Joining the military is often said to put a stop to antisocial behaviour among young people – it gives them the structure and discipline they have been lacking, and everyone benefits. Does it?
What we know
The limited available research in the UK and US shows that, after joining up, non-violent offending goes down and violent offending goes up.
A UK study in 2013 found that the rate of convictions for violent crime among British armed forces personnel increased after they’d enlisted, even before they’d been sent to war.
Violent offending increased again after soldiers were sent to war, reaching double the pre-enlistment rate.
The same study found that the rate of sexual offences and drug-related crime also went up after enlistment, and then went up again after being sent to war.
And although non-violent offending went down after enlistment, after going to war it, too, went up again. Indeed, soldiers were more likely to commit all kinds of crime after they’d been to war than before they joined up.
In the graph below, the blue shows offending before joining up, the orange shows offending after joining up but before going to war, and the grey shows offending after coming home from war.
The study also found that the more a soldier was exposed to traumatic events in war, the more likely they were to commit violent offences when they came home.
It’s important to stress that most soldiers do not commit violent crime or behave violently, but a substantial minority do. For example, a separate study of UK troops returning from Iraq found that one in eight admitted they’d been physically violent in the weeks after returning from the war.
In any case, these research findings indicate that joining the army doesn’t lead to a reduction in violent offending, but appears instead to increase it, and that going to war substantially increases the risk of all types of crime.
American studies have published similar findings.
- MacManus, et al., ‘Violent behaviour in UK military personnel returning home after deployment‘. Psychological Medicine, 2012.
- MacManus, et al., ‘Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: a data linkage cohort study’. The Lancet, 2013.
- Baktir, Mustafa Icer & Craig, ‘Military and Crime: A Systematic Review of the Literature’, Deviant behavior, 2018.
- Bouffard, ‘The military as a bridging environment in criminal careers: The differential outcomes of the military experience’, Armed Forces & Society, 2005.
- Elbogen, et al., ‘Violent behaviour and post-traumatic stress disorder in US Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2014.
- Thomas, et al., ‘Prevalence of Mental Health Problems and Functional Impairment Among Active Component and National Guard Soldiers 3 and 12 Months Following Combat in Iraq’, Archives of General Psychiatry, 2010.