Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Is This the Face of the Urban Future?

Back on August 11th there was a bank robbery in Tacoma. This isn't really news unless you live there. It wouldn't be except that the three people arrested were Army Rangers. That got me thinking. The diagnosed rate of stress disorder for returning vets is about 1 in 10 or 1 in 5 depending on whose statistics you believe. Returning veterans are finding it difficult to get work where "difficult" means an unemployment rate of fifteen percent for younger vets. There have already been a couple cases of soldiers and Marines coming back with their urban warfare reflexes intact - unable to deal with American cities as anything except a war zone. At the same time wages are a smaller fraction of GDP than at any time in the last 47 years. Real wages are at best holding steady while benefits are shrinking and vacations are disappearing. In short, it is not a good time to be a returning veteran from Iraq.

This would be bad enough if the military had its usual high caliber of recruits. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case. The only way the Pentagon has been able to maintain manpower has been by "stop loss" - keeping servicemen and women after their hitch is up - stretching the National Guard and Reserves beyond reason, calling up the Individual Ready Reserve and lowering standards.

How are they lowering standards? The Army has tempered its policy of zero tolerance towards fascists and neo-Nazis. They are getting into the military with the specific goal of getting combat skills. More recruits are getting in with criminal records of a sort that would formerly have disqualified them from the Service. The Army has even upped the proportion of Category IV recruits, high school dropouts and those who score in the lowest third of the AFQT from two percent to twelve. In a military which increasingly relies on complex skills and advanced technology this is alarming.

What's the problem? A bunch of guys who aren't too smart will end up carrying rifles. A few people with criminal records will learn to fear their sergeants so much that they'll turn into soldiers, Marines, airmen or sailors. During WWII and the later parts of the Vietnam War the military would take almost anyone.

Aside from the implications for the nation's defense I'm afraid that it means serious trouble for law enforcement. Sooner or later they will come back. Most will reintegrate into society. But there will be a large number of unemployed or unemployable young men and women with professional experience in urban warfare. More than the regular number will be pre-disposed towards crime or violent political extremism. If our last extended war is any indication many of them will be badly psychologically damaged. It sounds like the makings of a perfect storm. It won't happen all at once, but I predict that we will be paying for the current war for years through professionally executed violent crime. Bank robberies may be only the beginning. Home invasions done by groups with combat experience clearing houses? Criminal gangs who are better trained than the police who oppose them? It sounds bad. So far it hasn't been part of the national consciousness.

I'm afraid that that will not last.

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