By Alan W. Dowd
SEPTEMBER 2019— Maj. Gen. Malcom Frost calls it “the next existential threat” facing us. This threat is not a resurgent Russia, an emerging China or a revived al Qaeda. Instead, this threat is of our own making: “the inability to man our military,” in Frost’s words. As former commander of the Army’s Initial Military Training Command, Frost knows what he’s talking about.
A stunning 71 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 years of age—the prime targets for military recruiters—are ineligible for military service. The main reasons: obesity, lack of high school diploma and criminal records.
America’s childhood obesity epidemic represents the biggest share of that 71 percent.
In 1987, 6 percent of Americans aged 18 to 34 were obese. Today, 17 percent of Americans between 18 and 25 are obese. Almost 40 percent of Americans 20 and older are obese. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better: 30.7 percent of children aged 10 to 17 are obese.
What a difference a few decades can make: During World War II, as NPR points out, “40 percent of potential military recruits were undernourished.”
Today’s bulging waistlines significantly shrink the pool of those fit for military service. Many of America’s overweight teens and twenty-somethings suffer from diabetes; some have bone-mass issues. These problems lead to a host of other health problems, as Armed Forces Press Service has reported. One Pentagon official notes that many teens are unable to perform sit-ups and pull-ups; some aren’t even able to jog.
The obesity epidemic also affects military readiness. The number of U.S. troops diagnosed as obese or overweight has more than doubled since 2003, USA Today reports. From 1998 to 2002, less than two military personnel out of 100 were deemed overweight. Since 2003, one out of 20 have been diagnosed as “clinically overweight.”
These numbers explain why retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey has called the nation’s obesity problem “a matter of national security.”
The dwindling pool of eligible recruits is whittling away at the military. For instance, the Army’s initial recruiting goal in 2018 was 80,000 new enlistees. Yet the Army only enlisted 70,000 new soldiers. And of those 70,000, “10 to 12 percent required waivers of existing standards,” as Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich notes.
A high proportion of those waivers likely went to enlistees who had used marijuana. In an effort to boost its ranks and hit enlistment targets, the Army is relaxing rules on granting waivers for marijuana use, USA Today reports. “Granting more waivers to recruits who admitted to smoking marijuana—drug use is prohibited in the military—reflects its legal status in several states,” USA Today notes, citing remarks from Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, head of the Army’s recruiting efforts.
Doubtless, it also reflects the Army’s need to fill billets.
“The big thing we’re looking for is a pattern of misconduct where they’re going to have a problem with authority,” Snow said. “Smoking marijuana in an isolated incident as a teenager is not a pattern of misconduct.” But Snow added that prospective soldiers must pledge not to use marijuana again.
Another relaxed rule aimed at enlarging the pool of potential recruits relates to tattoos. The Air Force has lifted its “25 percent” tattoo rule, Air Force Times reports. “Airmen were previously not allowed to have tattoos on the chest, back, arms and legs that were larger than 25 percent of the exposed body part,” Air Force Times explains. “Now, they could have full tattoo sleeves on their arms or large back pieces if they so choose.” The policy shift stems from surveys of USAF recruiters, who report that nearly half of their prospective recruits and applicants have tattoos.
Yet waivers and rules modifications don’t address the root problems that have contributed to America’s dwindling pool of eligible recruits. If policymakers want to get serious about this challenge, they need to address those problems with real solutions.
Attack the Pathologies
There are solutions for childhood obesity, the high-school dropout epidemic and juvenile crime—namely, healthier lifestyles, better support structures in public education and a clearer understanding of what constitutes good citizenship.
ASCF is doing its part through the Step Up America program, which promotes education, respect for the law, good citizenship, a better understanding of America’s military, and the rights and responsibilities that come with being an American. More organizations like ASCF need to promote similar programs in our public schools, and more schools need to open their doors to such programs. It’s worth noting here that more than 1,000 high schools block military recruiters from visiting campus. This wrongheaded course of action deprives young adults of access to information about opportunities in the military, prevents the military from reaching a key demographic, and unfairly stigmatizes the military.
Regarding obesity, this is a nationwide, generational struggle that requires a rethinking of how much we eat and what we eat. After all, instead of working on the farm or the assembly line, most of us work behind a desk nowadays, which means we simply don’t need the daily calorie and fat intake earlier generations of Americans needed. Yet we have more food—and indeed more high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar food—available than ever before. All the while, today’s technologies serve as an impediment to what used to keep kids (and adults) from gaining weight: physical activity.
The good news is that everyone from the NFL and the CDC, to the White House and local school districts, to fast-food restaurants and soda companies is trying to address this problem through healthy alternatives. The bad news is that Americans have a long way to go before we rework our eating habits.
Enlarge the Pool
Given the heavy demands on our military and the metastasizing threats posed by a highly complex threat environment, it may be time to consider reinstating the draft. That would certainly solve the recruiting challenges facing our military. Even with all the ineligibility issues discussed in this essay, Laich points out that 1.2 million new, eligible, service-ready recruits turn 18 every year.
Of course, reinstating the draft would create other challenges. When the draft was phased out in 1973, in favor of an all-volunteer force (AVF), the thinking was that a military comprised solely of people who wanted to serve would be more effective than a military comprised of people who would rather be somewhere else. That theory proved to be sound. As Fred Peck, a military writer and retired Marine, wryly observes, “In today’s AVF…it’s a punishment to kick people out. In the draft era it was a punishment to keep them in.”
If Washington reinstates the draft, the military will have the numbers, but it will lose the discipline and commitment to mission ensured by the AVF. And that would likely have an effect on the military’s effectiveness, cohesion, capability and lethality.
There are other ways to enlarge the pool of recruits. For example, Washington could expand opportunities for immigrants to join the military as a pathway to citizenship.
Some have suggested lowering the age of eligibility for military service down to as young as 16. That seems extreme for a nation of 330 million people.
Bonuses to attract recruits and retain troops are another option. But when the economy is strong, as it has been in recent years, it is very difficult for the AVF to compete with the private sector. Already, the Army is offering enlistment bonuses of up to $40,000, along with a range of specialty and retention bonuses.
Regardless of which of these solutions—or which combination of these solutions—policymakers apply to address this threat to our security, they need to act sooner rather than later. After all, the number of troops America’s military deploys, by definition, is dependent on the number of people that can be recruited into the military.
This is not a trivial matter as we enter an era marked by renewed great-power rivalry. If we hope to deter China and Russia in the years to come, America will need, as it did during the Cold War, to deploy and disperse personnel around the world in substantial numbers. It pays to recall that deterrence—especially in Eastern Europe and South Korea, the South China Sea and Persian Gulf, the North Atlantic and West Pacific—is largely about presence. And presence is about personnel.
Photo: Army trainees hustle to the company area on the first day of Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, S.C., in June 2017. The command in charge of basic training has a new leader as of Friday, April 26, 2019. (Sgt. Philip McTaggart/Army)