I've seen this number flying around the internet for the last couple of days, notably in a friend's Facebook status message: "75% of people 17-24 are unfit to serve due to weight, education or criminal history. 30% Of those were too fat. So 45% are too stupid or convicted. Rome burns." He's actually got it wrong, of course, because we're talking not only about lack of physical fitness but also medical disqualifiers like asthma, joint injuries, irregular heartbeat, and so on.
Today we are confronted by a sobering statistic from the U.S. Army: 75% of young Americans are ineligible to serve their country because they have either failed to graduate high school, engaged in criminal activity, or are physically or mentally unfit.
We need a bold strategy to inspire our young people to do better, and to increase the chances that they will succeed. [emphasis added]
It's also worth noting (as Mission: Readiness does in a footnote at the bottom of the homepage) that this data comes from a 2005 study for the Army's Center for Accessions Research. In the intervening period, a number of waivers have been granted for educational shortfalls and small-time criminality (though the troubled economy has helped push recruiting standards back up in the last several months by attracting jobless high-school grads with clean records).
But none of this is why I'm writing about Mission: Readiness. Really I just wanted to say that I think it's pretty freakin' weird to be talking about early childhood education, parenting guidance, mental and nutrition services, and so on as matters of national security. I mean, there's a case to be made for doing more of all of that, though reasonable people will disagree about how good that case is. (Believe me, my Yellow Dog Democrat girlfriend will give you all the reasons.) And there's a case to be made that the American military edge comes from "the quality of our people," the unique talents and qualifications of the American fighting man, and whatnot (though I'd argue that this is more often a matter of training, doctrine, and resources than of personnel "raw materials"). But really, is the best way to argue in favor of what would necessarily be a vast expansion of the role of the federal government and of reasonably invasive social programs an appeal to military readiness? If you're a believer in that stuff, shouldn't it be enough that we have a lot of people who are poor, who are hungry, who are unhealthy, diabetic, fat, undereducated, unambitious, badly parented, perhaps criminally neglected, angry at school, unable to learn, and so on and so on and so on? Do you really need to pitch those programs by citing security requirements (particularly when we already have a reasonably large standing military and spend a significant amount of money on Defense personnel accounts)?
I don't want to get into a whole go-round about domestic politics, because that's not really what this is about. It just strikes me as evidence of the militarization of our public discourse, of the complete normalization of appeals to mass insecurity as a means to advance policy objectives. I typically don't have a lot of patience for complaints about how the Terror Alert Level was a cynical ploy by the Bush Administration to control Americans through fear and other stuff like that (however useless I find that system to be), but here's an example of the pernicious effect of keeping terror front of mind in the way we talk about policy and politics. We're saying that we should have less high school dropouts, hungry kids, and parents who beat their children because if we don't fix those problems, we won't have enough soldiers for our army.