War and crime

The difficulties faced by war veterans returning to civilian life has come to renewed attention over the last few years what with the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles conflicts. As well as the issue of helping them adapt to post-service life, there is the question of the possible negative impact on society.

Specifically, does serving in an army increase the likelihood that you will go on to commit violent crime? In the UK, one police force has suggested that this could be the case – but it can be difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Are people who are more pre-disposed to violence more likely to join the army, or does the experience of serving in the army turn law-abiding citizens into violent criminals?

A recent paper by economists at the University of Oregon and University of California gets around this by looking at those conscripted into the army through draft lottery systems around the time of the Vietnam war. They find that military service increases the probability of incarceration for violent crimes. Based on this, they estimate that military service is equivalent to a 12 year reduction in schooling for whites (less education is associated with criminal behaviour – so someone who has served in the military has the same probability of committing a violent crime as someone who has not served in the military but has 12 fewer years in education), and that increasing the number of soldiers in the army by 10,000 entails a $30.5 million cost in terms of increased violent crimes.

The paper speculates that one reason could be the realistic training scenarios that desensitise soldiers to engaging with enemy combatants (which began in the late 1960s as a response to research suggesting that soldiers were apparently too reluctant to fire at enemy combatants during World War II). No doubt there are many other factors, however, such as difficulties in finding employment post-service.

Defence is certainly a costly business…

The full paper is here: http://ftp.iza.org/dp5172.pdf

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