The Marine Corps has delayed implementation of its new fitness plan requiring women do three pull-ups because a majority of female recruits failed to pass the standard. Why not delay the roll out of women in combat instead?
“I don’t think it’s a very high bar,” Marine Capt. Ann G. Fox told the New York Times upon the February announcement of closing the gap between male and female physical fitness tests. “I think the test should be the same as the men 20 pull-ups. People train to what they’re tested on.”
The fact that 55 percent of female recruits failed the pull-up portion of the fitness test failed by just one percent of male recruits suggests that the disparity involves something beyond training to the test. Decreeing the integration of combat units is an easier task than decreeing upper-body-strength equality. The Marines could vanquish the Barbary Pirates and the guardians of Chapultepec Castle. They can’t defeat biology.
The delusional egalitarianism behind the new fitness standard obscures a much greater problem facing military readiness: recruits of both sexes increasingly falter at basic fitness tests at which their predecessors once excelled. “What we were finding was that the soldiers we’re getting in today’s Army are not in as good shape as they used to be,” Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told the New York Times in 2010. “This is not just an Army issue. This is a national issue.”
Indeed, it is. Children, whether because of a thinning of their ranks or the specter of neighborhood molesters, rarely engage in unsupervised outdoor play any more. Hordes of kids riding bikes, playing stickball, or shooting hoops is as much of an anachronism as listening to eight-tracks. Kids seemingly play sports on the computer more than they play sports with their friends. Gym class and recess feel the squeeze from other schoolhouse priorities. The virtual world of the internet steals time from the actual world in backyards and playgrounds. Rougher sports, particularly football, have been strangely crusaded against at a time when the bellies rather than the brains of young people remain the paramount public health concern. A society paranoid of bodily injury fails to grasp that the most dangerous activity is inactivity.
Paradoxically, America watches more sports than at any point in history as children participate in sports, at least on a spontaneous, neighborhood level, in fewer numbers than at any point in memory. This, combined with dietary habits that imagine Mountain Dew and Red Bull as a new food group, has had terrible consequences for the armed forces–and America. Whereas the federal government judged about one in twenty teens obese four decades ago, they dub almost one in five teens obese today. Fatty Arbuckle and Fats Domino would surely need new nicknames had they risen to fame in the 21st century.
But like the pull-up test that failed, the military have flunked their fitness tests rather than their fitness test-takers.
• The Army unveiled a new program in 2010 featuring fewer sit-ups and distance running and more stretching and balancing in order to curb injuries and accustom increasingly weak and flabby recruits to exercise. “We know kids today are less fit,” one of the new fitness regimen’s designers told the New York Times. “We have to adjust.”
• Air Force fitness standards implemented in 2013 no longer assign automatic failures to Buddha bellies (men with 39-inch waists or women with 35-inch waists).
• Plastic surgeons report an uptick in military personnel seeking liposuction to pass branch body-size mandates.
• The number of soldiers discharged by the Army for fatness increased tenfold in the last five years.
• “Too Fat to Fight,” a report issued by 100 retired admirals and generals, noted that more than a quarter of 17- to 24-year-olds–the recruiting demographic for the armed forces–are too fat to serve.
The military can’t remake women as men. America can reorient its fitness priorities for its children and transcend collective neuroses regarding the outdoors and body contact. Our phobias about sending our kids outside have resulted in greater threats than even the neighborhood boogeyman. One such realized threat, hardly the most ominous, is a decline in military readiness.
The Marine Corps deserves blame that their female recruits can’t do pull-ups as much as it deserves blame for the failure of its male recruits to have babies. But they’ll continue to make the mistake of correcting this mistake. Marines adapt and overcome. But there’s no overcoming Mother Nature. There’s only adapting to her.
Unfortunately, in a world of digital distractions and super-sized meals, adapting to Mother Nature has never been so universally regarded as maladaptive.