Is Our Military Full Of Thugs?

Debating the futility of war with a member of the military is pointless — it could also earn you a punch in the mouth for your troubles. A large-scale UK study has found young men who have served in the Armed Forces are three times more likely to commit violent crimes compared to their civilian counterparts.

Soldier picture from Shutterstock

What’s interesting is that the psychological effects of active combat are only partly responsible: put simply, many of these men were aggressively violent to begin with.

Researchers at King’s College London studied the police records of 13,856 randomly selected serving and ex-serving UK military personnel who had been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The study found that 20.7 percent of servicemen under 30 years old had been convicted of a violent crime; compared to 6.7 percent of male civilians in the same age bracket.

Men with direct combat exposure were also 53 percent more likely to commit a violent offence than men serving in a non-combat role.

Curiously, despite committing a higher number of violent crimes, military men were otherwise more law-abiding than the general population — the study found that when all offence categories were lumped together, ex-soldiers had a lower overall crime rate.

Head researcher Dr Deirdre MacManu said traumatic experiences on deployment, alcohol misuse and post-deployment mental health problems increased the risk of violent behaviour. However, his team also discovered a pre-existing legacy of violence in the military:

Our study, which used official criminal records, found that violent offending was most common among young men from the lower ranks of the Army and was strongly associated with a history of violent offending before joining the military… Indeed, individuals who volunteer or are selected for a combat role are likely to have a propensity for risk taking and aggressive behaviour.

In other words, the military rank-and-file seems to attract a substantial number of violent criminals (at least in the UK). We suppose this isn’t too surprising when you think about it: if you have a predilection for violence, what could be better than getting paid to blow things up?

“Our results emphasise the importance of pre-existing risk factors for violence in military personnel,” the paper concludes. “A simplistic response would be to suggest that the military cease to recruit young men with low levels of educational attainment or a previous criminal record.

“However, this suggestion is no more logical than saying that they should only recruit officers in the future. The military is composed of a range of individuals, some of whom have aggressive traits and who are trained to engage in targeted aggression.”

So what’s the solution? The paper suggests further research into the potential value of violence reduction interventions in individuals returning from combat is needed, as any potential inputs must be evidence based.

Have you or a friend/family member ever served in the military? We’d like to know how much stock you hold in the above report. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: a data linkage cohort study [The Lancet]

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