Attrition: The Enemy Within


October 8, 2012: Military leaders in the United States are complaining that their pool of recruits is being reduced by growing obesity and lack of physical exercise among young people (age 17-24). Currently about 25 percent of this age group are ineligible to join the military simply because they are too fat and out of shape. Twice as many are excluded for mental (not smart or together enough), physical (disabled by something other than weight), or moral (a criminal record) reasons. During World War II the percentage of acceptable recruits was more than double what it is today. Young men and women were in better physical shape back then, fewer got into trouble with drugs or crime, and military educational standards were not as high because there were more non-technical jobs available.  While during World War II about 12 percent of the population served, today it's more like one percent. During World War II standards kept getting lower until borderline recruits were being accepted, today's recruiting seeks higher and higher standards. Not just for the tech jobs but for combat ones as well. The most effective infantry needs men who are very smart as well as very fit.

The problem is that many good candidates 30-70 years ago would be ineligible now because they were not in good physical condition. Americans have, in the last two decades, become very fat and out-of-shape. There are 32 million male Americans of prime military age (17-24). Getting enough quality and qualified recruits each year is a tough job, made worse by a generation that eats too much, exercises too little, and doesn't pay enough attention in school. You not only have to be physically fit enough to join, you also have to be smart enough and have no criminal record.

The enormous growth in computer entertainment and subsequent massive reduction in the amount of exercise teenage boys get is the major reason for the crisis. Some 57 percent of potential recruits are not eligible because they do not score high enough on the aptitude test the military uses to see if people have enough education and mental skills to handle military life. Many of those who score too low do so because they did not do well at school. A lot of these folks have high IQs but low motivation. Most of the remainder are not eligible for physical reasons. But get this, the most common physical disqualifier is being overweight. Nearly a third of the people of military age are considered obese. Many of these big folks are eager to join and are told how much weight they have to lose before they can enlist. Few return light enough to sign up.

The sharp decrease in physical fitness means that the military, especially the army, had to change its basic training to include more exercise that will get recruits into shape. That was one of the reasons why, four years ago, basic was increased from nine to ten weeks.

The additional basic training time was, in theory, to instill basic combat skills early on. These skills were expanded using an additional week or so of additional combat training for some combat support troops before they hit the combat zone. The additional training was also meant to improve the discipline and general military effectiveness of new troops. During the 1990s, basic training was watered down quite a bit and that resulted in new recruits coming into their first units still acting a lot like civilians. The army has been trying to rectify that ever since. But with the decline in exercise, and growth in obesity among teenagers, the army needed the extra week to get these recruits to look like soldiers and not out of shape video-gamers carrying real guns.





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