USMC Physical Training

Military Appearance, Function, and Health

How much does physical appearance matter in the military? After all, national security relies more and more on technology. This question jumps out from a full day workshop on obesity in the armed forces at the National Academies. The answer depends in part on the branch of service. Physical functioning and health are certainly important in every branch of service. But the Marine Corps stand out in a seemingly unwavering commitment to military appearance.

Distinct Problems with Recruitment and Retention

The workshop offered an overwhelming number of presenters from the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Recruitment of candidates who can meet physical fitness standards is a challenge for every branch of service. More than 70% of young Americans are ineligible to serve. And the biggest reason is excess weight and obesity. Every branch faces shortages as a result. The Marine Corps is having a tough time staffing its elite special operations units.

But one message from the Corps is quite consistent. It’s not losing soldiers because of obesity because it doesn’t compromise on its fitness standards for recruitment. People who can’t make the grade don’t get in too often. We heard that message loud and clear from Brian McGuire of the USMC Training and Education Command.

Issues Below the Surface?

Though the Corps doesn’t have a growing number of separations explicitly because of obesity, it is having a tough time retaining its recruits. On Twitter, our friend Mike Daggett explains:

A USMC who is 15lbs overweight is forced out culturally. Other services don’t identify the issue as quickly based on their culture. In either event the obesity issue exists across all branches active or veterans. It’s just matter of what dataset you examine.

The subjective consideration of military appearance goes back as far as you can see in history. Karl Friedl writes that “European monarchs prided themselves on their tall soldiers.” The Romans wanted tall soldiers. Physical threats were important. Today, however, lethal unmanned drones and other technologies may be changing this equation a bit.

It’s unlikely that the Marine Corps warrior culture will let go of ideas about military appearance any time soon. But we do see a shifting emphasis toward objective measures of function and health. Perhaps – even in the military – bias about subjective appearances will fade.

Click here for historical perspective on military standards for body composition. For more on the intersection of military readiness and obesity, click here.

USMC Physical Training, photograph © MCRD Parris Island / flickr

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May 8, 2018

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