Written by: Raymond Kinson on 07/22/2011
(see original article: Weighing in on America’s Military Readiness)
Aaron French’s article on the security implications of the obesity epidemic in the United States is insightful and deals with a truly fundamental issue in national preparedness. It was ever thus. We don’t often think of it in those terms, America’s “greatest generation” of the 1940’s faced similar challenges, though for much different reasons, and that in itself may increase our concern.
Historians recognize that the ravages of The Great Depression in Europe certainly contributed to the climate which led to World War II. It is also important to recognize the personal physical impact this economic crisis had had on America’s young men. According to Rick Atkinson in An Army at Dawn, his meticulously researched account of the North African Campaign, America’s entry into the European war, that Field Marshal Sir John Dill, one of Britain’s military representatives in Washington before the War noted that the American forces were “more unready for war than it is possible to imagine.” The malnutrition and deprivations of Depression Era poverty had resulted in what can only be called a diminished race of young men. Atkinson notes that the Army’s standard for the draft of 1940 required only that “A conscript had to stand at least five feet tall and weigh 105 pounds (These are 18 year olds!); possess twelve or more of his natural thirty-two teeth and be free of flat feet, venereal disease and hernias.” Even with these appallingly low standards, “More than forty of every hundred men were rejected, a grim testament to the toll taken on the nation’s health.” While, as French observes, 30% of the current American generation are unfit for military service because of obesity, 40% of the class of 1940 were unfit due to the ravages of malnutrition.
Therein may lie an even more disturbing thought. While the young men of the WWII era were arguably more physically wasted than their 21st century descendants, they were nevertheless survivors. There was a toughness in them bred of harsh suffering and a grim determination to live through it. The unfitness of the present generation of military rejects is the result of prosperity, ease, sloth and indulgence, not only self-induced, but fully supported by a society that becomes ever-more difficult to rouse to surrounding dangers. While taxing personal food choices is problematic, French is entirely right that “Physical fitness programs in schools should be made permanent,” not to say rigorous, and mandatory. The benefits of such a program would be seen not only in defense preparedness, but in productivity, self-reliance and the ability to confront challenges from whatever quarter–business competition, natural disasters, intellectual conundrums or economic trials. This is far more than cosmetic. It may be a matter of assuring national survival, from a number of perspectives.