Monday, May 12, 2008

Bad Boys Make Better Soldiers

May 12, 2008: Recently, there were a number of media stories about how the U.S. Army has been recruiting more men with criminal records. When pressed about this, the army released a report showing that recruits let in via "moral waivers" made better combat soldiers. That is, they got promoted faster, re-enlisted at a higher rate, got more awards for valor and were noted for superior combat performance. They were also better educated, and more likely to talk back. A slightly higher percentage of them got punished for that.

All this is nothing new. It was noted as far back as World War II, when detailed records of troop performance were first compiled and analyzed. A disproportionate number of troops that excelled in combat, also had disciplinary problems when off the battlefield. The conventional wisdom was that someone with a "taste for combat" also lacked respect for authority. Research since World War II has shown that risk-taking behavior is the basis of brave acts, as well as criminal ones, drug use, and addiction to things like gambling and dangerous sports.

The U.S. Army has, for the last sixty years, turned down most recruits with a criminal record. The reason was that, since an army (especially in peacetime) depended on discipline to function, anyone who broke the law had already demonstrated problems with following orders. Before September 11, 2001, the army found that 27 percent of recruits with criminal records (and given a "moral waiver" to enlist), didn't finish their enlistment because of misconduct (refusing to obey orders, or just a bad attitude). This was twice the rate of troops who did not need a moral waiver. Back then, less than four percent of recruits got moral waivers. That usually required references from teachers, clergy or employers attesting to how the applicant had shaped up, and was worthy of acceptance. But since 2004, the percentage of recruit getting in with moral waivers has tripled to 13 percent. Yet there has not been a noticeable decline in troops quality. There is still a higher percentage of moral waiver recruits getting discharged early, but not double the rate of those without moral waivers.

The army has found ways to lower its traditional admission standards, yet still get people who can perform well in a professional force. This is not just the case with those who do poorly on written tests, or did not finish high school. It's especially the case with those allowed in on waivers. The most common items waived are medical conditions, criminal records or drug use, in that order. Last year, most of the moral waivers were for juvenile offenses. Less than one percent (511) of last years recruits (80,407) received moral waivers for adult criminal records. Keep in mind that the numbers were talking about here are small, and that the negative impact of recruits with moral waivers is basically non-existent.

Most waivers are for medical problems. For example, many urban recruits have asthma problems. If the recruit is headed for a job that does not require the kind of physical effort that low grade asthma would interfere with, a waiver would be granted. If a prospect has a low grade (no felonies) criminal record, and appears to have moved on from that sort of thing, a waiver is possible. Same with prior drug use. Prospects are made aware of the regular, unannounced, drug tests for troops on active duty. Asking for testimonials from responsible adults helps deal with those seeking moral waivers. The army also has new psychological tests that indicate those that have put their bad behavior behind them, and which haven't.

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