Wednesday, February 14, 2007

This gives "war criminal" a whole new meaning

The bad old days of "join the Army or go to jail" might be creeping back up on us.

The Army and Marine Corps are letting in more recruits with criminal records, including some with felony convictions, reflecting the increased pressure of five years of war and its mounting casualties.

According to data compiled by the Defense Department, the number of Army and Marine recruits needing waivers for felonies and serious misdemeanors, including minor drug offenses, has grown since 2003. The Army granted more than double the number of waivers for felonies and misdemeanors in 2006 than it did in 2003. Some recruits may get more than one waiver.

The absolute numbers are still relatively small, though not insignificant. The Army recruited 80,000 soldiers in 2006. Of those, 9,000 received a "moral" waiver of some sort. 901 of them were for felony convictions, up from 411 in 2005; 6,000 were for misdemeanors, up from 2,700.

So roughly 11 percent of Army recruits received a "moral" waiver, with 8.6 percent having criminal records.

This is not an entirely bad thing. Youthful mistakes do not make someone a hardened criminal or preclude them from becoming productive members of society, and the military has a long history of taking in such people and turning them around.

But coupled with other lowerings of military standards -- notably mental and physical aptitude requirements -- what we have is a serious potential threat to the professionalism and capabilities of our military.

The military works because it's filled with motivated, intelligent soldiers who learn to trust each other with their lives -- believing that their comrades are trustworthy, competent and physically capable. This allows the high degree of initiative and flexibility -- not to mention use of complex technology -- that is the hallmark of the modern military.

If too many soldiers are substandard in the trust or competence departments, it undermines the assumptions on which our military doctrine is built. If it goes on long enough or spreads far enough, that doctrine will no longer be supportable.

The report demonstrates once again the strain the military is under merely to sustain itself at current strength. But the problem is going to be exacerbated by the call to add 92,000 soldiers over the next few years. I support that increase, so it's rather troubling to think that it will be difficult to find that many qualified people willing to serve.

It's not the only inroad that threatens. Recall December's Military Times poll, which found that a majority of those polled think invading Iraq was a mistake and disapprove of Bush's handling of the war. This raises fears that the military will be undercut in another way: by soldiers deciding to get out rather than face another tour in Iraq.

The obvious point to be made here is that this is what an open-ended, unpopular war will do to recruiting in an era of a volunteer military. I'm not advocating a return to the draft -- the economic dislocation that would cause aside, I prefer a smaller, motivated military to a larger, indifferent one. But it does show the long-term dangers of launching ill-defined military campaigns -- not just politically, but securitywise. Our military is an astonishingly fine instrument, but using it improperly damages it, even if actual casualties are relatively light.

Let's hope our leaders have absorbed that lesson, and only commit troops when national or humanitarian interests truly are at stake.

Update: Heres the study the article is based on, and here's the underlying data (pdf).

A few things to note:

1. The data only goes back to 2003, since they were studying the effect of the Iraq war on recruiting. It would be interesting to see what the waiver trend was like before then. Logic says it might have been lower in 2002, thanks to post-9/11 patriotic fervor. But what about 2001 and earlier?

2. If you look at the data, you'll see that overall "moral" waivers fell in 2004 before rising in 2005 and breaking the 2003 mark in 2006. But when you look at the service breakdown, you see why: Army waivers have skyrocketed, Marine waivers are up while Navy and Air Force waivers are way down.

The logical conclusion: fully-qualified recruits are gravitating toward the services that are least likely to land them on a street corner in Tikrit.

Also, I should point out that these numbers are only for recruitment. To get a picture of what this trend might mean for the long-term health of the military, you'd want to know how many of these people washed out in their first year or so. The Army might forgive you past screwups, but they're much less forgiving of screwups committed while in uniform. While a high washout rate would indicate an undesirable level of recruiting "churn", it would also indicate that whatever screening process the Army has in place is working.

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