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It's not exactly what Pogo meant when he said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." But it works out that way. The greatest threat to our national security isn't terrorist groups, rogue nations with nukes or China. It's an inability to stock our armed forces with top-quality men and women because too many applicants are uneducated and overweight.
It's what we don't want to become.
About three-fourths of the nation's 17- to 24-year-olds can't join the military, largely due to these problems, says a report from Mission: Readiness, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. It's one reason President Obama is dithering over whether he should order an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan. Today we have just 1.4 million people in the active military, whereas in 1944 we had over 2 million serving in France alone, out of a U.S. population less than half its current size.
True, the armed forces readily met their recruiting goals this year, but they're not all that high. Expensive recruiting bonuses (up from less than $8,000 in 2000 to more than $18,000 now) have helped, mostly due to the lousy job market. But "a weak economy is no formula for a strong military," the report warns.
"We are very concerned," says retired Army Maj. Gen. James A. Kelley, one of the 89 retired officers, including two former chiefs of staff, who belong to Mission: Readiness. "We do have the greatest military in the world — we have the greatest planes, the greatest tanks, the greatest ships — but the key goal is having great people."
You don't need to be a rocket scientist to fire rockets, but you can't be a dummy either. Yet only 42% of the nation's eighth-graders are "proficient" at mathematics, according to the "Nation's 2009 Report Card" from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and a shameful 34% of eighth graders are proficient at reading.
Until we get these off the drawing board, we're still going to need smart, tough warriors. Despite massive expenditures on education leading to such "fixes" as smaller classroom sizes and larger teacher salaries, these figures haven't improved a bit since record-keeping began in the early 1970s. Or as the subheading in the 2008 report card puts it: There has been "no significant change for 17-year-olds at any performance level."
The report also notes that one in four 17- to 24-year-old Americans is without a high school diploma. "While you can take such kids and put them through a quick course to get a GED," says the lead author William Christeson, dropping out of high school "is an indicator that you don't stick with things. If you take young people who can't make decisions in civilian life and you send them to war, bad things will happen."
Moreover, because today's graduation standards have been greatly lowered, about 30% of diploma-sporting applicants who take the Armed Forces Qualification Test will fail, yanking them out of the running.
Additionally, an overlapping 27% of young Americans are too fat to fit in the uniform, says the study. Most probably know better than to even apply, yet "15,000 young potential recruits fail their entrance physicals every year because they are too heavy." Taking into account three- and four-year enlistment terms, that's your Afghanistan gap right there.
Since 1970, the percentage of overweight and obese adolescents has tripled, says the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Add other physical problems and "over half of young adults cannot join because of health issues," says the report.
Even advancements in technology can't solve the problem. "We can build the best machines to make our military effective, but if you don't have qualified people to run them, they won't work," says Christeson. Some level of physical fitness is required for even sedentary jobs. Besides, try running around in Afghanistan's thin mountain air with body armor, other equipment and ammo even when you are fit.
Ultimately, we as a nation had better get our act together — or let aggressors do it for us.
Michael Fumento was embedded three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan, and was a sergeant in the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat) (Airborne) from 1978-1982.