How Americans grew too fat to serve their country

Kids want to enlist because the Army has jobs – but they can’t do push-ups and can’t run

Column LAST UPDATED AT 12:31 ON Fri 6 Nov 2009
Alexander Cockburn

If Jonathan Swift traveled to the United States today, he would surely ditch the little guys, the big guys and the horses and just feature Gulliver being squashed flat by enormously fat people.

I suppose I first noticed how fat Americans were getting about a decade ago. Along supermarket aisles you'd see the odd whale unhappily chugging along on a mini-kart, pulling fat-enhancers off the shelves.

In early October I  drove east to west across America along Interstate 40 - much of the western portion is the old Route 66, famed in song and story - which runs from Asheville, North Carolina, to Nashville, Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque and on through Arizona into California.

Every truck stop, every diner, every mall offered its tumid diorama of human hippos. We're talking every age group here - starting with humpty-dumpty adolescents and ascending through the decades to 50-year olds, stertorous and grey of countenance. 

My friend Wilbur who runs a trailer park in South Carolina told me there's a woman in one of his double-wides who's up around 400lb and can't get out the door even if she wants to. She sits and watches TV all day and when she passes on, Wilbur will have to get a giant can opener to rip open the side of the trailer to winch out her corpse.

There’s a lobby that says it’s prejudice by the slim crowd, and fat people are perfectly normal – just heftierIn Eureka, my local town here in northern California, a couple of years ago they had to get new scales in the clinics and bigger MRI tubes. The Pentagon could probably make a buck or two for the taxpayer, selling torpedo launchers from decommissioned submarines for MRI conversion. It's not quite what the swords-into-plowshares movement had in mind, but that's America for you.

And it is America. I was just in Paris and in the course of a week Alya and I saw precisely one person - a young woman - who could be classed by a European as very plump. In America she'd still be dreaming of going to ballet school.

Of course there's a lobby that says it's all prejudice by the slim crowd, and fat people are perfectly normal - just a bit heftier. I remember picking up a magazine in the lefty book store in Pike Place, Seattle a few years back called Fat Dykes and the Women Who Love Them and it's true, on my observation, that a very fat lesbian will not pine away for lack of slim young baby-dyke admirers of her inviting corpulence.

There's the old tale of the dwarf who married the fat lady in the circus and when the acrobat and the clown took turns peering lewdly through the keyhole of the honeymoon couple's trailer, there was the dwarf dancing up and down on his plump bride, shouting, "Acres and acres of it, and it's all mine!"

In this lobby's tactful thesaurus, 'fat' is the unusable f-word, and the last-resort term, 'heavy'.

But the fat people I saw across America don't seem happy, and aren't accompanied by lustful dwarfs in search of spacious carnal real estate. An 18-year old young woman waddling along, soda in one hand and a bag of cheetos in the other, would be happier if she was downsized by 50 per cent. The grey-faced diabetics on their go-karts look absolutely wretched.

How did it happen?

Blame the obvious suspects: the fast food chains and the food industry whose chemists figure out the precise mixes of sugar and salt which will addict their customers.

Blame the decline of physical education in schools. Blame couches and TV sets. Blame restaurants for serving monster portions. In Seligman, Arizona, I had breakfast in Westside Lilo's Cafe and the huge elk-hunter draped in camouflage next to me at the counter devoured a breakfast that completely covered a large dinner plate to a height of about four inches. Outside was his mighty one-ton truck in which he would spend the next eight hours wolfing down chips and swigging diet Cokes.

Ten years ago you could go to a national park and encounter plenty of people hiking in the more remote portions. These days you'll see no one off the major trails. The black bears in Yosemite recently voted - we're talking statistical levels of bear-break-ins here - the minivan their car of the year to break into because it's what many Americans haul their kids around in, and the vans are full of potato chips and kindred snacks the bears have learned to enjoy.

The Pentagon is getting alarmed. The good news for the armed forces here has been the surge in unemployment. Curtis Gilroy, a senior Pentagon official, said recently that a 10 per cent increase in the national unemployment rate generally translates into a four to six per cent "improvement in high-quality Army enlistments".

For the first time since the creation of all-volunteer armed forces in 1973, according to Bill Carr, deputy under-secretary for defence for military personnel policy, "all of the military components, active and reserve, met their number as well as their quality goals." In other words, the lack of jobs in the civilian sector means no option for many young Americans other than enlistment.

The bad news for the Pentagon is that many would-be enlistees are not 'high quality' and have to be turned down because they are too fat.

‘Kids are just not able to do push-ups. And they can’t do pull-ups. And they can’t run’

The Army Times ran an article this week by William McMichael citing the latest government stats on America’s fat crisis. One-third of the 31m Americans between 17 and 24 are unqualified for military service because of "physical and medical issues". Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon's director of accessions, told the Army Times that "the major component of this is obesity. We have an obesity crisis in the country. There's no question about it."

The Pentagon gets its data from the US government's Centers for Disease Control. In 1987, according to the CDC, about one in 20 Americans in the 18-34 age group were obese. By 2008, almost one in four was considered to be obese. "Kids are just not able to do push-ups," says Gilroy. "And they can't do pull-ups. And they can't run."

The Pentagon now issues waivers for at least the semi-obese, no doubt reckoning that Spartan training will slim them down enough to be capable of some sort of useful military activity, though not running up and down mountains in the Hindu Kush.

Michelle and Barack Obama have been making rather sotto voce remarks about America's appalling diet and ensuing weight problems, albeit tactfully since the Fat Vote is in the millions and the food industry's political purse is bulky too.

But how does Michelle's organic vegetable garden weigh against Obama's pick as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack - a wholly owned property of the food corporations?

Hence we get the tragicomic spectacle of a ferocious political battle over a health 'reform' bill which may make it easier for poor Americans to cover the costs of treatment for Type 2 diabetes and the health consequences of consuming prodigious amounts of high fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile there is no effective political opposition to federal subsidies for the farm policies which have fattened America into macabre absurdity. ·