The military is faced with a fitness dilemma.
The societal increase in obesity and decrease in activity has contributed to an environment where about seven in 10 military-age young adults aren’t eligible to serve, mostly because of weight or other health problems. Physical standards have been kept low so as not to limit the already small candidate pool.
And even within the military community itself, obesity-associated morbidities costs the military health system more than $1 billion annually, according to a 2013 study.
Though technology continues to improve, the myth of drones fighting our wars is being debunked as senior leaders predict a much more austere, challenging battlefield in the future.
Rather than another article warning of impending doom, I wanted to offer a relatively simple solution, or at least the start of one. The root of the fitness problem might not be physical, but rather psychological. And change starts with a four-letter word.
DON’T SUGARCOAT IT
For years, the military has looked to improve performance processes based on the corporate world, which is not inherently a bad thing. But along with these processes has come the business vernacular, which I believe is not such a good thing.
This terminology and way of thinking overly sanitizes the purpose of the military — namely, to kill the enemy.
Some readers will digest the word “kill” without flinching, but it likely will make the majority uncomfortable, and understandably so. Most would agree that the words “neutralize” or “destroy” sound much more palatable than “kill”. But if the mission of the armed services is “to fight and win our nation's wars,” killing the enemy is definitely the implied task.
At this point, you might be saying, but I'm a doctor, corpsman, etc. The Army's Tactical Combat Casualty Care guidelines for care under fire are pretty clear on this: “The best medicine on any battlefield is fire superiority.” In other words, if you want fewer casualties, kill more bad guys.
So, how are killing and fitness related?
THE ‘KILL CONCEPT’
Tim Kennedy, a Special Forces sergeant first class with the Texas Army National Guard and retired pro mixed martial arts fighter, may have said it best: “Every time you train, train with the motivation and purpose that you will be the hardest person someone ever tries to kill.”
By using the term “kill,” we ramp up the seriousness and the reality of what service members must be prepared to do. Instead of physical training being focused on the nebulous concept of “fitness,” it should be linked directly to one of two outcomes: making a service member harder to kill, or making a service member better at killing.
Adding this “kill concept” creates a powerful shift in mindset. Goodbye “PT leader,” hello modern-day “Doctore,” the title given to trainers of Roman gladiators.
Some might argue that those in combat support or more technical, inside-the-wire fields might not benefit from this approach. Yet history has shown that on an asymmetric battlefield, support personnel can be vulnerable targets.
Even if the odds of kill-or-be-killed scenarios are low, why not prepare for the worst-case scenario? There’s historical precedent here: British military leaders at the outset of World War I knew that bayonet encounters would be rare, but they still championed bayonet training for its physical and psychological effects on a population preparing for what was, at the time, the largest battle the nation had ever seen.
For those who think this approach deals strictly with semantics, and there is no real value in using such terminology, I offer you the following fitness challenge: Perform one of your regular workouts, with the focus simply on “fitness.” A week later, immediately before you do the same workout, watch the scene from “Saving Private Ryan” when Pvt. Mellish struggles, and ultimately fails, to stop a German soldier from slowly plunging a knife into his chest.
Decide who you are going to be. Are you going to be the victim or the survivor? Are you going to be “the hardest person someone ever tries to kill”?
My bet is that second workout is going to be significantly more productive than the first. Now, imagine if you multiplied that effect across the military.
Nick Barringer is an Army officer who works in the field of nutrition and human performance. He previously served as the regimental nutritionist and as a member of the Ranger Athlete Warrior program with the 75th Ranger Regiment. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Defense Department, Military Times or its editorial staff.