A recent article on The Hill by Maj. John Spencer and Dr. Lionel Beehner—both scholars at the Modern War Institute at West Point—argued that growing obesity rates in American society and in its military are undermining combat readiness. The authors conclude that “we cannot win our future wars without a physically fit military,” citing as evidence a Pentagon estimate that about 71 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are physically unable serve, primarily due to obesity.
While these figures are undoubtedly worrying, it is not poor physical fitness that threatens our military readiness, but poor intellectual fitness.
Spencer and Beehner are correct that the proportion of Americans physically fit enough to serve appears low, but the real numbers tell a rather different story. If the United States were to activate the 29 percent of physically fit 17- to 24-year-old Americans for war, we would have a force of 9.86 million personnel. Such a military would be larger than the combined forces of the Chinese military at 2.3 million, North Korean military of 1.2 million, and a Russian military numbering over 3 million. There is hardly any reason for us to be concerned about not having enough Americans for combat, especially when only about 20 percent of military jobs are combat-related.
More troubling figures come from American classrooms. A 2016 US Department of Education report shows that American education is not keeping par with the rest of the world. How bad is it? Vietnamese students are now outperforming American students on most educational metrics. Being surpassed by students from a communist state with a per capita GDP approximately 1/27 that of the United States is hardly a good prospect for the American economy and military.
While Spencer and Beehner are correct about poor physical fitness undermining productivity and increasing health care costs, neither issue affects the warfighting capacity of the US military, nor has either variable determined the outcome of any recent wars. Unfortunately, their argument misdiagnoses why America stopped winning its wars, and what it will take to win future conflicts.
Winning the War or Winning the Peace?
What does it mean for the United States to “win?” Since the end of the Second World War, the American military has been “tactically and operationally superb but strategically inept.” The ability of the US military to win in limited conflicts but lose the peace has been the paradoxical cornerstone of America’s overwhelming military might struggling to fight hybrid wars.
The American military is a juggernaut in conventional wars, especially when the goal is to incapacitate the armed forces of an adversarial nation. This was best displayed in the Persian Gulf War of 1991, where the United States quickly routed Iraqi forces within 100 hours of ground combat, despite Iraq possessing the fifth-largest military in the world. These capabilities were on similar display against the Taliban in 2001, Saddam Hussein again in 2003, and Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Indeed, no military has waged a large-scale, offensive, conventional military operation against the United States since the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. Even though this offensive was seen as a turning point in the Vietnam War, the United States still dominated on the battlefield, killing about 45,000 North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops compared to only 4,324 American and South Vietnamese losses. However, such efforts to keep South Vietnam afloat were in vain, as the state was perceived as corrupt and illegitimate by its own citizens.
The American military is designed for winning on the battlefield, not reconstructing a culturally different nation that lacks either the ability or the will to modernize its society and build Western-style governmental institutions. Unfortunately, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya, the US military is incredibly effective in dismantling the military and political structures of a foreign state, only to see it descend into civil war once official hostilities have ceased.
Why should we expect that a more physically fit America will defeat irregular enemies like the Taliban or ISIS in future small wars? Without confronting their underpinning ideologies or effectively addressing the underlying structural conditions that gave rise to such extremist groups, more indefatigable American troops are not the panacea.
The US military has more than enough able-bodied troops to carry out peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts in peripheral small wars. However, doing so requires educated troops on the ground with the necessary cultural and language skills to see through the political fog and enable nation-building at the local level. The success of the international community in keeping the peace in the Balkans through long-term peacekeeping missions, and economic and political commitments, shows that such efforts are doable, but require strategic patience.
Despite the lingering weariness from our frustrated efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most likely wars of our near future are likely to look a lot like the “small wars” of our recent past.
Why Intellectual Fitness Matters More than Physical Fitness
To be sure, it would be a mistake to expect that every future American war will be long-term counterinsurgency or nation-building efforts. Indeed, with the rise of China and a revanchist Russia, major war against a near-peer adversary appears increasingly more likely at some point over the horizon, and it would be foolhardy not to prepare for this eventuality. But such a war in the twenty-first century will take a very different form than the great wars of the industrial age. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and many other states, have studied the American way of war for decades and will not fall prey to the same miscalculation Saddam Hussain did in 1991 and 2003.
Given this, should we really assume that physical fitness will correlate with victory in a war in the twenty-first century? While such reasoning was appropriate during the early industrial age of war, conflict has become both more mechanized and increasingly limited in scope and aim. Furthermore, America’s most recent armed conflicts have been more contests of political willpower than fights determined by the ability to field millions of Herculean soldiers for a major land battle. It would be foolish to think that potential nation-state foes have not taken note of America’s struggles in wars of will and limited scope.
There will always remain a central place for brute strength and superior physical fitness in warfare, of course. But future wars between nation-states are going to be decided by which side can best protect its infrastructure, command-and-control capabilities, cyberspace, and assets in outer space (e.g., satellites, etc.). Future battlefields will entail “less sweat, more sit.” Hence, the United States will need more personnel with the cognitive acumen to deal with electronic threats and other intangible problems that arise in different battlefield domains, which cannot be solved solely through excellent physical fitness.
The success of the American-Israeli Stuxnet virus attack against the Iranian nuclear program is evidence enough of the importance of developing the human capital necessary to wield cyberspace weapons in support of US national security interests. At the same time, however, the Chinese OPM hack that compromised the personnel records of over 22 million federal workers and military members and Russian cyber efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election indicate that America has not achieved an effective degree of cybersecurity. What good is a nation of burly warriors and a hefty defense budget if adversarial states can destabilize American institutions without firing a bullet?
Moreover, even when American troops on the ground do represent the decisive force in future wars, their combat effectiveness will be heavily reliant on operational dominance in the sea, air, outer-space, and cyberspace. In turn, this dominance will require cognitive fitness being held in higher regard in military culture, which would require substantial reductions in physical fitness standards. If America cannot foster the development of human capital to fulfill military requirements to operate advanced weaponry, then it will not matter if every single American is as fit as the cast from the movie 300.
American strategists have implicitly recognized this since the end of the Second World War—the United States has never sought a numerical manpower advantage against its adversaries. Instead, American strategy has taken a “quality over quantity” approach, directing investments towards military technology, command-and-control capabilities, nuclear weapons, and logistics. However, American reliance on technology to retain a competitive military edge on adversaries, known today as the Third Offset Strategy, only works when the best engineers and scientists live and work in the United States.
The Real Threat to American Prosperity . . . and Security
One thing is sure: The future of America winning its wars will not be dependent upon waistline size or how many push-ups every soldier can do. It will rely on the ability of the American educational system to produce young men and women equipped to serve as electronic warriors, strategists, and expert tacticians capable of employing the most technologically advanced weapon systems in the air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains, and to navigate the political and cultural challenges that characterize counterinsurgencies and other small wars.
The real threat to US national security is not degraded physical fitness, but the inability of US schools to produce enough Americans with the necessary STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills for a modern economy—and modern war. This is partly why so many American companies import foreign skilled labor to do jobs Americans lack the education to do. However, not only is this model not economically sustainable over the long term, it poses obvious risks to any major American war effort, making it less likely for the American military to retain its military technology superiority.
The society that can best harness its intellectual prowess to transform both its economy and its military from the industrial age into the information-systems age will be the most prepared to win future conflicts. This argument is made even more compelling by leading Stanford University scholars’ recent finding that economic capacity, specifically higher income per capita, correlates with greater military capability. To believe that physical fitness is such a fundamental determinant of American success in future wars ignores deep changes in the ways those wars are likely to be fought, something akin to European generals’ belief in the “Cult of the Offensive” prior to the First World War (and the consequent suicidal bayonet charges against machine guns).
We must double-down on educational investments that develop Americans with the acumen and cognitive capabilities to sustain economic growth and develop and employ technologically advanced weaponry in war. Such innovation has enabled American victory before, and in the technology age, it will be an even more decisive variable to success in future wars. We need an American military that values intellectual abilities at least as much as run times and push-up counts.
While the American military can do little to influence the political willpower of the American government to win limited conflicts, the one thing that the Defense Department can do is foster the development of the most educated military force on the planet, with the mental skills to deal with adversaries seeking to outsmart us on every battlefield. America’s greatest strength is its ability to bring its intellectual resources to bear, and without it, we will be at a disadvantage in every future war, small and large.
Image credit: Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod, US Army