Here is an issue that Republican candidates in tomorrow night’s debate should be asked: why are United States armed services struggling to maintain numbers?

More than 450 retired generals and admirals in a lobby group called Mission Readiness have an answer for them: young people are “too fat to fight”. In a 2009 report, “Ready, Willing, And Unable To Serve”, they said that “The best aircraft, ships and satellite-guided weaponry alone will not be enough to keep our country strong”. The US also needs smart, fit, law-abiding youths. And it cannot find enough of them.

Startling statistics released by the Pentagon show that 75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are currently unable to enlist in the United States military. Three of the most common barriers for potential recruits are failure to graduate high school, a criminal record, and physical fitness issues, including obesity.

Nothing has changed since 2009. In a 2014 report, “Retreat is Not an Option”,  Mission Readiness found that

Obesity is one of the main reasons why more than 70 percent of young Americans are unable to serve in today’s military. This includes young adults in families with generations of military service, and others who have the critical skills our military needs but cannot join simply because of too many extra pounds.

At the moment, the Pentagon relies upon a weak job market to lure young men and women into the services. But it worries about what will happen when the economy picks up.

Why are 75 percent of young Americans unable to serve their country in the military? The retired military brass put forward three reasons.

Inadequate education: About 25 percent of young Americans lack a high school diploma. Worse, many of those who have one are substandard at reading and mathematics. About 30 percent of potential recruits with a diploma fail the Armed Forces Qualification Test.

Criminal records. About 10 percent of young adults are disqualified because they have had at least one prior conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanour. According to the Pew Center on the States, “One in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.”

Obesity and other health problems: 27 percent of young Americans are too fat to join the military. Many never even try to join. But of those who do, 15,000 fail their entrance physicals every year because they are too heavy. Another 32 percent of all young people have other disqualifying health problems –asthma, eyesight or hearing problems, mental health issues, or recent treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In total, half of young adults cannot join because of health problems.

What do the military brass recommend to increase levels of education, keep kids from getting in trouble with the law and keep them healthy?

They tiptoe around the elephant in the room. Instead of realising that young Americans need the strength and security that comes from intact biological families, they recommend better early education programs, better school meals, and better physical education programs. Here’s what they had to say in their 2009 report:

… brain scans and neuroscience have now shown conclusively that the best time to influence a child’s trajectory in life is during the child’s earliest years when the architecture of the brain is literally under construction. Changes in neurons, connections and structures in the brain continue throughout life, but the most important changes come during the 0-5 years…

And “school readiness skills” are more than just learning the ABC’s or knowing how to count. Young children also need to learn to share, wait their turn, follow directions, and build relationships. This is when children begin to develop a conscience – differentiating right from wrong – and when they start learning to stick with a task until it is completed.

But the best early education program is a stable home with a loving mother and father. What these panjandrums really mean, but are perhaps too politically correct to say, is that America’s national security is at risk because America’s families are dysfunctional.

Last year a report from Brad Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman for the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies, complained that “but what is largely missing from the public conversation about economics in America is an honest discussion of the family factor”.

“The retreat from marriage … plays a key role in the changing economic fortunes of American family life,” they wrote. “Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women.”

And they make better soldiers, too.

In healthy families, kids learn to respect authority, value education and take responsibility for their health. They learn how to cooperate and to work as a team. They build a stronger moral sense. And all this costs the taxpayer nothing, unlike the government-funded programs recommended by the retired generals and admirals.

“Our national security in the year 2030 is absolutely dependent upon what is going on in pre-kindergarten today,” says retired Rear Admiral James Barnett. He is absolutely right – but the solution is a vision for creating and nurturing stronger families. Do any of the GOP candidates have one?

What the succession of disturbing reports from Mission Readiness shows is how crucial the health of the institution of the family is for America. After two generations of me-centred marriages and unstable families, the country’s human capital is being run down.  The introduction of same-sex marriage could accelerate the process. As The Economist says about the challenges ahead: “The result is that America may be unable, within reasonable cost limits and without reinstituting the draft, to raise the much bigger army it might need for such wars.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.