December 2010 - January 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Fat of the land

By Alyssa McDonald
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“The army obviously thinks I have a problem that needs to be addressed immediately,” wrote an affronted and sardonic Sergeant Kris Amiet in a letter to ARMY, the Australian Defence Force’s fortnightly newspaper. At his annual health assessment, he explained that after 15 years following a military fitness regime, “I was informed that I was obese and needed to see a dietician and have a cholesterol test immediately. I thought, how could this be?”

The answer depends on whom you ask. Since 2006, the ADF has accepted recruits with a body mass index (BMI) as high as 33 – classed as clinically obese – provided they fulfil all other health requirements. If you’re a man of average height, you’d need to be over 100 kilograms to hit that mark. That is a lot of person to be carrying around. Of course, BMI is not a foolproof measure of fitness and fatness, as one medical officer responding to Sergeant Amiet’s letter pointed out: Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, is said to score a 33. But it’s not as if every 33 is a former Mr Universe. The recent inquiry into the death of a naval officer – obese and diabetic but declared fit for service – during a 5-kilometre training walk in Cairns was gloomy proof of that.

“Some people can drop the ball a bit,” admitted a naval marine technician whom I asked about training. Since fitness tests are only conducted once per year, he said, “you’ve got to be self-motivated … especially at sea.” Working on a platform just a hundred metres long, “from your bed to your work is 20 metres. So you’ve got a gym … set up on board, but you can [still] change quite a bit in your eating habits and all that sort of stuff.”

The navy aren’t the only ones struggling with their collective weight. In October 2010, the Senate Estimates Committee reported that 48% of Australian Defence Force personnel are overweight, and another 14% are obese (that is, with a BMI over 30). “Staggering,” responded Guy Barnett, the Liberal Senator who had requested the statistics – presumably referring to the numbers rather than the recruits themselves. “This [percentage] is unreasonably high for our fighting forces … How well can the ADF men and women perform their duties in service or combat if they are not in at least reasonable physical condition?”

For now, let’s leave the other health risks of military life – getting shot, for instance – to one side. As it stands, the military may be on the heavy side, but in the short term there is no other option: there just aren’t enough slim-hipped applicants to go around. Not here in Australia, where half of us are already overweight and obesity levels have been rising faster than in any other developed country; not in the UK, Canada or much of the EU; and certainly not in the US, the world capital of fast-food diets and overspill bellies, where the scale of the army’s obesity problem is virtually identical to Australia’s. To compound the issue, these nations’ fattest communities are usually also their most deprived – exactly the ones that recruitment drives tend to target. 

With slender future soldiers thin on the ground, defence forces around the world are trying to whittle down the ones they already have. In August 2010, the US Army rolled out a new training program focusing on sprinting and yoga-like stretching rather than the sit-ups and killer runs of war movie lore. Officially, the revamped plan is a way to reduce injuries. But recruits’ expanding waistlines played their part in the shift too. Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, who oversees the US Army’s basic training, has said as much: “The soldiers we’re getting in today’s army are not in as good shape as they used to be.” 

So will Australia follow the US’s lead and soften up? “It is not anticipated that the army will need to adjust its minimum fitness requirements at entry in the near future,” a spokesperson for the Department of Defence told me. However, over the past few years the Centre for Military and Veterans’ Health has been researching whether obese recruits suffer more accidents and illnesses than their slimmer colleagues do, in a study intended to “provide the Defence Health Services Division (DHSD) with data to shape future healthcare and recruitment policy”.

Back in the US, groups such as Mission: Readiness – an organisation that goes by the mildly disturbing slogan “Military Leaders for Kids” – has what you might call a grassroots scheme to improve the army’s fitness. The Too Fat to Fight obesity report calls for government regulation of school meals to help build a nation ready to jog into battle, sporty and svelte. Senator Barnett for one knows about it: he mentioned the report at the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society Annual Conference, where he also noted –  with some outrage – that “Today’s [Australian] soldiers are averaging 16 kilograms heavier than their World War I counterparts.”

Being obese clearly isn’t a particularly brilliant idea. But then neither is trench warfare. The war in Afghanistan isn’t like Gallipoli or Vietnam, although the defence spokesperson assured me that “the physical requirements remain very demanding despite the changing nature of many tasks”. The marine technician I spoke to agreed that for a lot of military types, work is “always physical”. In 2008, however, Germany discovered that its military population had become fatter than its civilian one. The blame was placed on a combination of sedentary tasks – such as paperwork – and alcohol consumption (German soldiers have a beer ration of up to one litre per day). The Australian Army has similar issues. A recent study by Monash University found that one in five Australian soldiers is largely inactive. Meanwhile, the army’s surgeon-general, Paul Alexander, has announced that the army is looking into soldiers’ drinking, beginning by assessing “what the individual’s attitudes are in relation to alcohol and how we change that as not only a health and wellbeing issue, but a cultural issue within the organisation”.

Ultimately, though, isn’t there something sinister and utilitarian about calling on people to improve their health, simply to enhance the quality of a nation’s cannon fodder? Which soldier is fit enough to outrun an IED? The number of push-ups a person can do is not necessarily any measure of his or her efficacy as a soldier anymore. If we are going to accept our defence forces’ part in the wars of the day, we should also be realistic about the skills needed to do the jobs in question – and who is prepared to do them.  

Alyssa McDonald
Alyssa McDonald is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. She is a contributing editor to New Statesman.

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