I have a friend who is an engineer. More than once, I have watched him scrawl an X- and Y-axis on a napkin in order to subdue an abstraction, force a process to reveal its contours, or make a problem as apprehensible as a hand-drawn graph will allow. All the while I was thinking of concrete nouns and transitional words—"first," "next," "finally"—to reach the same conclusion. Numbers are his forte, but I prefer words. Of course, I appreciate a trend line on a graph, but for the most part, numbers speak to me in a language I don't grok. They are like the Latin phrases which look vaguely intelligible but require help to decipher. Keeping company with ratios and decimals makes me uneasy, and a percentage is like the marshmallows you resort to at 11 p.m. when there is no other sweet in the house.
I prefer the phrase "one in four" to "25 percent." Even though they are equivalent, I appreciate the mental picture created by the former. Were you to remark on the fact that one in four Utahns are overweight, I visualize a foursome at Chuck-A-Rama. One of them, whose girth is greater than mine, is returning to the dessert table.
Google "one in four" and you find a category chockablock with interesting data points like these:
• One in four teens have received a sext.
• One in four Mormons favor same-sex marriage.
• One in four gun owners believe the NRA has too much influence.
• One in four auto accidents are caused by cellphone use.
• One in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted in college.
• One in four young Americans are qualified to enlist in the Army.
That three out of four Americans under 24 are rejected by the Army is a shock. It upends my preconceptions. As one who became a soldier by way of the Vietnam-era draft, I thought the Army would take just about anybody. Sure, medical conditions like Donald Trump's bone spurs are disqualifiers. So are a criminal record, a history of drug use and lack of a high school diploma. But obesity? Who would have thought that out of every three people disqualified from service, body weight and lack of physical fitness would account for one?
Obesity poses a weighty problem. The Trump administration is committed to adding 7,500 soldiers to the ranks this year. If the past is an indicator, almost half will come from 11 southern states. (Few will come from Utah.) The problem is that the manpower pool in the South is shrinking because the average waistline is expanding. A report from The Citadel raises concern about obesity rates that are higher in the South than elsewhere in the U.S. One in four Utahns are obese, but in the South, it is one in three. Almost half of all recruits fail the initial physical fitness test, and one in four overweight and out-of-shape soldiers are injured in basic training.
It is not a problem unique to southern states. "This is a problem reflective of American society," writes the Heritage Foundation. "One in three adults and one in five kids are obese; 91 percent of our children live on a poor diet; and one-quarter of our youth spend three or more hours per day watching TV."
"The U.S. Army faces an imminent and menacing threat of our national security—the lack of qualified young people," writes retired Gen. William Wallace on the Mission: Readiness website. Organized in 2009 by 600-plus senior military leaders, Mission: Readiness has "championed public policy to prepare our youth to be citizen-ready and able to serve their nation in any way they choose."
The phrase "citizen-ready" resonates because it foregrounds a rarely discussed subject—citizens' responsibility in a republic. Our country doesn't ask much of its citizenry: vote, serve on a jury, pay taxes—that's about it. Defend the homeland? The requirement to serve in the military was effectively set aside in 1973 with the advent of the all-volunteer military. Nowadays, most of us are content to have others volunteer. Back in the day of the draft, when I was a soldier, everybody had a friend or relative in Vietnam. That's not the case with Iraq and Afghanistan, even after 17 years of war. In successive combat tours, a disproportionate fraction of the population fights our country's battles—one in 250?—for which they get mostly lip service from lapel-pin patriots in return. Have you noted that American flag pins are de rigueur on politicians' lapels? So much so that retired Marine Gen. John Kelly's refusal to wear one made the news. To the aide who suggested he should pin one on, Kelly said, "I am the American flag."
Kelly's boss in the Oval Office wants to enlist thousands more into the military in the next few years, but qualified recruits will be harder and harder to find. The numbers are already trending downward from "one in four" to "two in ten." In response, Mission: Readiness is calling for a national fitness program modeled on the anti-smoking campaign with "a range of policies, penalties, incentives and disincentives." In the schools, that would mean nutritious food in the cafeteria and physical education in the curriculum.
The country has faced an "inactivity epidemic" before. During the Cold War, President John Kennedy made physical fitness a national priority to offset the fact that "easy living is sapping the strength and vitality of our children." Now, as then, we need more than words to make our kids citizen-ready. The numbers prove it.
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