo, a former Marine officer who is now an attorney with the Food Law Firm. "However, as a former Marine I can say… physical fitness is ultimately a personal responsibility, whether someone is on active duty or preparing for basic training. If achieving and maintaining a standard of fitness is a problem for a person preparing for bootcamp, that person has to face the fact that he or she may lack the self-discipline necessary for a successful military career."

What's more, the push by Mission: Readiness comes at an interesting time, as the Pentagon is currently in the midst of implementing plans to shrink the size of the military to levels not seen since before World War II. Many military officials oppose shrinking the force.

So what does all this mean? First, if the Pentagon's figures are correct, then it appears the most worrisome claims in the Mission: Readiness report rest on flawed data. Second, the military has more than sufficient troop numbers today. That's evident in the fact the Pentagon is shrinking the size of the force.

Finally, expanding a National School Lunch Program that is riddled with fatal flaws is not the answer to problems facing the military (or the country's young men and women, for that matter). Making the case for the program on Capitol Hill isn't the answer. Some battles are worth fighting. This is not one of them.