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Sending Felons Off to War

By Ivan Eland
May 2, 2008


Editor’s Note: George W. Bush, who once saw himself as a modern-day Alexander bestride the Middle East, now presides over two military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan – and has to scrounge around for Americans willing to fight.

The growing unpopularity of Bush’s open-ended wars, especially the one in Iraq, has forced the U.S. military to recruit more and more felons with potentially disastrous consequences, as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland notes in this guest essay:

Enmeshed in two military occupations that have turned into well-publicized quagmires, the Army and Marines are understandably having trouble enlisting new recruits. Their answer: vastly increase the number of convicted felons and other societal miscreants accepted into their ranks.

According to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, from 2006 to 2007 the Army more than doubled its felonious recruits and the Marine Corps increased its share by more than two-thirds.

For example, some entrants had convictions for crimes of dishonesty—including burglary, robbery, and grand larceny—crimes of violence—such as aggravated assault, arson, and “terroristic” threats, including bomb threats—and sex crimes, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, molestation, and indecent acts with a child.

In addition, the two services dramatically increased their “conduct waivers” for people convicted of misdemeanors. Astonishingly, in fiscal year 2007, nearly one in five Army recruits were brought in under waivers for felonies and misdemeanors.

The never-ending wars have also forced the Army to take larger numbers of recruits who are older and less physically fit, have lower education and aptitude, and have formerly disqualifying medical maladies. Also, recently President Bush reduced the length of combat tours in Iraq from fifteen months to twelve.

Although this latter measure may help somewhat with military recruiting and retention and gives soldiers a much-needed break from the stress of combat, it is detrimental to winning a war against guerrillas.

In such counterinsurgency warfare, it is crucially important to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous people. To do this, personal relations must be maintained with the local leaders and warlords.

Rotating people out of Iraq so quickly may boost morale and recruiting, but it destroys such relationships. The same happened with short tours in Vietnam.

One problem is that when the U.S. is not fighting a war against what the American public perceives as a dire threat (for example, the Nazis and Imperial Japanese during World War II)—that is, the war is one of choice, such as Iraq or Vietnam—the nation is unwilling to make the sacrifices needed to win.
In World War II, serving more than twelve months overseas was not an issue.

Another problem is that recruiting societal miscreants might especially impair counterinsurgency warfare. Especially violent people, or those who don’t properly control their behavior, might be adequate for all-out combat against a conventional enemy, but would not be good at winning hearts and minds.

In fact, when faced with guerrillas who attack and then melt back into the general population, these recruits might be more apt to commit atrocities against the population.

Finally, the military would rather have such miscreants—some of them violent criminals or felons who have committed sex-related crimes (as long as they are heterosexual offenses)—in its ranks than it would gays.

The fact that openly gay people are still being kicked out of the military does not create an enticing climate for gays to join, at a time when the armed forces need every qualified person they can get.

Similarly, excluding women from serving on submarines (because of the allegedly cramped quarters) and certain combat positions (because they are presumably too frail) deters some athletic and qualified women from enlisting in the ground and naval forces.

The obvious solutions to all of these problems are to avoid unnecessary brushfire wars and to change wacky military personnel policies that undermine the all-volunteer military.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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