Overweight is usually discussed in health terms, correlating with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and lowered life expectancy. It’s also a social problem for many people, whose interaction with others and personal growth and development are impeded by serious overweight and obesity.
In Canada, these days, they are discovering that it can have ramifications for global security as well.
Based on its own research, the Canadian military recently revealed that many of its soldiers are overweight, so much so that it has compromised their fitness for service. How many? Ten percent? Twenty percent?
Try 49 percent!
That’s right, almost half of all Regular Force personnel in Canada were classified as overweight, and 25 percent were considered obese, based on body mass index. No less than 6.1 percent of those surveyed were considered morbidly obese. (While BMI is a somewhat controversial standard of measurement, it is still a useful and widely employed indicator of obesity.)
To a certain extent, the excess weight is blamed on the increase in sedentary activity in the army, otherwise known as desk jobs. Sitting at a computer screen for hours every day can certainly lead to weight problems, as we all know. It’s one of the downsides of high tech, and the armed forces are no exception.
But the fact is that the physical fitness problems of the Canadian army do not exist in a vacuum. The army, especially as it is an all-volunteer one, is reflective of the population in general, where, as in the neighboring U.S., weight problems abound.
Nor is it a simple matter to order a fitness crackdown. The Canadian army is understandably worried about its volunteer soldiers shipping out if the demands made on them to shape up are too tough. Instead, there has been a lowering of standards. As a result, the Canadian armed forces today may no longer be the first-rate outfit it once was.
Given the fact that Canada is currently enjoying the blessing of peace — no invasion by the U.S. from the south or polar bears from the north appears imminent — an overweight army should not be reason for grave security concerns.
But as a member of the international community, and an active and contributing member of the U.N. and NATO, Canada is expected to take on security burdens beyond its own borders.
Specifically, an upcoming high-risk U.N. peacekeeping mission in Africa — Congo, Mali or South Sudan — has brought the weight question to the fore. A senior Canadian Armed Forces official was quoted recently as saying that they are considering whether to impose battle fitness testing for Africa-bound soldiers. Such testing was used before to assess fitness prior to combat-zone assignments in Afghanistan.
After Prime Minister Stephen Harper was criticized for dodging a U.N. mission to Congo in 2010, his successor, Justin Trudeau, has declared that “Canada’s back” and can be counted on to put boots on the ground.
To be sure, there were a number of reasons why the Harper administration chose not to send troops to Congo. Harper did not fail to appreciate the horrific human rights violations taking place there, and the potential for Congo to develop into a staging ground for terrorist organizations that would target the West, including Canada. But, as one official told the Toronto Star, the U.N. request was ultimately turned down because it was “a dangerous mission that threatened to put Canadian lives on the line in a country where there was little peace to keep, and no clear end in sight.”
None of that has changed. Now, to the list of reasons not to go to Congo or one of the other African shooting zones, Canadian military officials may have to add lack of physical fitness.
While it is no doubt true that the overweight problem is not such as to prevent Canada at this time from fielding the relatively small requisite number of 600 or so soldiers in top condition, it is nevertheless a cause for concern.
In the long run, a nation’s fighting forces are only as good as the general population. A healthy, robust people infused with patriotic and moral values will be able to fight for the nation much more effectively than one that is physically and morally run down. The same goes for the U.S. and the West in general.
Unfortunately, we haven’t heard of overweight problems in the ranks of al-Qaida or Islamic State, and don’t think there are any. It’s not a war we can afford to sit out.