A recent article on The Hill by Maj. John Spencer and Dr. Lionel Beehner—both scholars at the Modern War Institute at West Point—argued that growing obesity rates in American society and in its military are undermining combat readiness. The authors conclude that “we cannot win our future wars without a physically fit military,” citing as evidence a Pentagon estimate that about 71 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are physically unable serve, primarily due to obesity.
While these figures are undoubtedly worrying, it is not poor physical fitness that threatens our military readiness, but poor intellectual fitness.
Spencer and Beehner are correct that the proportion of Americans physically fit enough to serve appears low, but the real numbers tell a rather different story. If the United States were to activate the 29 percent of physically fit 17- to 24-year-old Americans for war, we would have a force of 9.86 million personnel. Such a military would be larger than the combined forces of the Chinese military at 2.3 million, North Korean military of 1.2 million, and a Russian military numbering over 3 million. There is hardly any reason for us to be concerned about not having enough Americans for combat, especially when only about 20 percent of military jobs are combat-related.
More troubling figures come from American classrooms. A 2016 US Department of Education report shows that American education is not keeping par with the rest of the world. How bad is it? Vietnamese students are now outperforming American students on most educational metrics. Being surpassed by students from a communist state with a per capita GDP approximately 1/27 that of the United States is hardly a good prospect for the American economy and military.
While Spencer and Beehner are correct about poor physical fitness undermining productivity and increasing health care costs, neither issue affects the warfighting capacity of the US military, nor has either variable determined the outcome of any recent wars. Unfortunately, their argument misdiagnoses why America stopped winning its wars, and what it will take to win future conflicts.
Winning the War or Winning the Peace?
What does it mean for the United States to “win?” Since the end of the Second World War, the American military has been “tactically and operationally superb but strategically inept.” The ability of the US military to win in limited conflicts but lose the peace has been the paradoxical cornerstone of America’s overwhelming military might struggling to fight hybrid wars.
The American military is a juggernaut in conventional wars, especially when the goal is to incapacitate the armed forces of an adversarial nation. This was best displayed in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, where the United States quickly routed Iraqi forces within 100 hours of ground combat, despite Iraq possessing the fifth-largest military in the world. These capabilities were on similar display against the Taliban in 2001, Saddam Hussein again in 2003, and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Indeed, no military has waged a large-scale, offensive, conventional military operation against the United States since the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. Even though this offensive was seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War, the United States still dominated on the battlefield, killing about 45,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops compared to only 4,324 American and South Vietnamese losses. However, such efforts to keep South Vietnam afloat were in vain, as the state was perceived as corrupt and illegitimate by its own citizens.
The American military is designed for winning on the battlefield, not reconstructing a culturally different nation that lacks either the ability or the will to modernize its society and build Western-style governmental institutions. Unfortunately, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, the US military is incredibly effective in dismantling the military and political structures of a foreign state, only to see it descend into civil war once official hostilities have ceased.
Why should we expect that a more physically fit America will defeat irregular enemies like the Taliban or ISIS in future small wars? Without confronting their underpinning ideologies or effectively addressing the underlying structural conditions that gave rise to such extremist groups, more indefatigable American troops are not the panacea.
The US military has more than enough able-bodied troops to carry out peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts in peripheral small wars. However, doing so requires educated troops on the ground with the necessary cultural and language skills to see through the political fog and enable nation-building at the local level. The success of the international community in keeping the peace in the Balkans through long-term peacekeeping missions, and economic and political commitments, shows that such efforts are doable, but require strategic patience.
Despite the lingering weariness from our frustrated efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most likely wars of our near future are likely to look a lot like the “small wars” of our recent past.
Why Intellectual Fitness Matters More than Physical Fitness
To be sure, it would be a mistake to expect that every future American war will be long-term counterinsurgency or nation-building efforts. Indeed, with the rise of China and a revanchist Russia, major war against a near-peer adversary appears increasingly more likely at some point over the horizon, and it would be foolhardy not to prepare for this eventuality. But such a war in the twenty-first century will take a very different form than the great wars of the industrial age. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and many other states, have studied the American way of war for decades and will not fall prey to the same miscalculation Saddam Hussain did in 1991 and 2003.
Given this, should we really assume that physical fitness will correlate with victory in a war in the twenty-first century? While such reasoning was appropriate during the early industrial age of war, conflict has become both more mechanized and increasingly limited in scope and aim. Furthermore, America’s most recent armed conflicts have been more contests of political willpower than fights determined by the ability to field millions of Herculean soldiers for a major land battle. It would be foolish to think that potential nation-state foes have not taken note of America’s struggles in wars of will and limited scope.
There will always remain a central place for brute strength and superior physical fitness in warfare, of course. But future wars between nation-states are going to be decided by which side can best protect its infrastructure, command-and-control capabilities, cyberspace, and assets in outer space (e.g., satellites, etc.). Future battlefields will entail “less sweat, more sit.” Hence, the United States will need more personnel with the cognitive acumen to deal with electronic threats and other intangible problems that arise in different battlefield domains, which cannot be solved solely through excellent physical fitness.
The success of the American-Israeli Stuxnet virus attack against the Iranian nuclear program is evidence enough of the importance of developing the human capital necessary to wield cyberspace weapons in support of US national security interests. At the same time, however, the Chinese OPM hack that compromised the personnel records of over 22 million federal workers and military members and Russian cyber efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election indicate that America has not achieved an effective degree of cybersecurity. What good is a nation of burly warriors and a hefty defense budget if adversarial states can destabilize American institutions without firing a bullet?
Moreover, even when American troops on the ground do represent the decisive force in future wars, their combat effectiveness will be heavily reliant on operational dominance in the sea, air, outer-space, and cyberspace. In turn, this dominance will require cognitive fitness being held in higher regard in military culture, which would require substantial reductions in physical fitness standards. If America cannot foster the development of human capital to fulfill military requirements to operate advanced weaponry, then it will not matter if every single American is as fit as the cast from the movie 300.
American strategists have implicitly recognized this since the end of the Second World War—the United States has never sought a numerical manpower advantage against its adversaries. Instead, American strategy has taken a “quality over quantity” approach, directing investments towards military technology, command-and-control capabilities, nuclear weapons, and logistics. However, American reliance on technology to retain a competitive military edge on adversaries, known today as the Third Offset Strategy, only works when the best engineers and scientists live and work in the United States.
The Real Threat to American Prosperity . . . and Security
One thing is sure: The future of America winning its wars will not be dependent upon waistline size or how many push-ups every soldier can do. It will rely on the ability of the American educational system to produce young men and women equipped to serve as electronic warriors, strategists, and expert tacticians capable of employing the most technologically advanced weapon systems in the air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains, and to navigate the political and cultural challenges that characterize counterinsurgencies and other small wars.
The real threat to US national security is not degraded physical fitness, but the inability of US schools to produce enough Americans with the necessary STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills for a modern economy—and modern war. This is partly why so many American companies import foreign skilled labor to do jobs Americans lack the education to do. However, not only is this model not economically sustainable over the long term, it poses obvious risks to any major American war effort, making it less likely for the American military to retain its military technology superiority.
The society that can best harness its intellectual prowess to transform both its economy and its military from the industrial age into the information-systems age will be the most prepared to win future conflicts. This argument is made even more compelling by leading Stanford University scholars’ recent finding that economic capacity, specifically higher income per capita, correlates with greater military capability. To believe that physical fitness is such a fundamental determinant of American success in future wars ignores deep changes in the ways those wars are likely to be fought, something akin to European generals’ belief in the “Cult of the Offensive” prior to the First World War (and the consequent suicidal bayonet charges against machine guns).
We must double-down on educational investments that develop Americans with the acumen and cognitive capabilities to sustain economic growth and develop and employ technologically advanced weaponry in war. Such innovation has enabled American victory before, and in the technology age, it will be an even more decisive variable to success in future wars. We need an American military that values intellectual abilities at least as much as run times and push-up counts.
While the American military can do little to influence the political willpower of the American government to win limited conflicts, the one thing that the Defense Department can do is foster the development of the most educated military force on the planet, with the mental skills to deal with adversaries seeking to outsmart us on every battlefield. America’s greatest strength is its ability to bring its intellectual resources to bear, and without it, we will be at a disadvantage in every future war, small and large.
Image credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, US Army
In 1749 Benjamin Franklin proposed that Pennsylvania establish a public school that should, he said, place as much emphasis on physical as on intellectual fitness because “exercise invigorates the soul as well as the body.”
These MWI authors highlight what USMA does so well in balanced leader development.
See also: Digital dieting: From information obesity to intellectual fitness by
T Brabazon, in which the author explores the following:
“Imagine if a student spent as much time managing information as celebrities doted on dieting? While eating too much food may be the basis of a moral panic about obesity, excessive information is rarely discussed as a crisis of a similar scale.”
“The real threat to US national security is…the inability of US schools to produce enough Americans with the necessary STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills for a modern economy—and modern war. This is partly why so many American companies import foreign skilled labor to do jobs Americans lack the education to do.”
Not necessarily. The U.S. has been bleating about a STEM shortage since the dawn of the Space Age. But follow the careers of many engineers, and at least in aerospace or in computer science, and if they aspire to promotion, they migrate into program management or sales. Boeing’s current CEO started as an engineer…his predecessor came up from a general business background. Two of his four executive vice presidents don’t have an engineering background, either. Within the Air Force, at least, developmental engineers follow more or less the same path — assuming they get to do any technical work at all, they’re quickly pushed into program management roles. The reason the computer industry looks like it’s populated by fresh college grads is because companies see an advantage to pulling coders fresh out of school — it’s cheaper than investing in training for existing coders in emerging techniques. So there’s a point in a U.S. engineer’s career where it no longer makes sense to continue as an engineer (if that remains a choice at all).
The U.S. doesn’t necessarily have a STEM problem — it has a problem with how it employs the STEM resources it has.
This is–ironically–quite possibly the dumbest article I have read about military readiness, and thus a possible exhibit A for the writer’s argument. Such paradoxes are normal in Modern Amerikwa.
“Spencer and Beehner are correct that the proportion of Americans physically fit enough to serve appears low, but the real numbers tell a rather different story. If the United States were to activate the 29 percent of physically fit 17- to 24-year-old Americans for war, we would have a force of 9.86 million personnel. Such a military would be larger than the combined forces of the Chinese military at 2.3 million, North Korean military of 1.2 million, and a Russian military numbering over 3 million. There is hardly any reason for us to be concerned about not having enough Americans for combat, especially when only about 20 percent of military jobs are combat-related.”
Totally and utterly asinine.
Dr. Krune, I took exception to that paragraph as well. For the author’s argument to work, it assumes (I think) that we would abandon our All Volunteer Force in favor of the draft again. In which case, then yes, the pool of young applicants who are physically fit would be perfectly sufficient. However, that not being the case, the reason this figure worries military planners is because it is combined with a very low “propensity to serve”. So, the pool of applicants who are both FIT and WILLING to serve is much, much less than the author’s hypothetical force of 9.86 million and presents a real recruiting challenge.
I certainly don’t contest his main thesis that intellectual fitness matters, but his poor reasoning in that example highlights the lack of another kind of education– and I’m not talking about STEM. Any rigorous liberal arts education could equip our leaders with the critical thinking skills to reason through the complex challenges facing our military, whether strategic or tactical. A key skill is the ability to craft compelling and supported arguments while seeing through faulty ones. You don’t need to be a technical or science expert to do that.
Who’s more useful to a volunteer military: a guy who needs to lose weight but is willing to pull the literal or metaphorical trigger, or a physically fit guy for whom the thought of enlisting never occurred?
Half of this article is about the issue of manpower, in light of how military readiness to world conflict such-as-it-is is affected by the quality of the people the military has available to draw from; how fit they are, how educated they are, how flexible their minds are, and how unburdened they are by judgment-killing cognitive bias.
Problem is, the military is artificially reducing the pool of people it can draw from by maintaining standards of joining that aren’t based on the reality of who *possibly could* volunteer and who actually would *decide to* volunteer. In short, the American military leadership has itself to lay responsibility on for ever having a shortage of capable manpower.
Ultimately, the pool of possible servicemembers is everyone who would voluntarily join, fulfill an MOS, and follow orders. Aside from making sure someone is not genuinely handicapped in some capacity, that’s the sole criterion that should determine if someone is sent to basic. A fat guy who would do all that and more, and would acquiesce to a Drill Sergeant smoking his ass to a decent PT score, is in that pool. A varsity football player who doesn’t want to join the military is not in that pool, and never will be short of a draft. But with the current recruiting standards, the first guy wouldn’t be allowed in, and the reasoning is “if he wants to join, he’ll get himself in shape before enlisting.” So basically, he has to cultivate military-style discipline… without a Drill Sergeant to instill it in him.
The fact is, our society does not foster physical fitness in the first place and (arguably) undermines the mental discipline necessary to achieve physical fitness on one’s own–as opposed to a Drill Sergeant grilling your ass, on top of the onus of having prior committed to the military to motivate you. That’s the reality of what kind of manpower to draw from the American military is faced with, yet the current recruiting standards depend on the second guy–the fit guy–and everyone in America like him making the rational decision to join.
The American military’s leadership is willingly ignoring that reality.
Thank you Major Matisek for your service.
Some of you have a disproportional amount of pessimism to optimism. Dr. Krune the great value you seem to hold of your critique is not at all obvious to me. Simply saying someone is dumb and stating their ideas are paradoxical and then quoting them seems kinda childish. For instance whens the last time you heard a child say “Mommy, my brother said 'I'm dumb!'”. See its paradoxical because their both dumb kids. Also, you make sure to narrowly define the article to only concerning “military readiness” when its roots and impact are far greater.
The article is the seed of something greater but hidden from even the “smartest” among us. What is wrong with obesity is not its effect but its cause. A large man is not necessarily a slow man but a slow man is more likely to be a large man. The cause is hidden again from you cyber elite macho scholars. The pain and burdens held by our youth might seem like a simple fix to a man or woman who grew up in a balanced culture and relied on themselves more than technology. Lets focus on the potential of each individual and start treating our neighbors kids like our kids. Whens the last time any macho elite cyber scholar got on his knees and had a real conversation with a child. Who here really cares about people or do you just want to compete/dominate with others so they will like/fear you?
Why do people always compare other countries kids with our own? The kids don't care but their the ones being sold for cheap stats. The critics lose also. The disproportionally challenged critics lose their ability to be imaginative. Every country is different. In the 21st century mind will follow the heart!
Don't discourage each other with the same arguments. I disagree with the trend that believes Americans are not the panacea. We are! Americans should keep the standard that encouraged us. We have as much potential to be the panacea that anyone else has. In a lot of ways we have the most opportunity. We are a new way forward. Believe it!
We can't keep peace if we don't have the leadership. You need a elite team acting with love to have peace and that is far more difficult than most are able to provide. Intelligence is only the beginning for us. We are much more valuable than both intelligence and physical fitness. You can't learn it in a book or on the track. Love conquers all and in time makes our body and mind excellent. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is where excellence is all you do. Its the hardest thing you will do but its the best for your neighbor and until you do it your critique and stats and excuses have little impact. We have to work hard to disciple ourselves in the spirit of love. It's takes particular non conformity, purity, obedience, perseverance, patience, humbleness and discipline. Not conformity.
Our kids are skipping steps. They cant properly use the tools. Would you give a kid a loaded gun without training? A gun is binary but most technology is much more difficult to teach. We need parents to have courage so they can teach courage.
Society can change direction very quickly. Don't give up hope by rationalizing our defeat before it has happened. A warning is a prediction but a strike is an action. Money alone can not fix these problems. We need to use money shrewdly to help build people up.
I'm sorry – this is just silliness and a PhD candidate looking to have something to publish. What size of military could China field if they mobilized 29% of 17-24 year olds?
Life is different at 30,000 feet. Go spend a month doing a rotation at NTC as an infantry soldier and then tell me if you still think having STEM trained soldiers is more important than physical fitness.
You missed the point Wayne…the future of war is not going to be about who can mobilize the most young fit troops for a Clausewitzian battle to end all wars. The next war will be on the margins – measures short of war if you will – and it is definitely not going to be decided by which country has a military with less fat people. Instead the victor of the next war will exploit America's economic weakness (e.g. National debt) and will defang American military might and power by preventing us from having information/network superiority.
I must've accidentally been redirected to Duffleblog.
The point of this article isntto allow fatbodies, it's to reduce standards so women can get combat jobs.
If this is the future of the American military then I recommend you teach your kids Russian.