Physical fitness is a key factor for any service member, and not just those directly involved in combat. Maintaining armored vehicles, slinging artillery rounds and managing logistics all take strength, and in today’s asymmetrical wars there’s no such thing as a non-combat role anyway – insurgents can and do strike at logistics convoys and routine personnel moves just as often as they attack foot or mounted patrols. Every service person has to be physically up to the job. That’s why every professional military force in the world has rigorous fitness standards enforced by regular testing.
The US military goes further, though. Uniquely, every service also subjects its members to body composition tests to measure the ratio of fat to muscle in their bodies. There are military appearance tests, too – again, these are unique to the US forces. In the US Marine Corps, for example, anyone who doesn’t meet their commander’s idea of a proper military appearance can be assigned to remedial training even if their height/weight ratio and body composition are within the required limits. Often the reason behind this is the way the Marine’s body fat is distributed.
It’s easy to see the logic behind the body composition standards. Surplus body fat is just extra weight that has to be carried around. It can also lead to a whole range of health problems that could theoretically reduce readiness and effectiveness. Is the US military going too far, though? Other countries don’t feel they’re necessary. The British sometimes make a half-hearted attempt to tell their troops about Body Mass Index, but nothing much ever happens about it and in general they don’t care what shape a soldier is as long as he or she can pass the required fitness tests. Of course if a soldier can’t march 8 miles in 2 hours with full kit, or manage their age band standards for push-ups, sit-ups and a best effort run, they’ll be in a world of hurt.
Different militaries have different cultures, and that extends to physical fitness as much as it does to anything else. The US forces have traditionally put more of a premium on upper body strength than many others; it’s very noticeable that US troops tend to be a lot more bulked out than the Brits or French, who tend to focus more on running endurance. In a lot of ways the American military is much more standards-driven than its allies, so setting standards for body composition fits in with that culture. Military appearance standards are a trickier one. The USMC’s own regulations on the subject acknowledge that there are Marines who meet all the other standards but still don’t present a proper military appearance. Should a fit, healthy, effective Marine get an adverse report, or even be discharged, just because they’re a funny shape? Most NATO allies would say no. The USMC says yes.
It’s not likely the Pentagon is going to change these standards any time soon, but maybe it’s time they were looked at. Even with the military shrinking as it is now, it’s always a challenge to recruit and keep the right people. In my personal experience, I’ve seen soldiers who have had problems meeting the height/weight/BMI standards but excelled in their jobs, and those who looked absolutely squared away and professional who couldn’t fight their way out of a box. Who should the military try to retain?