Extending the Conversation on “Fitness Jihad”

Yesterday, we published an article exposing and analyzing the fitness policy of Laughlin’s 47th Operations Support Squadron. The policy awards a down day for airmen who score greater than 95 on their fitness assessment. It also imposes mandatory supervised workouts on those who pass the test but score less than the commander’s special minimum of 85, which is 10 points above the Air Force prescribed minimum.

The story ignited a firestorm of often testy discussion across several USAF-related social media sites. Many agreed with the JQP analysis, which is essentially that a raised minimum misapplies command authority to over-invest in an individual commander’s pet issue at the expense of the time and autonomy of airmen who have met their individual responsibilities.

Many more disagreed, some in rather vehement, dismissive, and unpleasant terms. Sadly, this isn’t really surprising.

Fitness-related articles will typically turn out this way this one did, because they distill a typical majority-minority dynamic. Those in the majority in-crowd take on a pack mentality, hounding and shouting down those who dare disagree. Those in the minority are generally shamed or bullied into silence.

The comment sections of these types of articles can get pretty Darwinian, with anyone perceived as an outcast — whether they really are or not — marginalized and othered for failing to measure up to the pack’s standards.

It’s unfortunate that fitness has become such a wedge issue among airmen, because the USAF needed to take a step forward in 2004 when it modernized and overhauled its fitness program.

But in the manner of its approach, it also injected a program permitting for lazy, easily quantifiable differentiation of airmen into an already ailing culture, and in doing so gave its anti-intellectuals and misfit martial traditionalists still harboring insecurities about never shooting a weapon at anyone a whole new beginning. In the years since, too many of them have been compensating for their lack of ability in other areas by running faster and lifting more weights, and then reinforcing their proud contrast with a tiresome 15-year cock walk.

Seldom in the history of the US military have so many wasted so much energy on something so insipid impacting the mission so little.  Still, a dialogue is the point, so let’s examine a few of the chief counterguments to the article found in the comments.

“This policy is not unusual. Most squadrons have something like it.”

And therein lies the problem. The Air Force is trying to reduce wasted energy in its squadrons — to lean itself out so it can maximize the utility of its limited labor resource while returning to airmen some of the time that has been stolen from them over the years. This is about building a sustainable service that can retain enough strong performers to win wars.

So let’s assume for a moment that half of the roughly 1,000 squadrons in the Air Force are executing a policy similar to Britt Warren’s. Let’s further assume each of them has 5 airmen scoring between 75 and 84.99, and that the additional workouts and mock PT tests add up to an investment of 5 additional hours by and into each airman each week. With these arbitrary but vastly understated numbers, we’re investing roughly $1M in labor costs every month to conduct mandatory fitness activities for people who are already meeting the standard. Beyond the cash equivalence of this time loss is the opportunity cost. These are hours that could be spent in more efficient ways that more directly support unit missions. More wisely, they could be returned to airmen to spend doing whatever they want.

The fitness program as currently fielded does not contemplate additional labor investment into people who exceed the standard. Such investment is therefore unfunded. Until we force our commanders to stop doing things that aren’t funded and paying for them with labor abuse, we will not rescue our culture or the retention crisis it is fueling.

“It’s Unfair to Single Out This Commander”  (usually followed by “I know this guy and he is great.”)

You have a point that this one commander shouldn’t be carrying the burden for a pervasive policy distortion. But let’s not get carried away. He’s a public officer exercising legally conferred authority on behalf of the public for public purposes. He is therefore subject to public accountability. To the extent he feels bullied, it’s child’s play compared to what’s happening to his airmen who meet the standard and are yet told they need to give more time to PT, and at the times and places he specifies.

“Hurr durr The Military.”

Ok, just stop it. There is no “military.” There are services. Each has a different role to play. The aviation service fights from the neck up. Its combat power is not tethered to the same martial traditions as those governing the Army and Marines. This doesn’t mean physical fitness is irrelevant. It means it is less relevant. Which is why we have a minimum standard that is quite modest. It reflects the level of investment the service believes is consistent with its combat requirements. A small subset of airmen need to be more physically fit, and their commanders should and will see to that. But most don’t, and if the commanders of such units lack the imagination to know where to direct the energies of their people other than toward physical fitness, they’re probably in the wrong role.

As a fun footnote, if you’ve been in the Air Force for more than 6.9 minutes and are still harboring personal insecurities about the fact that your cousin carries a rifle and you spend most of your time in an air conditioned building, there’s only one way to resolve your stirring doubts, and it doesn’t involve the imposition of an Army or Marine fitness program on the Air Force. If you’ve been in for 6.9 minutes or less, there is still time to dissolve your contract and join a service where you can fix a bayonet and live in the mud for fun. Make the move now and save yourself and the rest of us years of agony.

“Mandatory PT is Not Punishment”

In the case of the 47th OSS, it sure as hell is. Only those separated from the herd because the boss thinks they run too slow are required to attend, and it’s an extension of their duty day.  There’s no question it is punishment. The only question is why the commander imposing it doesn’t openly say so. If he has the courage of his convictions, he should openly profess that the slower runners in the squadron will be given additional duty. Then again, that wouldn’t be legal. Hence the weaselly policy letter with the alternate rationale.

As a larger point, commanders who truly believe fitness is part of the duty of airmen, and that such a duty is enlarged in relation to an airman’s fitness score, should hold PT sessions during the duty day. Extending the duty day reinforces that PT is a cobbled on afterthought rather than a core duty. Across the Air Force, airmen are being expected to work out but not being given time. This morally wrong, and is legally assailable if anyone inside the system can muster the courage to challenge it.

“If You Don’t Like It, Leave.”

They are. And it’s not because of this one policy. It’s because no one worth a damn wants to be part of an organization where you’re invited to get the hell out any time you disagree.

One rabid commenter came to the JQP blog to profess that whoever supplied the information for the story should be out of the Air Force. This kind of petulant response validates the use of social media by airmen to get their views across, because it reflects a deep-set intolerance to opposing views, especially when they are publicly shared. Couple that with legally conferred authority, and you get fascism. Look no further than the fitness program, in its warped permutations as bent and numerous as the commanders imposing them, for evidence that fascist abuse of authority is alive and well in the Air Force. Even as it tries to rehabilitate itself.

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