Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Are you aware that you have more to fear from your neighbor than a detainee does from a US soldier?

The per capita assault rate in the United States is 7.7 per thousand people (1999 figures). There's been an average population of about 150,000 servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last three years. So if that group were an average American town or neighborhood populated by ordinary civilians, you'd expect to see over 3,000 criminal assaults in three years (beatings, rapes, murders, etc.). A recent New York Times story reported 367 investigations into violent crimes alleged to have been committed by servicemen over the last three years. That puts the per capita criminal assault rate for the military at around 0.8 per thousand servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan, far less than our homefront's 7.7. Since many civilian violent crimes go unreported (domestic abuse in particular), even if there were significant under-reporting of military offences, the relative ratio should nevertheless be about the same, as little as 1/10 of their civilian counterparts'.

What that boils down to is: US Servicemen are, in fact, significantly less criminally violent while at war, than even average Americans are toward each other while at peace.

Of course this goes counter to a stereotype popularized by film and television seeking to dramatise the effects of war on human nature, a preconception which has been strengthened by well publicized cases of criminal abuse in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, as well as the continuing controversy over the handling of the unique class of terrorist detainee at Guantanimo Bay. And of course every criminal act committed by a serviceman is a disgrace, arguably more so than any criminal act committed by a civilian. However, it's also well known that looking at the actions of individuals to judge a group always leads to mistaken impressions. Such is the nature of stereotypes.

The fact that there are few cases of criminal violence between soldiers and even the enemy they capture, especially compared to what you'd expect from a comparably sized generally law abiding civilian population, tells a more accurate story about the nature of the military than television, or film, or press sensationalism. Add to this the context of a conflict where everyone is armed and ready for combat at any moment against an enemy who could quite literally be anyone, and it seems that despite the appearance created by specific well publicized events, the military really is working to meet it's responsibility to control it's soldiers' actions and encourage them to behave honorably in war.