Military Service Today

In the 1978 comedy film Animal House, the college dean advises an obstreperous student that he cannot hope to succeed in life "fat, drunk and stupid." That phrase became something of a mantra to a generation of undirected and rootless young Americans, not so young anymore, and their children today are if anything even more undirected and rootless than their parents. Fat, drunk and stupid may have been funny on the movie screen, but in real life it is both sad and terrifying.

I have dedicated my life to my country's defense but my success was always predicated upon the vigor and dedication of the young men and women in uniform whom I was honored to lead. Toward the end of my career, I began to notice a clear slippage of the quality of recruits -- in terms of intelligence, work ethic, social skills and basic patriotism. I hoped and prayed it was a passing phase.

Unfortunately, it was rather a harbinger of worse to come. A recent report from the Pentagon states that 71 percent of the roughly 34 million 17-24 year olds in this country, the standard military age, would be unable to qualify for military service today because of obesity, lack of a high school diploma, felony convictions and prescription drug use for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Others would be excluded because of conspicuous evidence of immaturity such as garish tattoos or other "cosmetic" issues.

In 1941 when our government began inducting millions of young men into military service to fight World War II, approximately one third of them were deemed ineligible because of physical and/or educational deficiencies. At the time, this was deemed a troubling statistic attributable to the aftermath of the Great Depression in which millions of people suffered from malnutrition and were often unable to obtain even modest schooling.

But three generations of relative prosperity have served to more than double that rate of inadequacy. The condition of so many of our young people offers a grim indictment of our public schools, a rebuke to parents, and a warning about the future of national security. And I really don't want to know how many of the 29 percent who are eligible would refuse a call to serve in the military in a time of severe crisis because they have little sense of civic duty.

Our beleaguered volunteer Army is increasingly hard-pressed to defend our national interests. The same small group of veterans return to the war zones time and time again until they are either severely wounded or worn down psychologically. They are disproportionately rural because rural America is our last remaining bastion of traditional values -- hard work, sacrifice, faith, education and patriotism. Sooner or later the unfairness of this system will begin to undermine even their dedication -- and we will be in serious trouble.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.