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To win at war, make America fit again

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The incoming Trump administration has pledged to boost defense spending and rebuild the military. While this is a welcome sign, there is another more cost-effective way to increase our readiness: improve the fitness of the eligible pool of recruits the Army and other services can draw from.

All the military spending in the world will not matter if our troops are physically unfit to serve. Nearly 8 percent of all military personnel are clinically overweight. That figure is up from 1.8 percent in 2001, when the war in Afghanistan kicked off. The Pentagon estimates that 71% of the roughly 34 million 17- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. today would fail to qualify to serve in uniform based mostly on physical health disqualifications – obesity being the biggest.  All signs show that this problem will only grow.

{mosads}In 2017, the Department of Defense is expected to announce new standards to determine who’s “too fat to serve” by looking at more than just service members’ body mass index, which admittedly can misdiagnosis a soldier’s body type. But there is concern among many in uniform that fitness standards may be made more lax.

This would be a mistake. Beginning this year, the Army enacted new physical assessment standards that require only a percentage of the force to meet standards for jobs assessed as “heavy physical demands” (e.g. combat arms branches). But it significantly lowered requirements for jobs whose “physical demands are only occasional” (e.g. the new cyber branch). No wonder that the Army’s obesity rates (11%) are the highest of all the services.

The truth is we cannot win our future wars without a physically fit military. We found ourselves in a similar predicament at the height of the Cold War, shortly after the Soviets launched the first satellite into space. In 1960, while still president-elect, John F. Kennedy outlined in a Sports Illustrated article titled “The Soft American” the consistent decline in the health and fitness of the American population.

The perception of constant peace during the Eisenhower years had fostered a spirit of complacency, laziness, and lack of virility. Having grown up in a competitive family under a hard-charging father, Trump, like Kennedy, embodies the alpha-male jock. Both sought greatness.
Yet Kennedy affirmed the connection between the health of each citizen and our collective security; that getting soft “can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation.”  He fully believed the health of our citizenry was vital to our success as a nation. It was America’s way to retake the lead after Sputnik.

Kennedy would not be happy with where we’ve come as a country over a half-century later.  A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shows that roughly 30% of Americans over the age of 20 are obese. Compare that figure to 1997, when about one in five Americans was obese.  It is not unreasonable to predict that without concerted action, over half of the American population will be obese in the near future.

The stakes are clear: The greatest national security emergency tied to our declining health is not having a population capable of defending our nation in a crisis.

Moreover, the amount of time it will take to train and get recruits into shape will take longer.  With every rising statistic we are betting national security against the amount of time it will take to field a fighting force that can defend the country.

Since Kennedy, there have been no shortage of initiatives, presidential committees, and other plans to improve American health.  To her credit, outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama made it her priority to improve American nutrition policies. But the health, nutrition, and fitness problems we face persist on a societal level. Moreover, our health is key to not only America’s ready reserve for armed conflict but also the vitality of our intellectual, psychological, and emotional determination to, as the Army puts it, “win in a complex world.”

A half century ago, Kennedy wrote that leadership is needed to attack this constant decline stating “this is a national problem and requires national action.”  He put his clear, simple, and direct plan in print.  He assigned Cabinet level responsibility, opened the door for state involvement, and most importantly established action items he would monitor.

Our widening waistlines are not just a public health issue, but also pose a potential national security emergency. Like Kennedy, President-elect Trump needs to make it a national priority and devote sufficient resources to tackle the problem. To make America great again, it must be physically fit to win its future wars.

Lionel Beehner is an assistant professor and director of research at West Point’s Modern War Institute. John Spencer is a major in the U.S. Army and scholar at the Modern War Institute.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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