Is Our Military Full Of Thugs?

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]


  • People who willingly join an organisation where they may have to kill another human being are more likely to be violent in normal life?? Nooooooooo, get out of here….

  • The headline of this article is appalling and is very disrespectful to the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis. War is not the objective of an armed force – securing your right to live a free and priviledged life is.

      • I agree, I previously served two tours with the Australian Army. Even though I can see the point your trying to make I feel that you’ve made an attempt to scrutinise the service men and women who are only protecting your right to be free.

        I felt this was probably one of the most disrespectful articles I’ve ever read here. You may have a right to complain that men and women who do serve in the defence roles can become more violent; however you haven’t taken into account what we do on the battlefield and what we go through.

        Complain all you like – but if you wont serve to protect your country yourself (whether it be in Defence or not) then don’t make summarised articles attacking those who are defending you on a daily basis.

        • If you have a problem with this article, then you have a problem with the research, because this article doesn’t seem to say anything the research doesn’t say. It’s your prerogative if you choose to see that as disrespectful, but it’s my view that scrutiny is necessary to provide care for well-being of people in that line of work. It would be disrespectful not to look into these matters.

          There’s no objective reason to elevate the military above other jobs in terms of respect, honour or required reverence. The problem of ‘soldier worship’ is rampant in the US in particular. Many jobs require people to put their life at risk, and none are beyond criticism.

          • As they say though, it’s futile debating it.. Not because soldiers are violent, but because wars are never simple. A lot of people say things like the USA or Sadam caused/started the war when even that is a gross simplification. Even the news could never convey the why, hard as they try. there’s just too many factors and too many biases on all sides..

            .. Which while not making this article insulting as such, it does make it pointless. Personality profile research of the military on the other hand probably less so.

          • I don’t think it’s futile to debate, necessarily. I think it’s important that anyone, regardless of their line of work, should have their beliefs questioned regularly – if they survive scrutiny they become stronger, and if they fail scrutiny they should no longer be held. But I would say that debate is made much more difficult due to certain cultural influences (like the soldier worship I mentioned earlier) that cause people to take offence, become defensive and less likely to view the topic with a rational viewpoint and an open mind.

            It doesn’t just apply to this topic, but to things like religion and such as well. The worst thing someone can do is shut down a topic of calm and rational discussion on the grounds that their (or someone else’s) personal beliefs are being challenged and they don’t like it.

        • @Master T: as far as military outfits go, our armed forces are about as good as they get. This is natural: they come from a very affluent, relatively liberal, well-governed, fairly tolerant country, and are by international standards exceptionally well-trained. They are good professional soldiers. They merit respect, for sure.

          But to say that citizens don’t have the right to scrutinise or criticise our armed forces is just silly. They are our armed forces. They are not the private militias of a military Big Man, but a national institution created for our benefit, and paid for by us for our purposes (which aren’t primarily ‘protecting our right to be free’, by the way. That’s just US rhetoric, and is a marginal aspect of the history of Australian armed forces).

          By all means disagree with the content of the article and the research if you have something substantive to say about it. But don’t deny citizens their right to cast a critical eye on our own armed forces. That attitude comes from the world of Frank Bainimarama, not democratic Australia.

          • Couldn’t agree more. Let’s not drink the kook-aid here. The military is supposed to be the “enforcer” of our global diplomatic endeavours. I see no reason at all to hide from the fact that they are there to enforce the will of the Australian people as represented by the government. (Granted this is most effectively achieved as part of a coalition of like minded governments as we have a very small military.)

            Ultimately they exist as the supreme expression of violence where violence is defined as the use of or threat of force.

            The fact that the military may attract people with a tendency toward violence should not be considered an offence to people serving in the military. It should also not come as a surprise!

        • I mostly agree, but “only protecting your right to be free”.. You do what you’re told. You do it because that’s your aim and thats your choice, but you still just do what your told and the best way for them to justify anything to you as an employee is to tell you it’s about freedom, because that’s where your job satisfaction comes from.

          Not saying that you don’t fight for peace or freedom by any means, infact most of the military people i’ve known who have been deployed have spent their time building infrastructure and genuinely helping people directly.. But as I said in my own post below, political issues like this have far too many biases on all sides and factors behind the decision that the public and even lower level troops probably have any idea about.. Hell, even half the politicians that negotiate it probably don’t even know. They just do what they think is right.

        • I don’t think anyone needs to “defend” our country from these vague, unspecified boggie men. We don’t live in imperialistic times. We live in a globalised world. The armed forces are becoming increasingly irrelevant in such a context.

          • Of the thousands of years in which organised human existence has been present the last truly major war was less than 70 years ago. It was also the largest war in the history of humanity killing millions upon millions.

            In the 70 years in between the two major super powers came close to war on a number of occasions, fighting proxy battles in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan.

            To draw a conclusion from this that the military is becoming redundant and war is a thing of the past is, without causing offence, extremely short sighted.

            On an historical scale we are just having a short breather. War is always just around the corner. Sad but true.

          • @technojames: much of the world hasn’t had a breather at all, and unless by ‘truly major’ you mean ‘in which white folk were killed’, there have been plenty of major wars (Congo? Afghanistan? Iran-Iraq?).

            Your overall picture is undeniable, though. There will be more wars that affect ‘us’. This era of peace is a lull. Unfortunately, due to the complacency of our citizens in not agitating for the elimination of nuclear weapons, ‘our’ next major war will very likely be our (and the world’s) final one.

          • I don’t believe in the apocalypse so I don’t believe there will a “final” war. Will the next major war do untold damage… probably.

            And if you look at Afghanistan and Iran-Iraq… in fact just about every war post-WW2 (excluding Africa) you’ll find they are all proxy wars aided, supported or outright done by the either superpower of the US or Russia.

          • I don’t know what a vague metaphysical ‘belief in the apocalypse’ has to do with anything. The specific types and extents of damage caused by large-scale nuclear war are civilisation-ending. Perhaps that’s what you mean by ‘untold damage’, in which case there’s no disagreement.

            Whether they’re by proxy or not, wars that kill millions of people are surely ‘major’? (Btw, although from all accounts Saddam had a nod-and-wink from the US about the forthcoming invasion, Iran-Iraq wasn’t a proxy war. Iran didn’t have a major power on its side).

          • I just meant that a “final” war implies the apocalypse as to be final all human life would need to end. An end to civilisation also implies apocalypse unless you believe, as I do, that another civilisation would rise in time if the current one were to be damaged beyond repair. And if another civilisation rises then war is inevitable.

            I should also stress that I use the word belief because any attempt to predict the future in this manner is exactly that, a belief. It cannot be substantiated by fact.

            You don’t need two sides supported to be considered a proxy war, only one. Iraq was the US’s proxy in the Iran-Iraq war. That said, the Russians certainly sold military equipment to Iran.

            A proxy in war is simply where the interests of one or both sides is not necessarily the combatant.

            I think it would be considered a fair statement to say that the majority of post-WW2 wars have involved a proxy, excluding Africa where they are more likely to be on-going civil wars as a result of post-colonial environments.

          • OK, our differences then are mostly semantic. The most substantive is perhaps that I’m more confident that a nuclear war is near-certain in the short to medium term (mainly because there are no plausible suggested political trajectories that don’t lead to it, and because the post-Cold-War opportunity to substantially clamp down on proliferation wasn’t taken).

            You’re the only person I’ve ever heard describe Iran-Iraq as a proxy war, despite my having read several books and a lot of reportage on the topic (of interest to me, because I knew combatants). That aside, it’s undoubtedly true that most post-WWII wars have been by proxy (actually including in Africa until the Soviet Union’s collapse).

        • “Have you stopped beating your wife” is a loaded question, not a leading question. The two are completely different. Leading questions are pretty much only considered bad in legal proceedings.

          • It’s a leading question as it implies there are indeed thugs in the military, and it is a question of degree. It’s loaded as well, I grant you – congrats.

            Only considered bad in legal proceedings? How about in the court of public opinion? I think many would consider them a poor form of argument and presentation …. as indeed is unnecessary hair-splitting about the definition of leading and loaded questions.

          • There’s no implication in the question at all. If it did, it would look more like “Is the military still full of thugs?” or “is the military more thuggish than ever?”, both of which are loaded questions, not leading questions, implying it has been full of thugs to this point. A leading question simply hints at a possible answer without implication. It’s not hair-splitting because there’s nothing wrong with leading questions like you’re trying to make out.

      • The title was unnecessarily provocative. Even if a UK study could be translated to Australia (dubious enough), how could a study claiming that up to 1 in 5 of the military had once been involved in civilian violence licence a “full of thugs” jibe? I’d say that’s rather Tabloid, even Murdochoid.

      • So, a headline reading ‘Is the Prime Minister a fat cow?’ wouldn’t be disrespectful because it’s a question rather than a statement? Come off it.

      • They’re not. Since WWII, our forces’ combat deployments have mostly been for invasion, not defence. But that’s the fault of our citizenry and politicians, not servicepeople. They go where they’re ordered, as in a non-military State (which we are, though unfortunately we’re not quite non-militaristic) they should.

        • @Bob_Bobbings, the doctrine was initially called “forward defence” in Vietnam and for the Malayan Crisis, but Australia also has ANZAS and SEATO treaties to uphold our part in.

          So yes, we will fight away from home shores. But the quid pro quo of our support of our allies is that when or if Australia is invaded, we can call on these same treaty countries to assist us.

          We don’t willy nilly go off and “invade” countries. We are not modern day Vikings!

  • There’s a reason soldiers come home with mental illnesses and it aint because they couldn’t handle it! Seeing some of the things that happen in the field can affect the toughest badasses out there. If you’re human, you’d be affected too. So if that illness comes out in violence when they get home, then treat that illness don’t just throw them back into the mainstream and hope they’ll cope!

    • Absolutely — and lots is know about how to help PTSD sufferers (which, it turns out, includes most combat returnees. But the citizenry has to be willing to pay what’s required. It ‘ain’t cheap. I think it’s worth it.

      • It would be cheaper if less soldiers were exposed to combat in the first place, and less exposure to combat could be achieved by treating defence forces as defence forces and not world police. But that’s a whole separate debate =)

        • I agree, mostly. I don’t think there’s been a single defensive deployment of Aussie troops since WWII. Most deployments have been about helping foreign empires invade other countries. I don’t like this either, but we’re never going to be given the choice: all conceivable Australian governments will continue to supply troops for other people’s wars. Given that sad fact, we should look after combat returnees properly, regardless of where they served.

          • Now you in effect say we are mercenaries going off to fight other people’s wars. Above you say we “invade” other countries as if we are Vikings.

            Refer my comments above.

  • First hand experience from when I lived in Darwin showed large numbers of 57RAR going out to town and purposefully drinking rum to fire up for rumbles.

  • chris jager you have clearly tried to create click bait here and i for one think less of you for it. you could have used a title like ‘resaerch shows uk army full of thugs’. your choice of pic is a shutterstock picture of a man in face paint trying to look crazy. this is not a pic of the uk defence forces or the australian defence forces, just moore click bait. i disrespect you in the stongests terms possible. i will never read one of your articles again. this is not a pro army rant, its an anti you rant.

    • burningchrome, I think you and a few others are taking the headline a bit too seriously. Creating punchy headlines that will maximise reader interest is part of the business (same goes for article images). It only becomes ‘click bait’ when the actual content is sensational, antagonistic or otherwise controversial. I am sorry you feel this way but I personally think you should judge a book by what’s inside, not the cover.

      • So, anything goes? I think not. The art is to create a punchy headline that attracts interest without being unduly offensive, or (equally important) misrepresenting the content. In this instance you’ve fallen short of that reasonable standard.

      • It occurs to me that perhaps you’ve described the problem, but backwards. Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re taking the headline too seriously, but that you’re not taking the responsibility of creating headlines seriously enough. A desire for ‘punchiness’ doesn’t license just anything (except for Murdoch employees, and look where that’s got them).

    • I can’t say I agree. Click bait headlines misrepresent the content of the article, like the recent “Sex in space can kill you” when the article was actually about the effects of low gravity on the development of unborn children. The content of the article is research showing a significant portion of the British military with violent crime problems, and asks a fair related question, does this problem effect our military as well?

      Frankly, I think you’re being a bit precious.

    • Oh dear!

      It seems that burningchrome has taken his bat and ball and gone home because of his perceived disrespect of our men in uniform in this article.

      One can only imagine the apoplectic fury he would have experienced when a prominent politician disrespected our troops by saying that he didn’t visit them in Afghanistan because he didn’t want to arrive in London ahead of an important conference in a jet-lagged condition.

      Or worse, this same politician’s comment that “shit happens” in response to the killing of a digger by the Taliban.

  • “Thug, a common criminal, who treats others violently and roughly, often for hire” Wikipedia definition.

    So the heading is offensive and deliberately provocative. It is a misrepresentation of the research and the author should admit it was done to provoke a response.

    A more appropriate heading would have been “Does the military attract violent people?”

    • The research shows a significant proportion of people who commit violence-oriented crime (eg. assault, domestic violence) in the British military. This seems to fit the description of a thug you kindly provided, so your assertion that it misrepresents the research is false. The headline isn’t arbitrarily offensive, though you may of course choose to be offended if that’s your desire.

      • Yes it is offensive.

        “…Full of thugs” implies the vast majority of the military are thugs. In fact in a literal sense full equals 100%. In a colloquial sense it means a high amount.

        The report doesn’t remotely suggest the military has a majority or even high amount of “thugs”. It just says that it is higher than the general population in a specific segment of the military.

        And further to this it appears that once entering the military the “thug” count drops below the general population.

        So at the very least they are ex-thugs and the military isn’t full of them.

        • You can justify your offense with semantic arguments if you want, but I struggle to see why you’d want to. If you think 21% of servicemen under 30 having been convicted of violent crime isn’t a ‘high amount of thugs’ then your interpretation of the data is selective at best.

          • And now you’re being semantic in your response. Your problem isn’t semantic, because you’re not concerned with the actual meaning of the words used, but your select interpretation of them. The headline asks a question with simple words and no implication. The author has explained that his question was not intended to cause offence. If you choose to take offence, you do so of your own choice, independent of the evidence in front of you that suggests otherwise. This is a comprehension problem on your part and has nothing to do with this article. I would suggest that your energy would be better spent on less frivolous pursuits than consciously trying to take offence over something that isn’t offensive in either its literal or intended interpretation.

          • I’ll also point out your statement “it appears that once entering the military the “thug” count drops below the general population” is a misinterpretation of the information in the article, which says “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”. This means that while they are much more likely to commit violent crimes, they are less likely to commit non-violent crimes. Your interpretation here seems to be the opposite of what the research is actually saying.

          • I don’t know, but based on the British research, I think it’s a worthwhile question to ask and worth investing in some research. Most modern western militaries are operated in very similar ways, so problems like this that exist in the British military stand a reasonable chance of existing in the US military, the Australian military or any other. I take the purpose of the article (and title) to say “Here’s a problem that exists somewhere else. Does it exist here too?”

        • Entirely agree. The research is worthwhile, and the media should report on it. But the headline is cheap tabloid stuff, and entirely unnecessary.

  • I think we are completely in line with the purpose of the article but differ greatly on the purpose of the heading.

    If I worked in the military I’d be insulted and with good cause. It is the equivalent of saying “Is the Public Service full of Lazy Arses” or “Is the Banking Sector Full of Money Hungry Grubs?” That is, a gross generalisation.

    The article identifies 20% of males, under 30, deployed in a specific segment of the UK military. No doubt the vast majority of the military (it has to be over 80% unless the entire UK military consists of men under 30) would feel they are being unfairly characterised. And with good cause.

    “Violent offenders (1369 [11·0%]) were the most prevalent offender types.” It gets even more offensive when you read the actual report and find out that only 11% of those 13k odd males identified have had a violent offence in their lifetime.

    Let’s face it, the name of the study wouldn’t get people reading “Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: a data linkage cohort study.”

    Yes it is a semantic argument. I’m not disputing that. I take the purpose of the heading to provoke a response from readers. Happens all the time in media but it doesn’t make it right and I empathise with all the non-thugs in the military (i.e. the vast majority…)

    So the answer to the question “Is the military full of thugs?” is no. Not even close.

  • You take a man, you break him down to the bare essentials, reprogram him to fight and kill without remorse. Then you expect him to fit into society, what do you expect to happen?

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