Pentagon looks the other way


THE United States military is accepting recruits with criminal records in great numbers, raising new concerns about compromising the mightiest fighting force in the world.

Last year the Army enlisted more than 69,000 men and women, 11.7 percent of whom had criminal histories. Department of Defense records show that the Army and Marines have granted 65 percent more waivers in the last three years to recruits with prior criminal records.

Convictions that bar enlistments fall into two categories: serious misdemeanors (which include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, and vehicular homicide) and felonies. Any recruit who has committed one of these crimes requires a "moral waiver" to be allowed into the service. The Pentagon says the military has approved about 30,000 moral waivers each year since 2003.

An easy inference is that the Army is scraping the bottom of the barrel to keep recruitment figures up in spite of the vicissitudes - casualties, arbitrary extensions, and repetitions of tours - of the Iraq war. Other efforts employed to keep the ranks filled have included extra cash incentives, lowering the bar on aptitude tests and educational standards, and relaxations of weight and age requirements.

One potential result of the recruitment of larger numbers of former criminals is that misconduct among troops, like what transpired at the Abu Ghraib prison, may increase.

The crimes that the recruits committed before enlistment indicated a lack of respect for society's rules. Although they may have learned from their mistakes and their time in prison, it is also possible that the lack of respect for rules will carry over into their new military lives, which is governed by even stricter standards.

Service in the armed forces has in many societies been considered a means of rehabilitating ex-criminals or a means of putting direction and discipline into young lives that have lacked those qualities. Public concern over the presence of former criminals in the military ranks should not amount to a blanket denial to those who have reformed their lives after prison and deserve a chance to serve in the armed forces on the road to rehabilitation as honest members of American society.

However, these particular soldiers will require close supervision.

In the case of recruits who have a past that includes violent crime, careful attention will also need to be paid to see that they don't simply take military service as an opportunity to improve their weapons handling, marksmanship, and other potentially criminal skills to be used after their demobilization.

Drawing from that particular stratum of society to keep the ranks filled is an approach that spares the Bush Administration from reinstituting the draft. The Pentagon knows that if it does so - more than a generation after it was ended - whatever public support remains for the war in Iraq will evaporate.