Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Obesity in the Military

We make generals today on the basis of their ability to write a damned letter. Those kinds of men can’t get us ready for war.”--Chesty Puller, LtGen, USMC

I'm not sure when LtGen Puller made that quote but he was even more prescient than he may have realized.  The war on terror has lasted longer than any other war the US military yet it hasn't produced the kinds of leaders Chesty Puller was thinking of.  Instead, the latest generation of generals is nothing more than a bunch of consensus builders who rose through the ranks by not challenging convention.  Those that did ended being purged by the Obama administration, further keeping the herd culled of trouble makers like Puller would have been.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the USAF and its pursuit of "fit to fight".  Once the shooting started, the USAF wanted its men and women to be able to do the same things physically as the Army and Marine Corps.  So that USAF added push-ups and sit-ups to its physical fitness assessment starting in 2003 or so which was supposed to get its airmen in shape to fight terrorism.

Fair enough, dragging equipment out to the flight line and repairing aircraft in 120 degree requires a level of fitness beyond just being able to run 1.5 miles (the old USAF physical fitness standard).  The previous physical fitness standard in the USAF lacked a component to measure upper body strength and core strength but it did include height and weight standards.  Adding the push-ups and sit-ups was a much needed addition, however that wasn't enough for the data-driven future generals in the USAF.

USAF officers by a wide margin hold engineering degrees or at least technical degrees meaning they are predisposed to data and numbers.  Simply adding push-ups and sit-ups could not possible guarantee a process improvement that could be measured so some nameless officer (I truly don't know who otherwise they would be named here) decided the Body Mass Index (BMI) must be incorporated as well.

And that ladies and gentlemen is when the USAF truly went to hell.  BMI is derived from the height and body mass of a person.  The inclusion of the BMI was supposed to be that process improvement that the engineering types were looking for but instead, it has created a culture of witch-hunts for those who can't pass the BMI.

BMI has a major flaw in that it only looks at height and mass, it assumes all body types are the same.  Therefor if you have narrow shoulders and wide hips (as most women do), BMI will still show you as obese when you otherwise height and weight proportional and able to pass your physical fitness test.  For men it rewards those with thick necks and tiny waists, otherwise BMI will show most men, regardless of their level of physical fitness, to be "obese" and thus not fit to fight.

This is why the headline, "Military Obesity Rates Skyrocket", is both correct and misleading.  Obesity rates have skyrocketed as a result of the use of the BMI and why women and minorities in particular are challenged to make their tape.  Obesity rates are skyrocketing because of the generals, and those that want to be, embracing the BMI without regard to basic anatomy.

The USAF generals have run commanders and first sergeants into the ground about how well their unit does in their annual physical fitness assessments.  Forget the mission, we need to be lean mean fighting machines (even though most USAF jobs are located on a fixed based, requiring less physical stamina that those in the Army or Marine Corps).  This has created a culture of men and women that are constantly harassed about making their weight (in addition to stress associated with deploying and getting ready to deploy).

Without realizing it, the USAF has now become about looking good instead of doing good on your job.  The generals all look good and can write letters, just as Chesty Puller pointed out, yet they can't lead.

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