Are US Military Members Today Weaker Than in the Past?

On a recent speaking trip I was asked if cultural changes in the US military had emasculated it compared to the past. This is a daunting question, but like all questions, the first step in answering it is to define one’s terms. Aside from the anatomic definition, a reasonable definition of emasculation is “to deprive of strength or vigor, to weaken.”

In 2009 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking member of the US military, called experts in various fields together to try to identify all of the components of fitness, collectively termed Total Force Fitness (TFF). His goal was to improve all aspects of fitness in US military members. After long deliberation and study, the group identified the following areas:

1. Physical fitness – strength, endurance, flexibility, mobility
2. Environmental fitness – heat/cold, altitude, noise, air quality
3. Medical fitness – access to care, immunizations, screening, prophylaxis, and dental
4. Social fitness – social support, task cohesion, social cohesion
5. Behavioral fitness – substance abuse, hygiene, risk mitigation
6. Psychological fitness – coping, awareness, beliefs/appraisals, decision making, engagement
7. Nutritional fitness – food quality, nutrient requirements, supplement use, food choices
8. Spiritual fitness – service values, positive beliefs, meaning making, ethical leadership, accommodate diversity

As defined above the TFF is a new construct. Lack of data using this construct, both past and present, make it impossible to state definitively whether US military members are less fit today than they were in the past. However since the question was asked, and is being asked by many in American society, it is reasonable to provide a reasoned answer.

Physical, Environmental, Medical and Nutritional Fitness

On average, Americans going into the military are physically weaker today than they were in the late 80s and before, largely due to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Boys used to play outside every day but now many stay inside watching television, playing video games, and surfing the web. Children used to ride bikes or walk to school, but now many more are driven. The explosive growth of sports participation in the past twenty years deceives us into thinking that we are more physically fit than in years past. The obesity epidemic, even among the young, suggests that we are not. A Pentagon report in 2009 stated that 75% of Americans aged 17-24 are unfit for military service, almost half of those (about 35%) because of medical issues including poor physical condition (http://www.missionreadiness.org/2009/ready_willing/). Of draftees in World War 1, 20.6% were rejected for medical reasons (http://history.amedd.army.mil/booksdocs/wwii/NeuropsychiatryinWWIIVolI/appendixa.htm). Since some of those rejected for military service in WW1 had medical issues which are now easily treatable, we would expect that number to have declined dramatically, not risen by 50%.

The military is doing a better job of helping recruits get through basic training. Some may attribute it to better training but others attribute it to easier physical standards.

Service 1998 rate Latest Available Rate (2006)
Army 17.9% 13.6%
Air Force 8.8% 7.1%
Navy 17.0% 14.0%
Marines 13.5% 11.7%
http://usmilitary.about.com/od/joiningthemilitary/l/blbasicattrit.htm

Science’s knowledge of medicine, human performance, public health, and nutrition has grown, thereby improving physical, environmental, medical and nutritional fitness. Many acute and chronic diseases are more manageable today than previously and thereby impact warriors less than before. Smoking among military members has declined; another positive factor. More and better immunizations are available and levels are higher. The same is true for disease prophylaxis, access to health care and dental treatments. Air quality in America has improved since the 1960s, noise is better controlled, and heat/cold injuries are more preventable. All of these improve warriors’ physical, environmental, medical and nutritional fitness.

The answer to the question of whether warriors today are more physically, environmentally, medically and nutritionally fit than in eras past turns on whether the positive factors noted above offset the negative factors of poor nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle. It seems clear that Americans going into the military are less physically and nutritionally fit than in the past. It also seems clear that uniformed service makes people more physically, environmentally, nutritionally and medically fit.

Spiritual, Behavioral, Social and Psychological Fitness

The modern US military is better educated and makes greater use of technology than the US military of bygone days. Since all military members are required to be high school graduates, they are probably more educated overall than their forebears from the World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

Besides education, the data on spiritual, behavioral, social and psychological fitness are also mixed. Rates of divorce and depression have skyrocketed since the 1970s, while rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the military have plummeted. In part this reflects pre-entry selection; people with a history of alcohol or drug use are not allowed into the military. It also reflects a no-tolerance attitude for drug abuse in the military. Acceptance of diversity, improvement of hygiene, and risk mitigation, other aspects of fitness, seem to have improved. Ominously, the single greatest indicator of a lack of spiritual, behavioral, social and psychological fitness, completed suicides, has worsened.

The TFF paradigm does not specify adherence to a certain religion as evidence of strength or weakness but rather specifies traits that are associated with better fitness in these areas. Medical and social research, however, cannot speak in such generalities. Studies must be done on specific individuals and ask specific questions. In the United States the vast majority of research done on the influence of religion on health looks at Christianity. It is to these data that we must direct our questions on spiritual, behavioral, social and psychological fitness.

The percentage of self-identified Christians in the US is declining, and military members are less likely to self-identify as Christian than the general public. Judaism has also declined. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism have grown modestly, largely through immigration, but there is little data on their effects on the health of their adherents. Those who are “non-religious” in America are growing the most of all. Why is this important? Because a surfeit of research demonstrates that people who actively practice religion, usually defined by regular churchgoing, gain many health benefits:

1. Churchgoers are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single, and more likely to be highly satisfied in marriage.

2. Religion helps poor people move out of poverty.

3. Regular religious attendance decreases rates of suicide, drug abuse, births out of wedlock, alcoholism, and crime.

4. Religious practice helps people stay off welfare.

5. Regular religious practice decreases rates of depression and improves self esteem.

6. Church attendance increases longetivity, improves recovery from illness, and decreases rates of many serious diseases.

7. Religious practice helps people recover from alcoholism, drug abuse, and other problems.

Of the studies on the effects of religion done through the mid 1990s, 81% showed a positive influence, 15% were neutral and 4% showed a negative influence. Intrinsic religion, religious practice which is genuine and focused on God, has positive effects. Extrinsic religion, religious practice done for show without genuine belief, has negative effects (http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1996/01/bg1064nbsp-why-religion-matters). Studies since then have confirmed these findings.

It should be clear that these health benefits directly improve some of the characteristics noted in the US military-sanctioned TFF model. Insofar as modern military members are less religious they do not gain these benefits. Since their predecessors were generally more likely to self-describe as religious, they probably had better psychological, behavioral, social, and spiritual health than the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines of today. Perhaps this partially explains the growing problems of joblessness, homelessness, and suicide among American veterans.

Conclusion

Answering the question “are US military members weaker today than in the past” is difficult. Rephrasing the question to “are US military members less fit than their predecessors” allows us to use the US military-approved Total Force Fitness paradigm to attempt an answer. Even so, the answer is not clear. We discover that in half of the areas, physical, environmental, medical and nutritional fitness, American service members who have completed initial training (and probably an initial tour of duty) are probably more fit than their predecessors. From a psychological, behavioral, social and spiritual perspective, the picture is less rosy.

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